A finalist in the second season of Project Runway Canada, Jessica Biffi was one of the most popular contestants ever to appear on the well-known designer competition. Following her participation in LG Fashion Week in Toronto, Jessica was approached to design plus-size collections for the MXM and Addition-Elle labels. In this interview, Jessica discusses her fashion background, her design philosophy, issues pertaining to size acceptance, and how she came to select the gorgeous Kailee O’Sullivan to be the face and figure of her “Bold Biffi” line.
HSG: Good morning. This is Heinrich Saint-Germain from the Judgment of Paris.
JESSICA: Oh, hi. How are you?
HSG: Not too bad. How are you doing?
JESSICA: I’m good. Thank you.
HSG: This isn’t too early for you, is it?
JESSICA: No, no. Not at all.
HSG: Excellent. I was worried that you might have been partying after the Olympic gold medal win by Team Canada last night.
JESSICA: Yeah, I heard it happening. I was working.
HSG: Oh, yes, of course. You must be terribly busy right now. Let’s get right to it, then. How does making a line for MXM and Addition-Elle—i.e., having a major company as a client—differ from creating one under your own name?
JESSICA: I kind of approach them both the same way. I have a customer, and MXM and Addition-Elle have a customer. [Their brands] are already established. Mine is still growing, and I can still pull in new clientele. But MXM and Addition-Elle have been around for a very long time, so they already have a formula of what works in the store, and a mix of what their customers are looking for, because they have a really broad range. So I wanted to take that into account, but I wanted to approach it in the same way that I design my own line.
HSG: That touches on something that I was going to address. But first, let me ask you, as a follow-up: Did MXM and Addition-Elle give you any notes or guidelines, or did they simply say, “Go crazy—do what you want.”
JESSICA: Well, they helped out with what the customer likes, colours that she gravitates toward, style lines that she does like. They gave me a lot of background information on the customer. I mean, this is what they do, all day, every day. They’re their customers, so they did give me a lot of really great inside information. I mean, yes, I’m a customer, but I’m one part of the customer base that shops at MXM and Addition-Elle, so they gave me everybody’s information, which was great.
HSG: What do you consider to be the target demographics, age-wise, for each of your MXM and Addition-Elle lines?
JESSICA: MXM is more the younger line, and Addition-Elle is 20 to 45ish. But I think anyone can wear the pieces that I design. It’s more about attitude, I think, especially with MXM. That’s the general philosophy behind the line itself. It’s more about how you feel as opposed to the age that you are, because the line is more the junior line, but everybody shops at MXM, so I think anybody can wear it. It’s all about the attitude towards it.
HSG: Does the fact that you yourself are curvy give you an insight into designing for full-figured women that, say, a thin designer might lack?
JESSICA: I think so. I know what works on my body. So knowing that, from being plus-size myself, it was really easy to consider, “Okay, well, I want to have this look, but I also know that this is a factor, so I want to keep that in mind, and I want to approach it in the most flattering way possible.” So I did have that inside information.
HSG: What do you consider to be the biggest limitations or shortcomings, style-wise or design-wise, in plus-size fashion till now?
JESSICA: There is always that “bigger is better” kind of approach, as if it’s better to wear something a little bit looser, to “hide.” I find that a lot in plus-size fashion, across the board. And my personal style is more fitted, especially with what I do with my own label. So I really wanted to bring that to the table, because it’s not about hiding. It’s about wearing what’s flattering, and what accents the body as opposed to takes away from the body.
HSG: That segues perfectly into my next question, which is: Would you agree with the proposition that full-figured girls are beautiful when they show off their curves rather than hiding them or disguising them?
JESSICA: I think so. Plus-size women have hips. They have breasts. Those are assets to have. I think it’s a shame when people wear really baggy clothing and don’t show off that they have a waist, and don’t show off that they have a bust line. It all becomes one thing. So that’s how I dress. I like to show that I have a body shape. I have a waist. I have bust line. I have a hip line. So for me, that’s just part of how I dress. I have a silhouette, and I like to create a silhouette. So I wanted to keep that in the line. And I think that plus-size women should not be afraid to show off their curves.
HSG: Do you believe that curvy girls wear anything? Is there anything that they should avoid?
JESSICA: I don’t think it’s specific to curvy women. One thing does not work for every single woman. Something that works on one person in a regular size might not necessarily work on another person in a regular size. And it’s the same thing in plus size. I think it’s about finding the right style for your body and what works on you, and that works across the board, from someone who is a size 26 to someone who is a size 0. That’s my thought on it.
HSG: Do you find that curvy girls’ tastes in clothing/fashion are changing, and if so, how?
JESSICA: I remember, when I was younger, and I would go shopping, there wasn’t clothing that I actually wanted to wear. It was more a case of, “I need to buy pants, so I’m going to buy these,” and “I need some tops, so this is what I’m going to buy.” There wasn’t a lot of variety available. But I think now, especially, with all of the body-consciousness that’s happening, in terms of different magazines, and different people that we’re seeing in the media as well, the shift is happening, and people are seeing that there are different body types.
HSG: That’s very interesting. So you would say that it’s the change in people’s perceptions that’s driving the fashion industry, rather than the other way around; i.e., the increasing confidence of young girls who are curvy is actually encouraging designers to create more figure-conscious designs, rather than the designs coming first, and the confidence coming later.
JESSICA: Fashion is all driven by the customer, really. Because there’s always trend forecasting, there are people who just watch people in different cities to see what they’re wearing. It’s really the people who define the trends, and the designers take it forward and apply it to what they’re doing, and adapt it to each of their styles. So yes, it is the need of the customer that’s driving it, because they’re looking for different things, and they’re speaking out when they can’t find it, which is changing what the retailers are carrying.
HSG: That’s interesting that you bring up the idea of trend forecasting. How much weight do you give your own inspiration versus what you see as a trend? How much is, “I’ve always wanted to design this, so I’m going to make it now,” versus, “This is coming in, so I’m going to adopt this trend”?
JESSICA: I think it’s a little bit of a combination. I look at forecasting for the coming season, but I usually have something in mind at the same time.
HSG: The “Collection” page at the Bold Biffi microsite—Nice job on that, by the way.—
JESSICA: Oh, thanks.
HSG: —features a fascinating quote from you as to the inspiration for the line: “The Maharaja’s Mistress is influenced by India’s saris and tunics, with little touches of Moroccan flavor.” What got you interested in such an exotic theme—a “maharaja’s mistress,” and Morocco? Have you travelled there, or do you simply love the ambience? Because that’s a very poetic line.
JESSICA: Thank you. I was looking at the MXM/Penningtons customer at the time. I wear some MXM pieces, but I used to work for Addition-Elle, so my customer knowledge was a little bit more on the Addition-Elle side. So as I was learning more about the MXM and Penningtons customer, there were certain things that were popping out, such as, “She likes bold colour.” “She likes embellishment.” Things like that. So I wanted to make something that kind of infused that, but had a sexiness to it, that had a little bit more of an exotic feel to it, which I thought would really be my push towards the customer, that would be taking her a little bit out of her comfort zone, but giving her some of the familiar that she knows, so she doesn’t feel like it’s completely out of what she could be wearing.
HSG: That was, in fact, a question that I wanted to ask: What is it about gold that you love?
JESSICA: Gold just has more depth to me than silver. It has more warmth. It can be extremely shiny, but it can also be a little bit more dulled and deeper. I just think it’s really pretty, and flattering on a lot of people. And I think people are afraid of gold, because silver is a little bit more safe. And I like that it’s fun. I think gold is a little bit more fun than silver, where silver is a little bit more conservative.
HSG: It also fits the exoticism of the line.
JESSICA: Once I started looking at the colours, I knew that I wanted to put gold in, and the embellishment. I started thinking about coins, and belly dancers, and things like that, so it just kind of spawned from the customer herself, what she likes, and what I tend to know about her, and then, as the colours came together, and the embellishments, details, I started thinking about them more and more.
HSG: If you ever get a magazine to run an editorial about your MXM pieces, that’s what it should look like—Kailee photographed in just the kind of environment that you describe. It would suit the gold and the outfits perfectly. What a magazine layout that would be.
JESSICA: I hope so. There are little, sexy details that I placed in the collection, because I want women to feel really beautiful in the clothing. And I want them to feel extremely confident. So I think when they put it on, it’s not necessarily that they’ll feel like they’re in India, or in Morocco, but that they’ll feel like they’re wearing something different. It’s not their everyday thing that they just throw on. When they put it on, they’re going to feel a little bit different. And that’s what I want them to feel.
HSG: Did you choose that vibrant purple colour for two of your MXM pieces because it’s trendy, or because you yourself love that hue; or both?
JESSICA: I love the colour purple. I love purple in almost all of its hues, and the more vibrant the better. We all know that the plus-size woman loves black, and black is extremely important in everyone’s wardrobe. It’s a great base to put things onto. But at the same time, I think women shouldn’t be afraid of colour, so I like lots of colour in there, and you can pair it with other things in your wardrobe that will bring life to it.
HSG: You keep mentioning, in various sources, that your signature style is pleats. Why pleats? What is it about pleats that you enjoy so much?
JESSICA: I don’t know. I love clean lines in design. I love the tailored look of really finished seams and really crisp lines, and to me, pleats do that automatically. The way I use pleats, I use them more like a surface detail in my own line, and I do use them as pleats would traditionally be used too, but in unconventional ways at times—in jackets, and things like that. So I just really like the lines that they create, and the fact that they give a little bit of fun and flirtation too, because they open up at the bottom. I just think that they’re really fun.
HSG: Can we expect more Jessica Biffi lines for MXM in the future?
JESSICA: I hope so. I think it’s a really great partnership, and we’ll see what happens after this season.
HSG: As you know, the Judgment of Paris is a tribute site for plus-size models, so I have to ask you a couple of questions about the model showcasing your designs, the beautiful Kailee O’Sullivan. Did you have any say in choosing her to feature your line for MXM?
JESSICA: [AUDIO] We looked at different girls. It was sort of a team effort to come up with the girl who would be the face of the line. Obviously the team at MXM have worked with different girls before, so they know who follows direction the best, who could be the face of a special line, so they presented the women to me, and [the decision involved] just sort of taking a look at their headshots, and things like that. And I was familiar with her because she’s worked in other MXM campaigns, so I thought she was a great fit.
HSG: Why did you choose her?
JESSICA: [AUDIO] She had a look that changed really well from season to season. She has a really fun, youthful vibe about her. She is very young as well, because I met her on the day of the shoot. So she just seemed really fun, and like she’d embody the collection, and show women exactly what I was thinking when I was doing it.
HSG: Oh, you were there for the shoot! That’s marvellous.
JESSICA: Yes, I was. Yeah.
HSG: What was that like, to watch her in action as she was modelling?
JESSICA: It was fun! It wasn’t my first photoshoot, but it was definitely… I mean, Max [Abadian] is amazing. It was really great to be in the studio with him, and see everything happening. And he was really open to us being in his space while he was creating. But it was really great to be there and see her move around, and give her little suggestions from time to time, and be there with the stylists and everything, and the jewellery that was available, and I brought stuff as well. It was just a really great, creative atmosphere to be in.
HSG: How important do you think it is for girls to see images of truly plus-size models (e.g., Kailee is a size 14) who are also young, i.e., their own age?
JESSICA: [AUDIO] I think it’s really important, because then they can identify more with what they’re seeing. If they’re seeing someone who is clearly not plus-size, or much older than them, they don’t identify with what it is that they’re looking at. I mean, people are very visual, so if you can envision yourself in the same position, then you’re more apt to think, “Oh, yeah, I’d totally wear that, because I’m like that girl.” And I think that it helps when you’re using true plus-size women, and especially with the lines being more youthful and fun, seeing someone younger is really great as well.
HSG: And you do think that she brings that “exoticism” to the outfits.
JESSICA: I think so. Yeah. I mean, she’s got the beautiful hair. She’s a gorgeous girl.
HSG: The press release for your line mentioned a debut at Toronto Fashion Week. What will that involve? Could it mean a plus-size runway show?
JESSICA: It is a presentation at L.G. [Fashion Week], but it’s sort of a surprise until L.G.
HSG: You can’t give us any teasers at all?
JESSICA: It’s going to be a press event. I will be there, and the team from 1 Plus will be there as well. And there will be a visual presentation.
HSG: A “visual presentation.” I like that. It’s suitably ambiguous to be tantalizing.
HSG: But just as a thought, hypothetically, it would be wonderful to have a plus-size runway show for your line, wouldn’t it?
JESSICA: Yeah, it would. When we do parties around Canada, there will be mini-shows within the parties as well, which I’m really excited about, because then people can see the clothing up close and personal too, which will be really great.
HSG: Everyone loved the first video that was released, showing you talking about the outfit, and offering glimpses of Kailee’s photo shoot.
JESSICA: It’s fun seeing the behind the scenes. I’m a little bit of a fashion nerd, so I really gravitate towards things like that. But I think it’s nice that the customer can see a real person behind the line, and see how it was created. And I think that it gives you a little bit more of a connection, not only to the clothing, but to me as well, and I like that aspect of it.
HSG: It was a marvellous idea. Will there be more such videos?
JESSICA: There will be. There’s more to come from both MXM and Addition-Elle.
HSG: Excellent—although I have to say that so far, it’s the “Bold Biffi” line that’s getting all the attention.
JESSICA: Yeah. [chuckles] The “Jessica Biffi for Addition-Elle” is a really great line as well. And I think, once it’s out there, everyone is going to be really excited about it.
HSG: Now, if you’ll indulge me, here’s a tough question. I ask this of everyone I interview. Why do you think the media resists plus-size beauty?
JESSICA: You know, I really don’t know, because if you think about it, the really amazing stars, back in the day, were size 14s and 16s. They were all very curvy women. They were voluptuous. So I don’t really know why the shift happened. In the ’60s, yes, we had Twiggy, and Edie Sedgwick, and there was that whole “mod,” waify kind of thing happening. But I think the world has kind of stayed there, and ignored the fact that we came from a more voluptuous kind of background.
HSG: Absolutely. And that’s one of the reasons why plus-size models like Kailee are so important, because they too embody “unattainable beauty,” but in a curvy size.
JESSICA: I think the industry is realizing that the general public is not a model waif, and they are starting to get to the point where they are not just going to take it, and think, “Oh, yes, I do wish I looked like her.” They’re thinking, “I want to see someone who looks like me,” which is great.
HSG: Is there any truth to the ridiculous proposition that clothes look “better” on underweight models who resemble walking hangers?
HSG: You, as a designer, can answer this.
JESSICA: I don’t know where that came from, that whole, “Someone who is really emaciated, is a size double-0, looks better in clothing on the runway.”
HSG: So you flat-out do not accept that.
JESSICA: I think it’s about looking healthy, and it’s about being comfortable. It’s just an industry standard that’s become the standard runway model, and that was established far before I was a designer. I don’t think that’s the only size that looks good in clothing.
HSG: One of the reasons why Kailee is popular is because she is not as tall as other models. But that is no disadvantage whatsoever to how she models, or how any girl would model, is there?
JESSICA: Not at all. And she can rock a pair of 6-inch heels like nobody’s business. I saw her in them, and I thought, “Good for you. That’s as tall as my foot is.”
HSG: What can be done to encourage fashion to embrace full-figured women, to offer them more designs, to be more interested in the full-figured customer?
JESSICA: I think we’re going there, a little bit more, with V magazine and Glamour magazine and things like that. And London Fashion Week especially. I think it’s because people are saying, “This is who I am, this is what I look like, and I want to be part of this industry as well.” And I think, with people like myself, plus-size designers who are coming into the industry who also do both, they make a big difference as well.
HSG: Do you have a preference, designing for straight-size or plus-size?
JESSICA: No. I mean, I love designing, so whatever the project is that I’m working on at the time, I love doing it.
HSG: Your bio states that you were a student in the fashion programme at Ryerson University, graduating in 2006. Is that something that you would recommend to upcoming designers?
JESSICA: School gave me a really great background, and there are a lot of technical skills that you learn, that you can adapt to pretty much anything that you’ll do. They give you the basics, and then you have projects. And it’s where you go with the projects that get you more knowledge.
HSG: That’s very interesting. Okay, say that a designer is going the school route, as you did, and their dream is to focus on plus sizes, do they have particular obstacles that they will need to overcome, that other designers won’t, such as skinny dress forms, or a lack of plus-size models, or things like that?
JESSICA: No. I mean, thinking of Ryerson, there are plus-size lines that come out of Mass Exodus, which is the fourth-year graduating fashion show. You don’t get to specialize until you get into fourth year, which is when you do your own collection, so at that point is when you get the opportunity to go into plus-size, if you wish. And there’s a full casting for the models, and there are special Judies and everything. The industry has all of that available, so it’s not a hindrance in any way if you decide to do plus size.
HSG: Speaking of Addition-Elle, after Ryerson, you worked “as a visual merchandiser at Addition Elle in Toronto.” What was that job like? And as a corollary to that, were there things about working for a plus-specific brand that you preferred over working for a general-size retailer?
JESSICA: Well, I started working at Addition-Elle when I was finishing up with school in my fourth year. The reason that I applied there was because I shop there as well. I was a student in school, and I needed a part-time job, and I happened to wear the clothing, so it was a perfect fit: “Okay, I’m going to apply here and see what happens.” And they were looking for visual at the time, so it was perfect.
HSG: I once took a friend from the U.S. shopping at Addition-Elle, and she was terribly impressed with the selection. She kept saying, “I want to take this store home with me.”
JESSICA: I know. We hear that all the time. When I was working in the store, we’d have people from the U.K., and people from the States, and from all over, and they would freak out about the store. “This is great.” “This is awesome.” “I can buy a swimsuit, or I can buy a jacket. We don’t have anything like this.” And I would say, “I don’t know. I’ve never been there.” They would say, “No, this is amazing.” And I really liked being a part of that, because that’s awesome, that someone would come from somewhere else and say, “Oh, my God, I’ve found where I can shop.” And I wanted to be a part of that. And I’m really proud to be a part of that.
HSG: The customer service at Addition-Elle was always fantastic. So pro-curvy. My friend, buying a gown, was initially a bit self-conscious about showing her arms. The clerk asked, “Are you young or are you old?” She replied, “I’m young.” “Are you pretty or are you not?” the clerk then asked, and she responded “I’m pretty.” The clerk completely talked her into buying the dress, and loving her figure—arms and all.
JESSICA: There’s a big stigma attached, and I think it is because of the media and what we’re so used to seeing, that a plus-size woman thinks, “Oh, I can’t wear something sleeveless, or strapless, because I’m not tiny.”
HSG: Isn’t that awful?
JESSICA: But the thing is that it’s not about being tiny or big, it’s about the confidence that you exude because of how you feel in your clothing, and what’s flattering to your body type. It’s just about finding the pieces that work for you, and how to incorporate those pieces with what you have.
HSG: How did your time on Project Runway Canada affect you as a designer? Do you feel that it changed your vision substantially, or did you emerge from the experience with your inner design compass pretty much unaltered?
JESSICA: When I applied for the show I was about two, three years out of school, and I wasn’t really practicing as a designer. I was working at Addition-Elle, and I was sort of in the industry, because I was getting to do the visual, and I was surrounded by clothing and fashion all the time, but I wasn’t doing my own thing. And so the situation was, “Okay, I’m going to apply for this and see what happens.” And when I got onto the show, it was amazing, but I didn’t really have a true voice as a designer because I hadn’t really developed myself, from leaving school, and found what my aesthetic would be.
HSG: That’s a good way to put it, a “boot camp.”
JESSICA: Well, it was. Wake up in the morning at 6:30 and sew all day. And then the next day, you do runway, and then someone goes home. It was very, “Oh, my God. We’re constantly moving.” It was probably one of the craziest things I’ve ever done, but it was definitely one of the most worthwhile.
HSG: Even though it’s designed for television, it’s a true work environment.
JESSICA: Yeah, we work for 15 hours or something, and they edit it down to an hour show, but I think the general public understands that while they only watch TV for an hour, a dress does not get made in an hour. It involves a lot of work.
HSG: I think fashion cultivates that idea of “elegant ease.”
JESSICA: We don’t want people to know the blood, sweat, and tears. We want everyone to know the shiny lights, and fashion shows.
HSG: Okay, we’re almost done. By the way, I really appreciate you giving me this time. But I’d like to think that the interview will offer a well-rounded portrait.
JESSICA: Yes, you’re very prepared!
HSG: Well, you used Kailee O’Sullivan, so goodness knows, you deserve the publicity.
HSG: We’re big fans.
JESSICA: Big fans? Yeah, she’s awesome.
HSG: Since you mentioned that you do have a feminine side, as a designer, how do you feel about traditional feminine details like frills and ruffles?
JESSICA: I wouldn’t say that I’m an overly girly designer. But I’m not a masculine designer either. I have a very tailored, constructed look that I like to pair with things that have very feminine qualities to them. I love drape. I love flowiness. I haven’t used frills and things like that yet in any collections, but I think if I used them, it wouldn’t be in the way that you would normally expect them to be used. I like to put things into different contexts, how you wouldn’t traditionally see them, and that’s just who I am as a designer. But I love feminine details, and I think I just use them in unconventional ways.
HSG: And the same would be true for ribbons and bows?
JESSICA: Yeah, I mean, I haven’t really used bow details and things like that, but it just hasn’t applied to what I’ve done so far. It may show up in the future. I love there to be a feminine quality to my clothing, but it’s not overly girly.
HSG: Are you aware of the “Lolita” trend in fashion—a Japanese trend inspired by Victoriana?
JESSICA: I’m aware of it. I haven’t personally been inspired by it, or used it in my own designs yet.
HSG: As you said yourself, you’re not quite that girly.
JESSICA: Well, I like to look at the world around me when I’m designing, and I am very much a people watcher, and I do take in a lot of fashion shows, and things like that. I seek them out. But at the same time, when I’m creating, I like to stay away from them a little bit, because I don’t want to be influenced by that when I’m actually working on things. So I’ll go back to it after I’ve done my period of designing, when I’m working on something specific.
HSG: You’ve already touched on this throughout the interview. I was going to ask what sorts of things inspires you, as a designer—whether earlier time periods in fashion, or physical objects, or visual art.
JESSICA: I think everything, really. I know that feels like a cop-out kind of answer, but it is everything. I listen to all kinds of music. I’m always listening to music. My best friend is a musician, so that’s always in the background for me. I listen to everything.
HSG: Well, here at the Judgment of Paris, we love your “Maharaja’s Mistress” side.
JESSICA: I really just like saying “maharaja.”
HSG: That’s true. The word alone conjures so much.
JESSICA: Yeah, it makes you feel something different when you say it, and the more I started looking into it, I thought, “Oh.” The gold on the jackets, for example. I was looking at traditional maharaja’s tunics, and what was the embellishment on them, and things like that.
HSG: And Kailee and Max Abadian did a great job for you too, because the looks that she gave were so exotic and sensual.
JESSICA: Oh, yeah. Her shot her in that little gold setup, plus the lights all around her, and the colour just came to life. It was amazing.
HSG: It was so appropriate too, because in my interview with her, Kailee mentioned that she was interested in all things Eastern, and so forth, so it was quite serendipitous.
HSG: Well, thank you very much for your time, Jessica. I’ll leave you with this thought: Please, do “pitch” the idea of a plus-size runway show to the powers that be at 1 Plus. Elena Mirņ gets a lot of press from its biannual runway show, although many people dislike the fact that they use size 10/12 models…
JESSICA: Yeah, they’re, like, “Really? That’s not plus-size.”
HSG: Exactly. So if you could do a show like that, but with size 14, 16, 18 goddesses, the world would fall at your feet. Good luck with your new lines.
JESSICA: Thank you.
(Interview recorded March 1st, 2010.)
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