We spoke with Ms. DeVoe on two occasions—first after the seminars at FFFWeek 2010, and then by telephone several weeks ago. We were privileged to discuss the genesis of the event, the pro-curvy philosophy behind it, and to discover the fascinating biography of its enterprising and visionary creator.
All runway images licensed from Mr. Richard Lew (www.richlew.com). No reproduction in any form is permitted without the express consent of the photographer.
HSG: It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Ms. DeVoe.
GWEN: Did you enjoy the panels?
HSG: Very much. I thought the first one was the best of the three. I liked it because it was a little bit more structured. But with regards to the forthcoming runway show, I have to mention—I can’t thank you enough for keeping the models in your show to a size 14 and up.
GWEN: Really? But they beat me up for it. The agencies, they hate me, I think.
HSG: But that’s why your policy is so important. Because the agencies seem to want plus-size models to look as straight-size as possible. They want to narrow the standards.
GWEN: It’s true.
HSG: They have a hard time acknowledging the idea that plus-size beauty should be appreciated on its own terms; that plus is beautiful for its own sake. If a model has fuller curves, there’s nothing wrong with that.
GWEN: There’s nothing wrong with that.
HSG: In fact, why not celebrate that? One of today’s panelists encouraged women to learn to “Love the thing about themselves that they dislike most.” True enough, but better still if women didn’t feel that dislike in the first place.
GWEN: Well, it’s people like you who support me, because while I’m enjoying all of this bravado, I don’t think people really understand what I had to go through to make this happen. The agencies paid me no attention. At last year’s event, I was so blessed to get the models I got, because I literally found them on Facebook and said, “Look, the agency doesn’t want you to do this, but you do it for me.” And then they were calling people and saying, “Who is this woman? What’s her reputation?” Now this year, a lot of them are coming on board, but I’m still a little gun-shy: “You want to take the credit for it now, to say that you were part of the whole concept, but you really weren’t, because I remember how nasty you were to me: ‘Why are you doing this? Because this will never amount to anything.’” And that’s not true.
HSG: I was admittedly one of the people who were waiting to see how the first show would turn out before throwing our support behind it.
GWEN: And I understood. But you know what? That’s part of business. We can’t jump at every opportunity.
HSG: Because so many things get produced that are of a very low quality. And it’s so unfortunate that plus-size women are represented by inferior vehicles. It implies that they don’t deserve something that’s of the highest calibre. But your production looked professional and looked classy. It looked better than Elena Mirò, and it had curvier models than Elena Mirò.
GWEN: Heinrich, I had no money. I had no money, Heinrich. I used my own income-tax money to do that.
HSG: I understand what you mean. But sometimes, it has to be done. Until someone wills it into reality, it won’t exist. I love what you’re doing. It’s so vital and necessary.
GWEN: You know what? Last year, I said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay, okay.” But actually, I’m still smarting because it took me a year to pay off all the bills and all the promissory notes that I had. So I finished paying for everything in November, or right before Christmas. And I thought, “I want to do this again, but I don’t have the money again. I spent everything.” But Heinrich, I started writing letters from last summer, and I got those sponsors in there.
HSG: But bravo for accepting no weight-loss sponsorship.
GWEN: No. I won’t do that.
HSG: That’s critical Anybody else would. But a move like that immediately delivers a mixed message. There are so many publications out there telling women to diminish themselves. Why not have at least one fashion show, or one magazine, that celebrates full-figured beauty for its own sake? Just pure, unadulterated body love, and clear messages as opposed to mixed messages.
We picked up our conversation in late August, beginning with the question of whether the plus-size industry should focus its efforts on creating its own, independent projects, or attempt to curry favour with the straight-size industry. Ms. DeVoe’s answer was unequivocal.
GWEN: Let’s create our own. And you know what? Maybe one year they’ll want to be involved with us. Why are we still begging and grovelling? It annoys me. Because let me tell you something, Heinrich. I am very well aware that it’s about the money. So when I was blessed to have so many sponsors this year, I took great care in spending every dime very carefully. Because it’s a blessing. In the current state of the economy, people are not just giving dollars away like that. So although I wanted my event to be nice, I didn’t want to go over the top, because we’re not ready to go over the top yet. We can celebrate at cost.
HSG: That issue forms the basis of a number of my questions: Why does the industry want to appeal, cap in hand, like a beggar, to the straight-size industry, which doesn’t even appreciate full-figured women? And it’s not like straight-size fashion is going to change the size of its models to accommodate plus-size women. No, it’s always the plus-size industry that has to keep coming down in size. And how much of a triumph is that? All of these editorial appearances by size-10 models, how much of a success is that? That’s practically the size of models such as Cindy Crawford or Linda Evangelista years ago, who were rightly decried at the time for being too thin and for ruining women’s body image.
GWEN: I agree 100 percent. It’s just disheartening.
HSG: Besides, right now Elena Mirò does a biannual show at Milan Fashion Week, with their meagre size 10s and 12s. To much of the plus-size public, it’s a big yawn. The reaction is, “That’s your ‘plus-size’ runway show? That’s the best you can do?”
GWEN: Here’s the thing. I knew that I wanted to do these awards. Unfortunately, I think I will have to do the awards differently next year. It became a little bit of a zoo.
HSG: True enough. But I have to say, it was very gratifying to see that physical object. I’m sure that everyone who received one was honoured.
GWEN: I think people were really, really appreciative and pleasantly surprised at the product itself. I think they were very, very happy that it wasn’t a piece of paper, or one of the plastic…
GWEN: And the thing is, you guys almost did not receive that, because my producer, who is big on creating things, actually has a friend who does sculpture. And we were wrestling with developing some type of sculpture made out of the logo. But time was pressing. We didn’t have enough time, so I said, “It’s okay. I know exactly what I’d like to give them. It’s crisp. It’s sharp. It’s a piece that’s not too voluminous. They can lay it on their desk, or a mantle, or something without much effort.” I’m glad you liked it. I think that the blue box made a really nice presentation.
HSG: It really did.
GWEN: That’s my style.
HSG: Yes, quality has been a hallmark of your event. And I take it that you recognized, from the beginning, that the production values, whether it’s the look of the hotel ballroom or the physical artifacts associated with the project, are important to give participants that sense of legitimacy.
GWEN: They really are. I’m going to be launching my own Web site under my name, probably in about three to four weeks, and a lot of it is going to be a mechanism, or a resource, for people who want to deal in production. If there’s one thing that I know, Heinrich, I know production. And for small businesses or productions, what you have to understand is which items are your big-ticket items, what are the things that you absolutely cannot skimp on, and which things that are just fluff. I’ve learned the hard way, after squandering a lot of money just on fluff, I’ve really learned how to pinch that penny, and no one knows I’ve pinched it. So that’s what I’m going to hopefully attempt to do when I launch GwenDeVoe.com: just to give insight on how to master a great production at a fraction of the cost.
HSG: Your own background is as an event producer, yes? Was that what enabled you to realize Full-Figured Fashion Week, whereas many people might have dreamed of such an idea, but lacked the ability to execute it, in terms of coping with sheer logistics? Because I was amazed at how many people you marshalled to put it together. Can you estimate the grand total?
GWEN: Oh, boy. In terms of my production team, it was 15, but I can’t even count the number of volunteers, people just believed in the cause and in the mission, and just piped in and did things. I’ll never know the exact number, there were so many. And you know, Heinrich, I think you’re right. I think that my background as an event planner, certainly it helps. But you know what it is? I think that I’ve gone to so many events, and there’s a big difference between producing an event and being an attendee or a guest, because I hear the complaints of people sitting around me: “Oh, this is starting late,” or “They didn’t have this.” And I listen to those. I listen to those comments. Then I come back to my production team and I tell them, when we do our wrap-up. And we analyze what went wrong. And we try to never have that go wrong again. It’s okay to make mistakes, but you can’t keep making the same mistakes. That means you have to listen to your guests. You have to listen to them. Because those are the ones who are going to support you, and you want them to return. And the other thing I personally feel that makes me a great event planner is my ability to stay organized. I’m a Virgo by nature. I don’t know if you believe in the astrological signs…
HSG: [chuckles] Of course not.
GWEN: Oh, my God, Heinrich. All indications point or lead to the fact that I am a Virgo. I have the ability to manage and juggle multiple projects at the same time.
HSG: You do, and you must, because the sheer number of projects that you’re involved in intimidates me. But Full-Figured Fashion Week, that has a special place among them, doesn’t it?
GWEN: It really does.
HSG: The jewel in the crown.
GWEN: It really, really is.
HSG: Okay, very basic question now: How did the idea for Full-Figured Fashion Week originate?
GWEN: I actually had the idea for Full-Figured Fashion Week several years ago. But even though I was confident about being able to make it successful, I believe in timing. Timing is everything. And I also knew that I would need…probably not a lot of resources, but I would need more resources than I possessed at that particular time. I’m also a firm believer that you have to come to the table with some of your own resources, sometimes.
HSG: And would you say that getting the financing was the hardest hurdle for you to ovecome?
GWEN: The first year, yes. But not this year. The first year, it was hard, only because I think that because I did have money of my own, I may have overlooked certain things. Because I started writing a whole lot of cheques and the money started to deplete. I realized, “Oh, my God. I’ve got to reach out to more people.” But it was fine. And I’m happy to say that in the first year, I got more support from very small businesses. It was the small businesses. And I have to give major, major credit to Ashley Stewart for just hanging in there with me and helping us to make this dream a real thing.
HSG: However, I have to give you great credit for not accepting any diet-industry or weight-loss advertising. You knew that that would be inappropriate, yes?
GWEN: [AUDIO] Absolutely. Not only did I know that it would be inappropriate, but I really feel that it would be inappropriate as well. A lot of times, we feel a certain way, but then we bend the rules, or we close our eyes. I don’t do that, Heinrich. One of the things about me is, what you see with me is what you get. I have certain convictions, just like everybody else. And when it comes to things like that, I don’t bend. And I won’t bend.
HSG: So that policy will remain in place for your L.A. event?
GWEN: Absolutely. Absolutely.
HSG: That’s excellent, because it always seems like such colossal hypocrisy. And a betrayal. If a plus-size model does a weight-loss ad, she is never seen the same way again. It’s literally supporting the enemy, the very industries that are keeping down full-figured women.
GWEN: And another thing is, when they make excuses for doing it. Here’s my take on this. If you decide that you want to switch playing fields, go ahead and do it, but don’t expect us to continue to embrace you. Just be real. And that’s one of the problems that I have with people sometimes. Just be honest. Be real.
HSG: What led to the decision to make this a Full-Figured Fashion Week, rather than just a single runway show? The extended length was a wonderful idea, by the way. The seminars, for example, were very interesting, and I was pleased to attend them.
GWEN: Well, my personal feeling was, I really, really wanted Full-Figured Fashion Week to rival the industry’s fashion-week event. And I absolutely look forward to having a Full-Figured Fashion Week that spans Sunday to Sunday. It’s just that, again, as we just spoke, it takes a lot of resources. And so I started out in New York with just three days, and this year it was four days. And I think that just having a runway show, that’s been done. It’s been done; it’s been done; it’s been done. I just thought that because Full-Figured Fashion Week is not really geared toward the trade industry, I want this event to be open to everyone, and I need to have something for everyone. And creating the panels, that was my ace in the hole. Because I knew that if I had the right panelists, people would come, because that’s what’s missing in our industry—a healthy dialogue.
HSG: I see what you mean. People tend to be very compartmentalized. And it’s understandable, because while the enemy is a singular, monolithic industry, we each take our own unique approaches to combatting it.
GWEN: And also, it’s a one-on-one discussion, a forum. Let’s say the Times produces a piece that’s not particularly supportive of the movement. There is always a commentary section for us to view, to voice our opinions. But it’s nothing like sitting in a room of your peers, your colleagues, and maybe those who do not particularly agree with what you have to say. There is just something about that one-on-one dialogue. And I’ve got to tell you, people love the fashion, but they really love those forums. They love it. And I intend to keep that as a part of the brand.
HSG: I think that’s an excellent idea. Also, in discussions involving the general public, both straight-size and plus-size, full-figured women end up battling a lot of reproduced prejudice, whereas at a FFFWeek seminar the size bigotry is pushed away. Some self-loathing still creeps in, but at least the participants feel that they are on the same side.
GWEN: [laughing] That’s the event planner in me. I knew that I didn’t want to mix it, or be near the industry’s fashion week, straight-size fashion week, because it was very, very important for me to create our own identity. It was just a matter of scanning the calendar, staying away from other large events, and thinking about travel. June was particularly rough for us the first year because the day that we launched is the exact date that Michael Jackson died.
HSG: Oh, is that right? I hadn’t realized that.
GWEN: Mm-hm. So about 30 minutes before showtime of the opening event, a lot of the press started to call and text and say they weren’t coming because they had been dispatched “to the streets of America,” that kind of thing.
HSG: Good heavens.
GWEN: And so this year I had the option of changing it, but I felt that June was a great month, so I just pushed it up a week, so it wouldn’t coincide with the anniversary of his death. But it was important for me to stay away from… In New York, February, there’s a large fashion-week movement in February. And there’s the other one, the Mercedes-Benz event, in September. So it was just an event-planning strategy. That’s all.
HSG: Otherwise, you likely would have been seen as merely an asterisk, an amusing side-note to the “mainstream” event. But by being set in June, Full-Figured-Fashion Week had the benefit of being all by itself. It was good planning, because if there was any fashion attention in the city at all, it was directed toward you, even from people who might not otherwise have been predisposed to attended. Even Robin Givhan attended the seminars. I doubt that you would have gotten her there during the straight-size industry’s fashion week.
GWEN: And the other thing is, when I consulted with our event’s publicist, and some of the other individuals who have media relationships, the thought was that it’s going to be really, really hard to pull the fashion columnists away from a long-standing event, like straight-size fashion week. So you want to create your own identity so that there won’t be anything else competing on their calendar. And so I took their advice and created my own.
HSG: What differences can you identify between the 2009 and 2010 show? Was the second event all smooth sailing—?
HSG: —or were there new difficulties along the way that weren’t there a year before?
GWEN: Uh, we definitely had some difficulties that were not there, and I attribute that to…growing pains.
HSG: [chuckles] Okay.
GWEN: The event tripled in size in just one year. We tripled our sponsors by 60 percent. And the thing with that is, the more sponsors you have, the more responsibility you have to make sure that those sponsors receive everything that has been promised to them as outlined in the sponsorship package. So our sponsorship coordinator was really, really busy, and a bit overwhelmed, but she pulled it off remarkably. So…growing pains. We did have some things that didn’t go as well as expected. We had some flubs in the production end of it, the production end of the fashion show, the finale, so we had to get through those things. The show ran absolutely 100 percent smoothly last year.
HSG: Is that right?
GWEN: Yes, it did. It was beautiful. Everything was wonderful.
HSG: No blown fuses?
GWEN: None. None of that. [laughing] But the venue was smaller. It was a smaller venue, more self-contained. But here’s the thing. The few oomphs and mistakes that we had the first year, we didn’t have them the second year. We had new oomphs and mistakes. So my goal as an event planner is, I don’t really mind if things aren’t altogether smooth sailing, I just don’t want to repeat the same mistakes.
HSG: That’s understandable. And the audience was very forgiving. When the music cut out, they just started applauding, so it wasn’t a big deal. Or when the lady rolling in the bubble couldn’t get out of her plastic prison…
GWEN: And I felt bad for her, because she wasn’t supposed to be in the bubble at all!
HSG: Oh, really?
GWEN: It was a last-minute fill-in.
HSG: It was a clever visual, but it required a bit more advance planning, an exit strategy. Some of us were even getting worried: “How much air does she have in there?” [chuckles] But everyone loved the production values all around. The bit with the wee cherubs was so nice.
GWEN: Oh, wasn’t that cute?
HSG: It was adorable. And one of them handed out the awards with you. It was wonderful.
GWEN: I’m glad you asked me that question, because my concept for Full-Figured Fashion Week was to display perhaps 10 percent retailers and 90 percent indie designers. Because I’m the queen of the underdog, I always want to give a platform to those who otherwise have not yet had a platform. But what I’ve found is that in order to produce the quality of event that I’d like to produce, a lot of times the designers, because of their lack of experience in a professional setting, they’re not really ready to take their business to the next level. And so we found that we have designers who don’t have Web sites. And that may seem like a small issue, but if I’m actively promoting your line, I may have a reporter who says, “Oh, well, this collection, these images look appealing. Give me the Web site, so that I can get more information on the designer.” And if the designer doesn’t have a Web site, that’s not good. So in the first year I was struggling with these types of issues—having designers who have talent, but the business piece is lacking a little bit. So this year I had to add on more retailers to balance out the show. Also, we had a few issues with the quality of the garment.
HSG: You did?
GWEN: Yes. And again, these are indie designers, and we realize that. I will always show indie designers. I want to be able to offer more to them than just a showcase. I want them to feel that by participating in the showcase, this may be good for their business. But similarly, while it may be good for your business, your business has to be at least in a position to receive the opportunity. And things like not having a Web site, not having appropriate images to show, that kind of thing, that is not helpful.
HSG: Does Full-Figured Fashion Week have a focus on any particular market, such as the urban market, or in terms of price point? Or does it try to cover as many diverse sections of the market as possible by selecting a range of designers?
GWEN: My mission is to cover as many diverse populations as possible; however, I have a particular interest now in the high-end labels. I think that presently there is an abundance, if you will, of lower-price-point items. And right now I know that the young fashionistas, even though they’re still complaining slightly, there is a lot more out there for them now than there was maybe, let’s say, five years ago.
HSG: I think that’s indisputable.
GWEN: But there is another demographic, I feel, within the industry, that’s underserved. I think that the current state of the market is intolerable for professional women.
GWEN: It’s very difficult to find quality career wear in plus sizes.
HSG: Hmmm. The reason why that might not occur to may people is because traditionally, career wear was just about the only thing that you ever saw advertised at Lane Bryant. It was always the business suit. Always the business suit. So perhaps there has been a conscious move away from that stereotype.
GWEN: But the reality is, we all don’t do dress-down Fridays every day. And it’s also very interesting to me that any time I say “career wear,” the first and sometimes the only name that comes up is Lane Bryant. And you’re absolutely right, Lane Bryant sort of cornered the market in professional wear a while back, but we need more. And one of the presenters at Full-Figured Fashion Week, Lotis Clothing, that’s what their goal was—to appeal to the professional woman.
HSG: And now, a question that will be of great interest to many readers: What do you look for when selecting the models who appear in your show?
GWEN: Well, I am not involved in model selection at all anymore. I’ve taken myself away from that, only because I have close relationships with a lot of plus-size models. I’ve trained dozens of them. And so I want them to submit for Full-Figured Fashion Week and get it based on their ability to do well, and not based on the fact that they know me or that they’ve been trained by me. But I can say that my directive to my casting director changes. Because for the L.A. show, I’m going to be looking for a number of different things. But in New York, it’s always been youthful. You don’t have to be young, just look youthful. And proportionate, if possible. We want them to have a certain amount of energy, and they obviously have to be great runway walkers.
HSG: You mentioned that for L.A. you will be looking for something different. Different in what way?
GWEN: Because in L.A. I hope to debut a new collection. Not new, but it’s probably going to be new to L.A. They’ve never done something like this before. So I hope to introduce a new collection that is a higher price point. It’s very high end, and is mainly for the older plus-size woman. So I’m going to be looking for…seasoned divas. And I’m going to give you the scoop on this. We intend to probably use the mothers of celebrities.
HSG: Well, that’s a very interesting idea. I do hope, however, that you will have some of the public’s favourite models in there as well.
GWEN: Well, that’s just one segment. That’s just one segment. I think that in order for Full-Figured Fashion Week to be successful in the different areas that we go to, and we’ve already identified where those areas are going to be, I need to keep it fresh and surprising. So I don’t want the runway show to be a cookie-cutter template. So we will always have the girls whom everyone loves. We will always have new faces. But we will always have some surprises as well. And the segment that I’ve just described to you is only appropriate because of the type of clothing. And it’s beautiful clothing. But it’s not typically a collection that will be favoured by someone who’s between 20 and 30. It’s just not them.
HSG: Are there any common mistakes that you see plus-size models making when they are runway beginners?
GWEN: Oh, I see a lot of mistakes made, Heinrich. And not just from runway beginners. Particularly what I cringe at sometimes during a runway show is the model’s inability to keep it together. And it’s just like being an actress. You feed off your audience. But with runway, you can’t let your audience rattle you. So thunderous applause, catcalls, all that stuff is wonderful, but you have to keep your composure. And so that is one of my pet peeves. Because when someone yells out, “Oh, sweetie, wonderful! You look wonderful! Work it! Work it!” and then you start to give me the big grin, showing too much teeth, and then my photographer snaps—he doesn’t know when not to snap—then you have these grotesque facial expressions.
HSG: What led to the commendable decision to use models size 14 and up, no smaller?
GWEN: [AUDIO] It wasn’t a decision. It’s a practice. Yeah, that wasn’t a decision. That’s who I am. Any DeVoe Signature Event has always used sizes 14 and up. So I didn’t have to think about that at all, Heinrich. In terms of plus-size, that’s who I feel are plus-size. And there’s no argument about it. People can dispute it. That’s fine. But when it comes to one of my events, that’s what you’re going to see.
HSG: But you do recognize how gratifying this is to the audience, who otherwise are not so happy when they see size 8s and 10s passed off as plus size.
GWEN: Mm-hm. But I have to tell you, in all honesty, my decision was not affected by knowing that. It’s just part of my history, and part of my legacy, has been that this is what I truly believe is plus size. These are the body shapes that represent who I am, who I used to be when I was younger, or whatever. I’m showing me. An older me, now, but I’m showing me.
HSG: You told me when we met, back at the show, that your relationship with agencies has not always been smooth sailing. Has the size restriction been one of the reasons why they have not always been in your camp?
GWEN: Well, I think there are several reasons. First and foremost, I don’t think that the event itself was particularly credible in their eyes. And last year I worked with a casting director who had a great relationship with the agencies. And a lot of the models whom she got for the show, they were very excited about doing the show, and they wanted to do the show regardless of whether or not they were being compensated, because they wanted to be a part of the movement. That didn’t sit well with the agencies.
GWEN: So that’s one of the reasons. But the bottom line is, at the end of the day, I don’t know many plus-size models who have exclusive contracts, and so it was their right to exercise the fact that they were non-exclusive with these agencies. Bottom line. Another thing is that I think that…yeah, you’re right about that, in terms of the sizing. We have specific requirements. We say, “Show us your 14s, 16s, 18s.” And we got back a lot of 10s and 12s snuck in the mix.
HSG: You did?
GWEN: Yeah. And that’s fine, but we just don’t book them.
GWEN: [AUDIO] No argument. We just said, “Okay, that’s not one. Put that one over there.” Not a problem at all. The person who works for me as a casting director, in whatever city, he or she is acutely aware that I will only show sizes 14 and up.
HSG: And it doesn’t matter if she’s a size 10 and has a Glamour tear sheet, or is fresh back from Milan—that doesn’t matter?
GWEN: That does not matter to me.
HSG: Bravo. Okay, one last question, and then we’ll proceed to a different topic. Why do you think the agencies push for non-plus-looking plus-size models? You certainly have as much insight into the industry as anyone, so why does this happen?
GWEN: I think probably because that is the majority of what they have on their boards. And also, every client is different. I’m probably a whole new animal to them. And if it gets to the point where Full-Figured Fashion Week becomes this really, really large trade-show event, being held in tons of places, and I’m giving them top dollar, I’m sure that they will go out into the streets of wherever these agencies are and try to find larger girls for me. But at this point, that’s not where I am.
GWEN: And also their other clients. Come on, Heinrich. You can just look at the magazines, or some of the ads—
HSG: [groaning] I know.
GWEN: A lot of people come down on the agencies. I try not to do that, because I realize what we’re dealing with. It’s not the agencies that are driving this thing. They’re only doing that because it’s a business move. If your client is telling you, “I need blah, blah, blah, a size 12,” you have to send your client a 12. It’s the same thing with me. I told them I wanted 14s. They sent me 10s and 12s. I discarded those.
GWEN: So that’s other end of the spectrum too. You may very well have agents who are trying to sneak in a 16 or an 18 who maybe photographs small. We all play tricks and games. But the client will go, “Uh-uh, she’s a little too big,” or “She’s just not right,” or whatever the word is. It’s the same thing on both spectrums. Advertisers and clients, they are the driving forces, and until we can change their perception and their minds… We have our work cut out for us.
HSG: As an asterisk to that, I think that’s partially true, but I talked with the marketing manager of Addition-Elle, and she came to me and said, “We’ve been hearing from our customers that our models are too small. Is that what you’re hearing?” And I said, “Yes; but how can this be a surprise to you? And why, then, do you keep choosing smaller models?” And she said, “That’s what the agencies are supplying.” So that’s a case where the client at least claims that it begins with the agencies supplying smaller models. And I tend to believe that, because there must to be a reason why the same size 10s and 12s keep popping up everywhere. The agencies must be pushing that: “Oh, this is the ‘hot’ girl. She was just in Vogue Iceland,” or whatever. And one of the designers at FFFWeek told me that an agent had been telling her, “Oh, no, no, there’s no need to use bigger girls anymore.” She had been told this herself. But nevertheless, I absolutely take your point.
GWEN: Well, I can tell you that even though I said what I said, I do know of at least one agent—but I’m trying not to lump all the agents in this sordid little wastebasket—but there is one agent who, I tell you, if we left it up him, there would be no plus-size industry.
GWEN: Okay? He’s been very vocal about it, off and on camera, and it’s unfortunate that he has a large voice in the modelling industry. A large voice. And I just hope that it’s just him, and I just hope that, you know, some of the other agents are not following this practice.
HSG: Okay, you’ve worked with straight-size models in the past, in your runway shows, and then with plus. Do plus-size models need to learn any different runway techniques or does the same skill set, manner of walking, apply to both?
GWEN: I think that they don’t need to learn anything different. They don’t need to learn differently. But I do think that there are additional things that they need to learn, if that makes any sense.
HSG: It does. What might those be?
GWEN: Well, the walk, the technique for the runway walk may be taught in the same manner, but at some point you have to learn how to do different things to achieve the same results. Because for a plus-size model, particularly some of the larger girls who perhaps may be a little fuller in the hip area, sizes 16, 18, 20, or whatever, it’s all about angles. This latest thing now is trapsing down the runway, doing a bit of a half turn, and sort of jugging out the hip to the right. We can do that, but it takes us maybe two additional steps, so that when the photographer hits us, that hip is not the only thing that you see. So you learn the same way, but there are additional techniques that we have to learn on top of the traditional techniques. [pauses] That’s a trade secret.
HSG: Well, I’m glad to have that captured on tape! [chuckles] Do you find that the full-figured women who participate in Full-Figured Fashion Week, whether as models or as other functionaries, or even the general public who attends these shows, do you find that they feel more confident in themselves, more confident in being curvaceous, while they are within the environment of the show?
GWEN: I do. I think that’s one of the reasons why Full-Figured Fashion Week was so successful. And you have to know that a lot of the attendees do not consider themselves “fashionistas.” So it’s this whole camaraderie. It’s this whole family. It’s finally a place where I can even come and wear some maybe outrageous clothing, because it is fashion week for me. And I think that it’s empowering them. It makes them feel good about themselves, because finally, here’s someone who’s my size, maybe even larger. You know what it is? It’s a safe space.
HSG: Yes, I would agree. I spoke with several models during and after the show, and heard the comments made by several people who were interviewed, and they all allowed themselves to enthuse about eating, freely and openly, without guilt or inhibition or restraint. Normally, when full-figured women speak in media circles, they seem to be almost apologetic about their size; or they try to justify themselves by describing arduous exercise-torture routines.
HSG: But at Full-Figured Fashion Week, it was okay for women to say that they love to eat. It was okay to be plus-size. And I think that’s one of the reasons why having a separate space is the right idea.
GWEN: And that’s one of the reasons why, although I was terribly appreciative of the New York Times article, I think that Robin Givhan’s piece really epitomized the whole spirit of the event.
HSG: It did. I was pleasantly surprised, because in the past she hasn’t always been that plus-favourable. I think it was attending those seminars that changed her perspective. The way in which she described Rosie Mercado as a size-28 Jennifer Lopez…she just got it. She discovered the idea that someone could love themselves because they’re plus-size, not despite this fact.
GWEN: I think that’s very, very possible. Anything is possible. I don’t know if it will happen in my lifetime.
HSG: [chuckles] Well, that’s realistic.
GWEN: But I do think it’s possible. I mean, when you go back and you look at some of the great artwork that was done before I was born, those women were voluptuous. That’s where the word “voluptuous” came from. It was a sign of posterity. It was just wonderful. And I just hope and pray that we return back to that time. I’ll be dead, Heinrich, but…
HSG: [laughs] I’d like to think that it will happen in both of our lifetimes. But I’m glad that you acknowledge this possibility, because I think that the plus-size fantasy already exists for many people. One just doesn’t hear about it in the mainstream media because they themselves are hardwired differently. They need their own Robin Givhan moments. They need to attend your event.
GWEN: Well, I decided to go to L.A. because there were so many women on the West Coast who felt, although they were willing to travel to New York, and they did, that it would be great to have something in their backyard. Also, I’ve been hearing the horror stories from friends of mine who live here on the East Coast, when they tell me tales of visiting L.A. and trying to shop, and having a hard time finding clothing that fits them, in their sizes. So I thought that taking it to the West Coast was just the next step.
HSG: You’ve advanced the possibility of a Canadian edition. Is that definitely going to happen? And if so, where will it be held—Toronto or Montreal?
GWEN: Toronto. And we estimate that that will probably happen sometime in March of 2011.
HSG: Okay, you’ve talked about this before, but it bears repeating. Should the focus in plus-size fashion be on getting the mainstream industry to accept more plus-size models and target full-figured women, or would we do better by creating our own events, like Full-Figured Fashion Week, and publishing our own magazines, like Mode and Figure?
GWEN: I think that my answer will probably come as no surprise to you. I think that we should put more emphasis on creating our own brand. I’m a firm believer in that. I just think that we’ve wasted so much time apologizing for who we are and trying to mix and blend in. And so far, it’s not working.
HSG: No, it’s not.
GWEN: It’s not working.
HSG: For all the concessions that we’ve made…
GWEN: It’s not working, and you know what? We haven’t gotten that much further. And I say it’s time for a new charge.
HSG: I agree. Plus-specific magazines have plus-size models on every page, just as full-figured fashion weeks have plus-size models on every runway. Also, these tend to be the projects—whether it’s Mode magazine or your show—that eschew diet advertising. It’s a pro-curvy mentality, very different from mainstream-media thinking.
GWEN: I agree. I agree. And one last statement from me about the fashion industry and its reluctance to serve larger women. It just appears to me that fashion, and not business, is what’s driving the powers that be in this industry. And that baffles me. That really, really baffles me. Because I have a clear head for business. I started out with a kumbaja moment in all of this, many years ago. I just got annoyed, and I just wanted to empower my plus-size sisters, and then it turned into this fashion thing. And now I’m just thinking from the business end of it. And I really, really despise when the whole obesity thing is brought into this.
HSG: [groans] Oh, my God.
GWEN: And my thing is, contrary to popular (and ignorant) belief, obligating plus-size shoppers to dress in unappealing clothing is not going to encourage them to lose weight. Get off of that. Because the bottom line is that plus-size women, some of us, we choose to go without if we don’t find what we want. Then who’s winning?
HSG: And the whole “health” line is sheer nonsense. They’re just using that as an excuse. They don’t actually care about women’s health. It’s just a convenient talking point for them. After all, you don’t see size-18 models dying after walking on the runway, as you do see anorexic models passing away. Our models aren’t being sent to eating-disorder clinics. So when it comes to health, it’s the plus-size models who have health on their side, not the emaciated skeletons.
GWEN: Well, for me, let’s take for instance the few fashion-week events that I’ve been to. I actually thought the opposite.
HSG: Oh! Okay.
GWEN: [AUDIO] I went to a Tracy Reese show, and there was this lovely print, to-the-knee sheath. It was a one-shoulder dress. And the young lady’s shoulder was so bony, if you will, (if that’s a word,) that you could see the bones in her neck, and I said, “Wow, my wonderful, full shoulder would look much better in that dress.” So I thought the opposite. But of course, it didn’t come in my size. Sure didn’t have a size 18 there.
HSG: I agree with you completely. Behind it all there’s this fundamental fact: If you prefer a skinny aesthetic in the first place, then you’re going to think that skinny looks better, because that’s your bias. But if you actually appreciate natural curves, then you will see that the clothes look better on fuller, shapelier figures. The sad thing is that even a lot of plus-size fashion bloggers tend to reproduce some of that curve-o-phobic mindset: “Dressing to look slimmer,” and so forth. We should question the very premise of that. Why should a woman dress to look “slimmer”? That implies that slimmer is better. That’s an objectionable premise.
GWEN: Oh, boy. Well, for the launch of Full-Figured Fashion Week last year, my single favourite moment was when my assistant came backstage and said, “Gwen, it’s showtime.” And I stepped outside, and I looked at the smiling faces of people of all nationalities, all ages, all different backgrounds. And I looked, and I was almost reduced to tears, because my mother had passed away a couple of years ago, and I knew that she would have been so proud of me, after me dragging trunks of clothing up and down subway steps in New York. This is my background: independent plus-size model, to being a show producer with very little funds. In the middle of the night going from New York City to New Jersey. I’ve done it all. And I just thought that my mother would have been so proud to say, “Wow, look at what my daughter has created.” I just felt overwhelmed. It was just wonderful, because I said, “Oh, my God. We made it happen.” Well-dressed crowd; it was just wonderful. It was classy. It was elegant. It was just beautiful. Beautiful.
HSG: I didn’t know that. So they have a long-term commitment to you?
GWEN: That’s right.
HSG: Excellent. Talk about someone believing in you. But they’re very good people. I spoke with Mr. Bass and Ms. Hutchison at the event. They’re marvellously committed, and really seem to believe in the project.
GWEN: You hear what I’m saying, Heinrich, about new blood? There was nothing wrong with infusing some new blood into an old industry. There’s nothing wrong with that. And sometimes I think that the “players” of the industry need to be reminded that every now and then it’s good to embrace fresh and new ideas, and stop trying to embrace those who would otherwise appear to not want to have anything to do with you. I don’t get it, you know? I hate to sound militant, but “by any means necessary.” Let’s do this.
HSG: I think you’re absolutely right. The one is a position of strength, the other a position of weakness. And there’s no question as to which approach is the more inspiring, which one makes women feel better about themselves. The one approach yields a plus-specific magazine, the other yields a tiny little picture in the corner of a single page.
HSG: Here’s the basic question that I ask everyone whom I interview: Why does the media resist plus-size beauty?
HSG: Indeed, resist is a mild word. Suppress. Ban. Exclude.
GWEN: I think that they exclude because it’s the popular choice. And so that statement supports my theory that if we do more, if we come together and do more, there is going to be no way for them to ever exclude us again. But first, we in our own community have to come together. We have to do it. And again, this goes back to me being a militant, “By any means necessary.” We already know that the plus-size consumer has a lot of buying power. We know that. We know that already. But there are other individuals within the plus-size community who have a lot of talent, and they have a large voice. And I just think that if somehow we came together, we could force this hand. But we can’t do it individually, and on small scales. We have to do it on a much larger scale. And I know that is true because now there is a Full-Figured Fashion Week. Even though some of us are misguided, and we’ve gone back to the industry fashion week, trying to be accepted, I know that Full-Figured Fashion Week was the force behind that. So our views are different, but we all want the same end result. So let’s stop fighting against each other and see if we can come together. Because just because we think differently, that doesn’t mean that we can’t get along. Really. That’s always been my background.
HSG: Here’s a funny little question on the side. Lindsey Garbelman was one of the models in this year’s show. Unless I’m mistaken, you first encountered her at a Pure Energy press event. In what capacity did you attend that? I’m just curious, because I know that you wear many hats in the industry, so what particular hat were you wearing when you attended that event?
GWEN: Well, here’s the thing. As I explained in answer to one of your earlier questions, I have not always been on the popular end of the plus-size fashion industry. Everyone knows my name, but no one really knows a lot about me. And that’s on purpose. I don’t run in cliques. I don’t run in circles. I just do me. I do what I want to do, and I believe that I can make an impact on this industry without being a part of the social circuit, if you will. And so, unfortunately, I am not always invited to events. I guess they don’t know how to get a hold of me, or whatever the story is. But now that I’ve produced Full-Figured Fashion Week, I’m getting invited to everything! And for some reason, I don’t know, I guess that the publicist for Pure Energy did her homework, and she figured that I was one of the movers and shakers in the plus-size fashion industry. And I thanked her for that. And she sent me an invitation. And what it was, it was a preview of their spring collection. Really, really nice event. And I looked at the collection and said, “Wow. You know, we need to have some of these pieces in Full-Figured Fashion Week.” They were on a rack. And she said, “Well, let me show some of the pieces live. We have a great model.”
GWEN: She is absolutely gorgeous and absolutely adorable.
HSG: I’m glad you feel that way. She did a nice job for you, didn’t she?
GWEN: One of the great things that’s being heralded about Full-Figured Fashion Week is our ability to mix the talent with local and some of the recognizable faces. And I’d like to keep that going. I think that’s a really, really good twist on what we do, and it further empowers everybody. [AUDIO] The local girls, they’re, like… You have to see them, Heinrich, backstage: ”Oh, my God. Is that so-and-so?” You know? It’s just kind of crazy, and I like that. I like that element of surprise. And I also absolutely have to have that sense of camaraderie amongst the models. I love that. It’s all about inclusion with us. No one is exclusive. It’s all about all of us doing this together.
HSG: I mentioned this to you after the show. I would much rather you be the voice of the curvy community than someone else, because there are a lot of mixed messages out there, but you deliver a clearer pro-curvy message, and that is what’s really necessary—that focussed message.
GWEN: Well, sometimes I think that part of my charm is that I can be a little controversial. And I work that, Heinrich, to my advantage as much as I can. The bottom line is that although I’ve been plus-size most of my adult life, I wasn’t always plus-size. I’m an athlete. I’m a former athlete. I used to play basketball. My body was tall and not necessarily thin, but wiry. And so I still had curves, but no one really considered me plus-size because I was so tall. So I’ve actually been on both ends of the spectrum, although when I was smaller, I still couldn’t find clothes, because I was so tall! So I got it from both ends, and I have tons of stories to share with people. That’s why I tell them, I actually get it. I get it. So I’m having a ball at what I do, and I hope that I’m able to do it for as long as reasonably possible. And I hope that when I close my eyes for the last time, you guys will remember Gwen DeVoe as someone who made a difference. That’s all I want.
HSG: I’m sure that that is how you will be remembered. There’s no doubt about it.
GWEN: I hope so. That’s all I want. That’s all I want. I don’t have children, so I don’t have anybody to officially carry on the legacy.
HSG: Well, I’d say that Full-Figured Fashion Week is a great legacy to leave behind. Mind you, you have many children out there, from DeVoe Signature Events to the Plus Academies…
GWEN: And models. And models. I’m very popular in the modelling community. A lot of the women look up to me. They think I’m a mentor, and they come to me for advice, and I give it to them straight, with no chaser.
HSG: For the panels in L.A., will you be structuring them the same way?
GWEN: For the most part, I think the panels will remain consistent with what we had here in New York. And I already told them, I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but I’m not missing anything this time. They kept ushering me away to do certain things, I’m like, “No. I want to be here for all the panels.” It’s hard.
HSG: I can imagine, given last-minute emergencies. But again, I’m sure that your event-planning background comes in handy and helps you manage every crisis as it comes along.
GWEN: Exactly. We had an error where the PowerPoint presentation for Sharon’s presentation, something was wrong with it, and the hotel said they didn’t have the… I don’t know. Something that Sharon brought didn’t work. And then everyone said, “Oh, my God. What do we do?” I said, “Well, just go to the business-services office. That’s all.” “Oh, yeah. All right.” And they just ran off. [laughs]
HSG: Was there ever a moment when you felt daunted, maybe before the first show? Was there ever a moment when you thought, “What have I gotten myself into?” Or did you never feel that way?
HSG: You did?
GWEN: No, I did feel that way. The first show. And my team had to help me keep it together. I mean, I’m always the driving force. I’m the rah-rah girl. “We can do it. We can do it.” But I would say, four weeks into the event, I said, “Oh, my God. What am I doing?” I mean, we had people flying in. The hotel situation was a nightmare, because we had so many people. And even though the event was held here in New York, 80 percent of our guests were from out of town. And so I had to deal with multiple hotel blocks. It was a handful.
HSG: I’m amazed that you took on that responsibly in the first place. You could have simply said to everyone, “Find your own accommodation.”
GWEN: But you know what, Heinrich? It’s these small touches that put Full-Figured Fashion Week into a whole new realm. That’s why this is not just a fashion show. I want this to be perceived as the type of thing that you don’t mind going away to. Even if it’s not in your backyard, you don’t mind packing up and going to this, because for the accommodations, we’re going to do the legwork for you.
HSG: That’s right.
GWEN: A lot of that takes time if you’re not a frequent traveller. I’m a frequent traveller. So I’m going to Nassau in November. I’ve had my ticket for Nassau for six months, because that’s what I do. As soon as I plan it, I go ahead and book the travel.
HSG: That’s so thrilling. And meanwhile, in L.A., are there any other tidbits of info that you would like to preview for us, or should we wait until the calendar is posted?
GWEN: Well, I can tell your readers that one of the highlights of the L.A. event is that we have chosen not to have a runway showcase on the opening night. Instead, I am waiting for the documentation, but I have also founded a non-profit organization named “Curves for a Cure.” And what I’m going to do with that is, I’m going to be having a number of different fundraisers to donate money to different charities. But I want the plus-size community to band together with me to create and execute these events, and we will decide which charities. It’s not going to be just one charity. It’s going to be a number of different charities. And so for the L.A. event, because it is October, we have chosen, of course, Breast Cancer Awareness, and the event is going to be a fundraiser for a national breast-cancer-awareness charity, and we’re going to have a silent auction of pink formal wear and cocktail wear that has been donated by retailers and independent designers. So it’s going to be very glitzy.
HSG: Very inspiring. So you’ll have that event, you’ll have your seminars, and you’ll have the major runway show. That’s about three days’ worth.
GWEN: And we’re also going to have a sample sale on Friday evening. And we may even throw in a costume party, since it’s Hallowe’en. I don’t know. Would you come to a costume party, Heinrich?
HSG: [chuckles] Well…my presence or absence notwithstanding, it’s a fun idea. But I think it’s wise to have just the one major runway show, because the press extensively covered the opening runway show in New York, whereas the finale was much more glamorous.
GWEN: And I’m also going to have something called “Breakfast with the Producer.” For Full-Figured Fashion Week in June, I had all these new designers, and I swear, I don’t know anything about them. We booked them. The designer-selection team booked them for the event, and in some cases I commentated their fashion segments, but I never got a chance… And I make it a point to walk around and shake their hands, but I want to spend a little time with them, and I thought that inviting them to a breakfast, just them and me, would be a nice, elegant touch as well. And that’s going to happen Saturday morning.
HSG: That sounds lovely. It will further build the sense of community.
GWEN: That’s right. Exactly. So I have a few tricks up my sleeve for next year, and thoughts on how I can be of service and assistance to some of the indie designers who don’t have budgets and marketing tools. Maybe in my second life I’ll represent designers.
HSG: That’s very ambitious.
GWEN: [AUDIO] And the scholarship will be given in a competition form. We’re going to go to fabric manufacturers, or one fabric manufacturer. We’re going to ask them to sponsor the event by donating fabric. We’re going to probably select maybe five students, and we want them to make a small collection—three plus-size outfits: one 14, one 16, and one 18. And it’s all going to be out of the same fabric, maybe different colours, but the same fabric. And we will have a panel of judges from the plus-size fashion industry, and they will choose who our winner is. And we’re going to give that winner… It’s like Project Runway.
HSG: I was about to say, this is like a plus-size Project Runway. It’s an inspired idea.
GWEN: And we’ll give them money to hopefully start a collection.
HSG: Brilliant. Everyone will love it. Although I didn’t attend your model competition this year, I’m sure that it was very popular.
GWEN: Oh, boy. It was so popular. It was crazy, but it was very, very popular. And you know, this is not a novel idea. I understand that NASA did something like this this year.
HSG: Is that right?
GWEN: Mm-hm. So I thought it was a great idea, and I’d like to do it as well. And perhaps get one of the retailers to make a commitment to show the collection in their store.
HSG: It’s a great way to get young designers thinking, “Maybe I can make a career in plus size. Since I’m full figured, maybe I don’t have to work in straight size. Maybe I can actually be plus-specific.”
GWEN: That’s right. If they don’t come to us, we go to them. That’s what you have to do.
HSG: One final question, because I know how busy you are. Why do you think that fashion weeks or fashion shows in general are so important to women? They’re obviously more significant than just trade events that sell clothes to retailers. There’s something bigger about them. They seems to have a symbolic meaning. Why is that?
GWEN: Well, one of my posts this week on Facebook was a question that I put to all of my thousands of Facebook friends (who don’t really know me, but that’s another story). I wanted to know what their take was on the traditional fashion-week events that are exclusive, and which only seem to invite certain people. I wanted to know how they felt about those events. And the vast majority of the responses were that people felt left out, and they applauded the fact that Full-Figured Fashion Week is inclusive, and lets the “regular Jill” in, if you will. Because it’s important for us to see images such as our own. It also helps us in shopping. [AUDIO] If I’m an 18, and you’re saying that you provide size-18 clothing, and you put a size 12 on the runway, that’s not particularly realistic, nor does that make me want to buy the outfit. I mean, it makes me want to buy the outfit, because I always think that something looks better on me anyway. But to the average person, there’s no symbolism, you know what I mean?
GWEN: Women just love fashion shows, period. I don’t know why it is. But particularly for the plus-size fashion shows in the plus-size community, it’s, like, “Finally.” We’ve been bombarded with so many of the straight-size fashion shows forever that even if full-figured women attend a fashion show that’s not particularly professional, there’s just something very empowering about it. And so that’s what I’m looking to do with Full-Figured Fashion Week. It’s inclusive. I want everyone there. The average woman, the average plus-size woman, that’s a consumer. And so I tell the retailers and the indie designers, these may very well be your customers. I’ve provided the forum, and now it’s up to you to make the sale.
HSG: It’s a thrilling project, and it has my full and total support.
GWEN: Thank you, Heinrich. And you know, when you say it, it’s almost as good as gold.
HSG: [chuckling] You flatterer! You must have been with a silver tongue. No Irishman having kissed the Blarney stone is so eloquent. But you put your powers of persuasion to good use, and that’s all that matters.
GWEN: [AUDIO] Well, I just want to thank you, and the Judgment of Paris, and all your readers. I’m jokingly putting you up there on the pedestal, but I just want to say that ever since the first event, when you wrote about it, after hearing about it on the site, I don’t know, it shot my credibility level up a bit.
HSG: If it did, I’m very glad of that.
GWEN: And I appreciate it.
HSG: I hope Full-Figured Fashion Week gets bigger and better and more notable with every incarnation.
GWEN: And just remember Gwen DeVoe and her endeavours. We are the “big engines that will.” Okay? Not the “little engine that could.” We’re the “big engines that will.”
HSG: [chuckles] Is that your new motto? It’s very catchy. You should put that on your Web site.
HSG: Terrific. Thank you so much for being so generous with your time.
GWEN: Well, I appreciate you, and I appreciate your efforts to let everyone know my story. I look forward to seeing you in L.A.
All runway images licensed from Mr. Richard Lew (www.richlew.com). No reproduction in any form is permitted without the express consent of the photographer.
Interview recorded June 18 & August 20, 2010.
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