An Interview with Marina Zelner

Kelsey Olson and designer Marina Zelner closing the Queen Grace show at FFFWeek 2011; click to enlarge.

As the Judgment of Paris has pointed out over the years, full-figured femininity is an aristocratic ideal, an aspect of the grand beauty tradition that held sway over Western culture throughout the centuries, prior to the cataclysm of modernity. Never was that made more abundantly clear than earlier this year, with the debut of the stately Queen Grace collection, the brainchild of designer Marina Zelner. Not only does the line's august clothing merit the marque's royal title, but also the fact that Queen Grace features the crown princess of plus-size modelling, Kelsey Olson, in its inaugural campaign. The brand further confirmed its patrician status by staging a runway show at FFFWeek 2011 in which Kelsey was joined on the runway by Katherine Roll, the model with the most resplendent figure of any model working today.

In this interview with Madame Zelner, we learn about the distinguished Old-World lineage of her marque and how she cultivated her aesthetic vision. We discover the noble intentions behind her endeavour, which are far richer than merely fashioning stylish apparel for curvaceous women. And we learn how Queen Grace was confronted by a shocking attempt within plus-size modelling to suppress full-figured beauty, but honourably held to its principles and resolutely championed the presentation of the visibly plus-size body type, in defiance of faux-plus perfidy.

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HSG: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to launch a fashion line?

MARINA: Well, it was probably born out of utter frustration, because I’ve been a full-figured woman and a business woman for many, many years, and even though I am not formally educated in design or fashion, I’ve been a long-time student of fashion. I love vintage designs. I love studying vintage fabrics. And as I was constantly getting frustrated going into stores and trying to find a beautiful outfit for myself, whether it was for a business occasion or a social occasion, I realized that I was not alone, and I started helping other businesswomen select a wardrobe. And one thing led to another, and in one of those rare, special moments, a lightbulb went off, and I said to myself, “Why don’t I give it a shot?”
      The company was formed about a year ago but has actively been open for business for about six months, and the outpouring of support has been absolutely incredible. It encourages you to continue doing what you’re doing. I know that I’m on the right track. I know that the collection that I’m putting out there is very much needed for women everywhere, because the selection is so limited. We cannot deny the fact that there are so many more options now than there were looking back at 10 or 12 years ago, when the first seeds of this idea were starting to develop, but the choices are still very primitive, to my mind. I think the market needs more sophistication, and women are asking for it. So this is how it all came about.

HSG: And when you talk about the lack of options, you mean the lack of options for fuller-figured women, yes?

Kelsey Olson modelling the Nina blouse and Kathryn skirt in an outtake from the first-ever Queen Grace photoshoot; click to view catalogue page.

MARINA: Absolutely, yes.

HSG: And that was what prompted you to start a collection expressly for plus-size women? Did you ever think about doing a collection for all sizes, or did you—and I hope this is the case—prefer the idea of specifically creating a plus-size collection?

MARINA: I only wanted to create a collection for plus-size.

HSG: Did you?

MARINA: Yes, absolutely.

HSG: Excellent.

MARINA: I felt that I understood these women. I felt that I was one of them, and I’ve lived through every one of the frustrating experiences that they have every day. I felt like I understood their body, because I’ve dealt with the same issues, whether it’s insecurity, or frustration, or sometimes it’s anger at the media and other outlets that show us images that absolutely do not reflect the reality around us. So having that understanding, I knew that I was creating a product that is very much needed, and I also knew that I would be able to contribute my own look and my own style and put myself into it.
      One of the greatest compliments that I received at Full-Figured Fashion Week was that so many women came up to me (even not knowing who I was), introduced themselves, and complimented me on my style. And I knew that if many more women out there could be educated, and I could share those experiences with them, we could all benefit from it.

HSG: So you would say that you envision your styles specifically to work on a fuller female figure? And if that is the case, how does that translate into the decisions that you make, in terms of design?

MARINA: It’s very good that you ask these questions, because the amount of research that went into us starting this company was overwhelming, and the most important considerations for me were: First and foremost, I will not create anything or put anything out there that I’m not going to love and enjoy wearing myself. And number two, every little thing that always bothered me about clothing, whether it’s the way it’s cut, the way it’s patterned, the way it’s graded, the way the fabrics are used, all these little elements were going into our designs. And for example—and you know, I love sharing these, our own design secrets—we cut all our dresses on the curve line in the back longer than the front.

HSG: Ah.

Kelsey Olson modelling the Larisa dress, in the first-ever Queen Grace catalogue; click to enlarge.

MARINA: Having an ample bottom, I always felt frustrated, because when you purchase a dress, it looks so beautiful in the front, but in the back, it lifts up, because the designers who cut dresses do not take the curve of your body, the curve of your silhouette, into consideration. Well, we did. So when a woman puts on our dress, it never lifts in the back. It’s completely uniformly designed on the bottom.
      We also think the same way about the waistline. Our dress are beautifully lined, because the frustration of wearing foundation under the dress is very frustrating for most women, and we put in beautiful lining, so when she puts the dress on, she doesn’t feel uncomfortable. Because we’re a long way from accepting women the way they are, and unfortunately, society still puts certain constraints on women; and especially in the business world, you want to look very well put together. So instead of wearing a thick foundation, our dresses are beautifully lined, and we cut our lining a little smaller than the rest of the size that’s on the dress. It curves around your body beautifully, and it’s very easy to wear. You put it on and out you go.
      Another element that we’re always very thoughtful about is the fabrication that we use. We use very high quality material, and once they realize that the price point of our dresses does not exceed three hundred dollars, most people are really shocked. Because the quality that we put out there, of manufacturing and production and the fabrications, is what you see these days in Salon Z for six hundred, eight hundred dollars. And there’s certainly a market for that, but the majority of women cannot afford that kind of price tag. And when we look through fabrics, we always look for fabrics that have some sort of spandex or lycra content but still have a great quality to them. So you know, you put on a few pounds, and you walk into your closet, and then all of a sudden you have nothing to wear, and you feel so frustrated—our dresses allow for that flexibility of movement, and they stretch a little and expand. But because the fabric is such a good quality, they contract and bounce right back into their original shape.
      So there are a lot of secrets and tricks that go into our design. We take it very, very seriously. This is really, truly, not just about making clothes. This is about empowering women and making them feel sensational. When they put our dresses on, they feel like a million dollars. They’re ready to go out the door and enjoy the day.

HSG: One of the most popular aspects of your collection, right from the beginning, has been its memorable name. Why did you choose to call your line “Queen Grace”?

MARINA: We thought about it for a long time. I really do not like the feel of the names that come out on the market in the plus-size industry. Everything has that indication that you’re curvy, that you’re oversize, that you’re plus-size, that you’re big, that you are, dare we say, “fat.”

HSG: [groans]

Katherine Roll walking the runway in the Queen Grace show at FFFWeek 2011; click to enlarge.

MARINA: But we wanted not to create a line for full-figured women alone. We wanted to create a line for a beautiful woman, and we wanted her to be graceful and feel like a queen, being in charge, in control, confident, comfortable, someone who is independent, knows what she’s doing. At the same time, she never forgets that she is a woman. She is a woman with great sensuality and sexiness, and she’s not afraid to show it. So that’s how I think of it.
      I wrote to my models to thank them for the wonderful job that they did on our runway. They were real, graceful queens. And that’s the image that projected, and we said, “This is it. This is what we’re going with.” And it stuck. And most people love it. Most people love the old-fashioned appeal of the name.

HSG: Yes! Very much so.

MARINA: I’ve received a lot of comments from other customers saying that what attracted them to the brand, even before they saw the images of the dresses, is that it exudes that old-fashioned, Old-World sensuality.

HSG: Absolutely. I agree with you completely. How would you describe your aesthetic vision? That’s a bit of a nebulous question, I admit.

MARINA: Well, I am always looking at styles and elements that are both modern and sophisticated at the same time. However, I will never step away from the idea that the dresses or skirts or blouses that we create should have an element of sensuality and sexiness, but a sophisticated, easy sexiness.
      I grew up in Europe. I’m going back to the images of the Old World with the beautiful, Rubenesque body, and the light in their eyes, and the beautiful sexiness of their skin, and their body form. This is something that always drives me in my design ideas.

HSG: That’s magnificent. So you would say that your Old-World heritage has an influence on what you produce?

MARINA: Absolutely. I came to this country in 1988, and I’ve been back to Europe many times ever since, and it always amazes me when I come back to America to realize how many women here, unfortunately, due to the circumstances, or just an inability to step out of society’s norms, forget that they’re women. I hear all sorts of excuses from women: I have children. I have jobs. I have problems. But in Europe, people have jobs and they have children and they have problems. However, a woman never forgets to put on her makeup and get her hair done and put on beautiful heels when she goes out on a date or any other occasion. She always presents herself. I think a woman can be in control and in charge and independent, but does not forget that she’s a beautiful woman.

HSG: Absolutely.

MARINA: It shocks me, when I go to Moscow, to see these girls run around Red Square on cobblestones in high heels. It amazes me, but they don’t compromise. They feel that their legs look much more beautiful in high heels, and they do it, and they look spectacular. So for me, yes, of course my heritage stayed with me. It influenced me. It’s something that I love, and when I design clothes, I want to bring that back here, and I want the designs to be influenced by that European aesthetic.

Kelsey Olson modelling the Mae dress, in the first-ever Queen Grace catalogue; click to enlarge.

HSG: I think it enriches the lines immeasurably. It’s a very specific and unique aspect of your collection. How closely do you follow fashion trends versus drawing on your own individual inspiration—whether your points of inspiration are “in style” at the moment or not?

MARINA: Some of the elements that we use—lace, for example—could be considered old-fashioned. However, if you look at designs by Valentino, for example, he has used that many times in his collections. I certainly follow the trends. I look at what the design world is presenting. Along with my designers who work with me, we read trend reports, and we try to follow and stay within that same dynamic.
      However, we will never change it. There are certain things that you will never see us do, like tights and shorts. This is not us. There is a customer for every brand out there, and there is a customer for every style out there. The most important thing for us is that when we create our design, we want it to be uniform across generations. And what we found, when this particular collection came out, we thought we’d probably be targeting women ages 30 to 50 or older. And then I was in absolute shock when my models, when they came for fittings—as well as the other ones who were fitting for other brands and designers—all wanted to wear my clothes. They wanted to own my clothes. And they figured out their own way to put the dress on. They’ll sexy it up a little bit, dress it a little bit, and they love it. And it comes alive on 19-, 20-, 22-years-old girls. At the same time, a sophisticated woman in her 40s can easily put it on and take it to the office and then for cocktails with her friends.
      So I will always be attentive to what’s going on in the fashion world. I’m influenced by names like Carolina Herrera, and, like I said, Valentino—that beautiful style, especially with their evening gowns. But then we’ll put a little twist to it. So you saw a lot of pieces on our runway that use leather, and they were a little bit edgier than everything else that was presented. At one point, we were criticized that our collection was a little darker than everybody else’s, that it was greys and plums and dark black colours. Well, we love black. It’s high fashion. It has nothing to do with your size. It’s so beautiful to see these girls walking in our dresses in high heels. It just looked very, very sexy. So we’ll stay true to what we feel is right, and just be inspired by the names that came before us.

HSG: Speaking of age demographics, I want to address your model choice in a moment, but I think shooting your catalogue on Kelsey Olson, with her youthful appearance, enhanced that multi-generational aspect of the collection, because on the one hand, the clothing was elegant and sophisticated, but on the other hand, simply by her look, she demonstrated that it could have a youthful vibe. In fact, was that one of the reasons why you selected her to be the face and figure of Queen Grace?

Kelsey Olson walking the runway in the Queen Grace show at FFFWeek 2011; click to enlarge.

MARINA: [AUDIO] I’ll be perfectly honest with you. We were looking for a face for a while, and we just couldn’t find anyone. We had gone through all the modelling agencies. We didn’t find that face that really struck me right away, with that beautiful innocence and gorgeous body and gorgeous expression and vibe. And then when I received the runway lineup of my models—so I have to give kudos to Full-Figured Fashion Week—and I saw her picture, I was just taken aback. I was stunned. I said, “This is it. This is the girl we need to work with.” And when I saw her come into the studio to do the photo shoot, I knew for sure that we made a fabulous choice.
      Aside from the fact that she is a humble, beautiful woman, her personality just comes through on camera. She turns it on. I mean, the camera is looking at her, and she’s having fun with it, her eyes are in it, her whole heart is in it, and it was just a wonderful experience to work with her. And when she tried on our gown, we knew that that’s the gown she’s going to be wearing on the runway, because no one else could have presented it better than her.

HSG: Oh, I agree completely. I’m delighted that you feel that way. Kelsey was our entry point into Queen Grace, because we’ve been following her career for years. When you shot her, we knew that magic was being created.
      But let’s finish the segment about your design philosophy. Now, I know that you love the Old-World aesthetic, but I’m curious as to how far you might take that, so my question is, how do you feel about traditional feminine details like frills and bows, or ribbons and ruffles? Are they not to your taste, or could you see incorporating some of those elements into your designs?

MARINA: [AUDIO] I love it, and it’s interesting that you bring this up, because we’re working right now on our spring collection, and we’re going to be using a lot of those elements. We love it, absolutely. And the ruffles, and the flowy skirts and we love the bows. It’s all in that aesthetic. I don’t think it’s old-fashioned at all. I think that it’s something that probably you don’t see a lot, and especially in the plus-size industry right now. However, it’s very sexy, and you can put a little modern twist on it, so it looks updated. However, it’s one of those beautiful elements of fashion design that we absolutely adore.

HSG: You preemptively answered my next question, which was going to be, is your collection seasonal or season-less? So you definitely configured your first collection as a fall line. How might your spring collection differ from your fall lineup?

MARINA: Well, yes, we definitely put it out as a fall collection. However, a lot of our pieces can be worn through the spring. And on my Fox News interview the other day, I wore one of the dresses from our fall collection—and I live in Florida, and it’s 99 degrees, and really humid outside. So in many ways, they are timeless, especially if you work in an environment where you have to dress up, or if you have a lot of social-evening occasions.
      Our spring line will be a little lighter, as far as the fabrics and the colours go. It’s going to have a little more flow to it. But some of the elements you’re still going to see. We love the blocking on the fabric. We love accentuating the silhouette, creating the hourglass figure. And most women are really amazed, because when they put on our dresses, all of a sudden they have an hourglass figure where they never thought they did before.
      And its’s still going to be beautiful. I hope you’re going to enjoy it. It’s going to be sophisticated. At the same time, we’re also working on our holiday collection. It’s going to be a limited number of pieces that will come out. We love sparkle. We love sequins. We love lace. So these dresses will be just fabulous for the holiday season—Christmas, New Year’s parties—and they’re all going to be available online, so our customers will be able to purchase them and be ready for the party.

HSG: Goodness, I can’t wait to see it. You are the perfect designer for a holiday line. That has your name written all over it. What’s your own personal, favourite piece in the Queen Grace collection?

Kelsey Olson modelling the Evelyn dress, in the first-ever Queen Grace catalogue; click to enlarge.

MARINA: It’s definitely the Evelyn dress. The Evelyn dress is something that I personally love because it has a very edgy, sexy leather insert, it has beautiful flutter sleeves, it has a wonderful curve that is very form fitting. It’s beautiful, but it’s also designed for a woman on the go, and it’s very easy to wear, and when you’re in the office, you feel comfortable in it. The dress style is edgy, modern, sophisticated, but at the same time at night it comes alive. When you dress it up with beautiful accessories, it’s a really, really beautiful dress. And then there are other favourites. I’ll be honest with you: every dress in that collection is in my closet, in my size. I wear them all. I love every one of them. I love our skirts with the sequin insert and lace insert, with a little lace fishtail, and I definitely love the gown. All these things that I just can’t wait to wear myself at the next opportunity or black-tie party that I will be attending.

HSG: Please take us through the process by which something gets created for Queen Grace. You begin with a sketch, yes, and then what? Does someone physically sew a sample?

MARINA: Absolutely. I work with a group of phenomenal designers, and we have facilities in New York and in Los Angeles, and the designers that I work with are very hip and young. Plus-size fashion has been frowned upon for a long time, and a lot of designers don’t feel that it’s right for them to associate with it, because it takes away from glossy pages, glamour magazines, and that whole high-fashion buzz out there. However, the people that I’m working with are just phenomenal. They have their own aesthetic that they bring to the table. We select ideas. We come up with the feel for the collection. We come up with the influences for our collection, whether it could be Egyptian or Indian, what colours we want to bring to life, and then we start sketching away. We select beautiful fabrics. The samples are produced. And then we spend numerous hours on creating the perfect fit. None of our samples will go into production until we really work out every element. I myself work as a fit model for our collection. I try it on in my size. Then we try fit models in sizes 16 and 18. And once every single element is worked out, then we’re ready to put it out there to the customer.

HSG: Do you intend to market your line through your Web site, or do also intend to have it distributed by other shopping entities?

MARINA: Absolutely both ways. It’s going to be available online, starting probably at the end of August, just in time for people to start making purchases for the fall. And we are also talking to numerous specialty boutiques throughout the country, and online stores, and whoever is going to be approaching us. We would definitely like to distribute through specialty stores and boutiques nationwide, and internationally as well. We’re looking into Canada and Europe and the Caribbean Islands and Mexico. So the interest has been phenomenal. The number of inquiries that we’re receiving daily has been just absolutely overwhelming, and it’s a great feeling. I think we know now—it sort of solidifies our vision—that we’re on the right track. I’m sure we’re not going to please every customer out there, however it feels that it’s needed. It feels that curvy women are looking for this, and they’re moving away from the standard.
      There is a lot of stuff out there as far as mass-produced clothing, and we have to give kudos to them, because in many ways, they have been revolutionary in putting the product out there for women to wear. And at the same time, I think there has been somewhat of a revolution in the plus-size industry, in the sense that now we’re aiming for high-fashion design. Now we’re aiming for high-quality clothes at affordable prices.
      I am a huge proponent of having collaboration in this industry, because as more designers will emerge and showcase their beautiful styles, more curvy women will be satisfied with their shopping experience, and it pains me that so many of them are still really frustrated.

Katherine Roll walking the runway in the Queen Grace show at FFFWeek 2011; click to enlarge.

HSG: That’s absolutely true. Now, let’s ask a few questions about your decisions in terms of presentation. Why did you choose—admirably, of course—to shoot on a model at all, rather than, say, just on a dress form, or just presenting the items as empty fabric? Does having the items shown on a living, three-dimensional being make them more appealing?

MARINA: It’s not just making it more appealing—about which I absolutely agree with you—but it’s also about communicating the message to customers that there it is, it is on a real body, it is on a real woman. I’m not just telling you that this dress will work for you; you can see that this dress works for you. And we are very strongly opposed to what’s happening at a lot of plus-size brands, where they manufacture clothes for larger women, but then in their media advertising and promotions they show it on smaller girls.

HSG: Yes, that is truly reprehensible.

MARINA: [AUDIO] I had an experience where we hired a model—and you know, we’re not going to name any names—

HSG: Of course.

MARINA: —but it was a big, big agency. And we saw the photographs, the portfolio that was sent to us. She was a beautiful, voluptuous woman. When she showed up—we have sample 16—and we started trying it on her, and we couldn’t believe what was happening. Well, she lost 45 pounds.

HSG: [aghast] Oh, my God.

MARINA: And we felt horrible for her, but the bottom line is, I cannot use these images. This is not a true representation of what my brand is all about, which is empowering beautiful, curvy, sophisticated women. And she shared with me that her agent actually suggested that she should be losing weight—she’s going to get more bookings.

HSG: Oh, my God.

MARINA: Yeah, it’s very frustrating. But it’s still out there. It still exists.

HSG: That’s so appalling.

MARINA: Absolutely. I felt the same way about it. So we’re not going to compromise our principles and our belief that a beautiful, curvy model can communicate the right message to the customers out there and present it the right way.
      [AUDIO] If I were a woman looking for a dress and seeing Kelsey wearing a beautiful dress on the pages of a magazine, I would believe it. I would want to go and buy it, or at least try it out, because I want to associate with an image like that. She’s someone who is absolutely, stunningly gorgeous. Her body is beautiful. And this is the aesthetic that is appealing to me. And I’m hoping that other curvy women out there will feel the same way when they see our images.

Kelsey Olson modelling the Zina dress, in a behind-the-scenes photo from the first-ever Queen Grace photoshoot; click to view catalogue page.

HSG: Oh, I’m sure they will. Did you personally attend the photo shoot for the catalogue?

MARINA: Of course. We were there from morning till night together. [laughs]

HSG: From morning till night.

MARINA: We went through all the images. Yeah, absolutely. For me, it’s important. [AUDIO] There is some stuff that can be done without my engagement. However, to see my designs and my clothes come alive on a beautiful body, that was not an opportunity I was going to miss. And she did an absolutely phenomenal job. She is a regal princess.

HSG: ”Princess,” yes, that was the conceit that I used in describing the splendid photograph of the two of you together, walking the runway at Full-Figured Fashion Week. My single favourite moment of the entire event was the shot of you walking out with her, because it was like a pairing of the queen and the princess, with you as the imperial queen and she as the princess of the realm. It was thematically perfect and virtually stunning.

MARINA: Thank you.

HSG: Did you film any behind-the-scenes video at the photoshoot?

MARINA: There are some still images. There are some images of us, my designers and her. But there is not a lot that we did behind the scenes. I guess next time we’ll do that.

HSG: That’s just a little suggestion for the next session: get a videographer to tell the “story behind the story,” which is always exciting. But since we mentioned Full-Figured Fashion Week, why did you—and again, your instincts proved to be unerring—choose to launch your collection at the New York show?

MARINA: Well, I met Gwen DeVoe in Los Angeles at the Full-Figured Fashion Weekend, and I was absolutely inspired by her vision and the fact that she is empowering so many people. In many ways, it’s a trade event; but at the same time, it’s an event where other average women can come together and feel beautiful and fashionable and accepted in the fashion world—where, for so many years, they were in isolation. Having a full-figured woman go to a regular fashion show produces nothing but frustration, because she knows that looking at the runway models and the clothes that are showcased, she will never be able to wear them.
      I also felt that Gwen had the sophistication and the talent to put together a beautiful event. So as soon as the opportunity came along, and we talked about it with Gwen, I felt that this would be a perfect way for us to present our collection. And the timing was right. The opportunity was right. The models did a beautiful job. And the end result is this great and positive feedback from everyone.

HSG: It was an excellent decision. Did you just attend the final runway show, or did you attend any of the other events in L.A.?

MARINA: Looking back at it, there were a few other events that we attended there. For me, it was research, a research-and-development task to see what women are looking for. This was an opportunity for me to talk as much as possible with average women: what they’re looking for in design, what frustrates them, what are they dissatisfied with, what they’re excited about. So I talked to as many as I could, shared ideas with as many as I could, and came back from it feeling even more empowered and excited.

Katherine Roll walking the runway in the Queen Grace show at FFFWeek 2011; click to enlarge.

HSG: You mentioned what prompted you to select Kelsey to walk in show, but you had two Judgment of Paris favourites in your collection. You also selected Katherine Roll, about whom the fans are wildly enthusiastic. What struck you about her look that encouraged you to include her in your runway show?

MARINA: [AUDIO] She has that same elegant appeal to me as Kelsey did. She is really beautiful. And the other thing that I admire about her: fabulous runway skills. She does a phenomenal job. She walks out there and… You know, these girls, they listen. They expect a designer to share with them what is the vision that we want to present on the runway. And all of these ladies, we said to them, “Look, this is a collection that exudes so much sophistication that we want you to present it in the same way when you walk down the runway.” And if you look at the images of Katherine—Katherine Roll—on the runway, she was just phenomenal: beautiful, elegant, sophisticated; walked her beautiful, curvy walk. She wore our lacy wrap dress that fit her just incredibly, just every little curve was just properly hot, and she looked phenomenal. And then when she stares into that camera at the end of the runway, you know, it’s mesmerizing.

HSG: I agree completely. When I wrote the post about your runway show, I employed a visual comparison between your sketches on one hand—which were very attractive, of course—and the images of the dresses on these two gorgeous models. And it’s fascinating to compare the idea and the execution, how it came alive on the runway. Your model selections were perfect.

MARINA: And we will certainly keep you updated. We are in the midst of getting the production done as soon as possible. We are all involved in getting the clothing manufactured. It’s all done in the United States, and we oversee every element of production. So we take that very seriously. We don’t want customers to be disappointed. For us, the fit of the dress and the execution of the dress and the quality is as important as the aesthetic. So we’re all involved in getting that finalized and putting our dresses out there, so customers can buy them. And at the same time, we’re working with different opportunities that may come along and where we want to present our clothes. And I am certainly going to be using Kelsey, because she’s just phenomenal.

HSG: Oh, I’m delighted to hear that you plan on continuing to work with Kelsey. And I hope that when your holiday collection and/or spring collections come along, we might be lucky enough to be seeing her again in your fashions.

MARINA: Absolutely. And Kelsey is phenomenal, but there are so many other beautiful girls out there who shared the limelight on the runway, and they all did such a great job. But for every designer, there is a muse, and she has become our muse in many ways, because she embodies the image of this elegance that we want to see in our designs.

Kelsey Olson modelling the Victoria dress, in the first-ever Queen Grace catalogue; click to enlarge.

HSG: Very well said. Now let’s proceed to the “conceptual” section of the interview. There is a prevailing thought in the fashion industry that clothes look better on skinny, emaciated models because they resemble “hangers”—physical, walking hangers. In your expert opinion as a designer, is there any truth to this ridiculous proposition?

MARINA: I don’t think that clothes look better, but I have to tell you, to be perfectly honest with you, in my own personal experience, it is much, much, much harder to fit a plus-size body. And the reason it’s harder is because you really need to think it through. You really need to work through it. It takes many more hours to create a silhouette that is complimentary to a curvy body. Because, look, we know many brands out there that have designed for straight sizes, and then they went into extended sizes. They never changed anything about their grading, their cut, their pattern, or their design elements. So the end result is that their clothes are available in sizes 14 and 16 and 18, and a plus-size girl puts it on, but it does absolutely nothing for her body. It doesn’t accentuate it. It covers things that could be celebrated. So as a designer, it takes a lot more time to create a product that fits right and looks right. But if you have passion for it, if you’re truly in it because you believe in it, and you love the idea, and you believe that the curvy body should be celebrated and is beautiful, you’re going to give it the attention that it deserves. And that’s the only thing that I can say about it. But yeah, it’s very easy. It’s easy to work with a skinnier girl, because whatever you put on her, that’s it.
      Basically, what I’m trying to say is that maybe for some designers, when you start getting so involved in the fit and how it actually works on the body, maybe it takes away from the artistic and creative part, and that causes certain frustration, because it becomes a lot more technical to fit the curvy body.
      And I’m not giving them any excuses. That’s what they think is right. I do not find a boyish, 13-year-old girl on the runway attractive. I don’t think it looks good. I don’t think it emphasizes elegance. I think, in many ways, it’s a cop-out. But we just have to continue doing what we’re doing, creating images that are appealing and beautiful and are recognized as the standard of beauty. There’s a lot of work for you and for me and for everyone else in this industry to try to change these dynamics and the thinking that prevails, unfortunately, in the media and the magazines.

At this point, the conversation turns to a discussion of the Vogue Italia cover and editorial with plus-size models. The interviewer offers a mixed assessment, but notes that with its opulent aesthetic, it is far superior to most editorials featuring plus-size models, which usually adopt a modernist sensibility and employ jejune “shock” elements.

MARINA: Right. And they do it for shock value, and they do it for novelty value, and unfortunately, after the buzz settles down and dies out, we’re back to exactly what we have been seeing in the media for years, over and over again. So of course, we need to appreciate their revolutionary thought; however, what I do realize is that I would love to create the same imagery, with that same sensuality, with the old-fashioned, opulent, glamorous feel, while the women are actually wearing clothes.

HSG: Ah, yes.

MARINA: And this is not to take away from the beauty of the female form, but the message has to be very clear that it doesn’t matter what the setting is, this is the acceptable standard of beauty, and something that we haven’t seen here yet. I think there is still a long road ahead of us. We’re hoping that it will change, but so far, it’s been very frustrating.

HSG: Coming back to something that you mentioned earlier, so you do feel that full-figured girls look better when they show off their curves in body-conscious designs, rather than when they try to hide their bodies in loose, formless fabric?

Kelsey Olson modelling the Lana dress, in the first-ever Queen Grace catalogue; click to enlarge.

MARINA: [AUDIO] Absolutely. And that’s why, when you see our collection, you’re not going to see anything that doesn’t accentuate the waist, or the hips, or the bust. Everything that we think about is how to make the body look beautiful and curvy.
      I’m very frustrated about some of the outfits that are put out there and make a woman believe that she’s supposed to be covering herself up. There is a way to dress tastefully, and I think it doesn’t matter what size you are, you always need to think about that. However, there is nothing wrong with, and nothing more beautiful than, a woman’s curves. And to hide them under these free-floating frocks that are put out there, I think is a shame. And the reality is, after talking to so many women, they kind of accepted it, because if you look at the revolution in what’s been available on the market, for a while it was nothing. Most full-figured women would go to local shops and dressmakers and order clothes for themselves.
      Then the industry finally woke up and said, “Ah, there is a dollar sign here, and there is an opportunity for us to make some money. Okay. But the big girls, they need to cover their stuff up.” So we have all these clothes that came out by the millions, and all these inexpensive fabrics, and the bigger the better. And then the layering came out, where for a full-figured woman to dress, it meant that she needed to put on a tank top, and then she needed to put on a shirt, and then she needed to put on an overcoat, and there were 75 pieces that you needed to put on before you went outside. And it really frustrated me. This is not how I see my body. I think it’s beautiful. And I’ve ranged in sizes. I have three children, so I’ve ranged… I was never a small girl, but I’ve ranged in size from probably 10 to 16/18, and I was never embarrassed about it, and I would always wear beautiful, curvy clothes, and I would always receive tons of compliments from women and men.
      So in a way, we feel like we are revolutionary in that respect, that we’re sending a message out there that it is totally okay, go for it, and there is no reason to cover it up. Showcase it, present it, celebrate it, and feel sexy and confident and empowered.
      When the models were trying on our clothes, they would come in dressed casually, in jeans and shirts. And then they would put on our dresses. They right away reached for their heels, and they stood a little taller, and they straightened out their shoulders, because it raises your self-esteem. It makes you feel beautiful. And every woman wants to feel that way.

HSG: What’s especially unique about Queen Grace is that until now, the body-conscious attitude in plus-size fashion has mostly been for the younger market, for the Torrid customers and the like. Then, at the opposite end—the elegant end, if you will—while the fabrics may have been high quality, and the price point was certainly up there, body-consciousness was particularly lacking. You seem to have brought these two elements together in a unique way. For example, you have a plunging neckline in some of your gowns, but your presentation is still chic and stylish in a way that, say, Torrid might not accomplish. So your union of these two factors is particularly novel in plus-size fashion.
      Do you find that plus-size women’s taste in clothing are changing, and if so, how?

Kelsey Olson modelling the Elise dress, in the first-ever Queen Grace catalogue; click to enlarge.

MARINA: Yes, I do think so. I think they have had enough. They’ve had enough of things that all look the same. Because that’s how I feel about the plus-size clothing industry: it’s that sameness. It’s that sea of sameness. Whatever style comes out, seventy-five versions of it are duplicated and put in every store, and women are told that this is a good idea, you should be wearing it. And younger generations, like you said, are risk-takers. They will give it a shot. They will try it. It’s not necessarily going to make them look good, though, and then they get frustrated. And that’s what I found after speaking to most women, is that they’re reaching a point where they want designers to create for them. They want to have that same feel of high fashion. They want to walk on the street and have somebody else ask them, “What are you wearing?” and they could put a brand, a style, a name, or whatever, out there, and feel special that this was created for them exclusively. And they are asking for better-quality fabric. And I think there is a lot of conversation in this industry, because with the 47 billion dollars of volume in sales that the plus-size industry could be producing, why are the customers still so dissatisfied? And why is the percentage of the money that they are spending dropping?
      These women keep saying, “Give me more. Give me clothes I want to wear.” But then the stores are closing down. And the reason for it is that they are not producing what the customer wants to wear. They keep shouting these ideas that have long been outdated. And they need to start really, really listening to what a plus-size women wants and how she wants to present her body. Because the reality is, Heinrich, she’s not any different from any other woman who wants to feel beautiful and sexy. And most women are starting to realize that they have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

HSG: On that very point, then, do you feel that the plus-size fashion industry is leading the way in the increased self confidence that full-figured women are attaining, or is it instead behind the public?

MARINA: I think it’s definitely behind. I really do. That’s my opinion. These days, I wear my own clothes, but if I were to go into a store, I would be very frustrated. I would be frustrated with the fact that department stores put their plus-size departments at the back of the store. I would be very frustrated that when you walk into a plus-size store, there are very limited selections. Most of them look like mother-of-the-bride. And you have to pay eight hundred dollars to purchase it. There is no sophistication in the selections. And I think it’s also the responsibility of the buyers to come out and listen to what women want, and to recognize the designers who are really leading the way and presenting something unique and beautiful.
      Look, this is not about my ego, and this is not about my vanity. It is the fact that the customers are coming back to me and saying, “Loved it, loved it, loved it.” It is Queen Grace, but it’s not just Queen Grace. It’s the idea behind Queen Grace that they love the most, and I’ll be the first one to admit it. Because any time that there was a design on the runway that was a little sassier and sexier and curve-appealing, the customers were going crazy for it. They loved it.
      So we are the voice, at this point. And I think the brands and the designers that are smart about it will reach out to their customers and talk to them. Like I said before, we cannot satisfy everybody. But for a woman who is brave and independent and want an hourglass silhouette, our clothes will give it to them.

HSG: Okay, here is the toughest question of all. I always ask this in all of my interviews. It is the most unanswerable of questions, but I always have to pose it, because I keep hoping that someone—

MARINA: All of your questions so far have been really tough, but—

HSG: But you field them so perfectly! If I had given you this list in advance, you couldn’t have answered them any better. Why does the media suppress plus-size beauty?

Kelsey Olson modelling the Grace dress, in an outtake from the first-ever Queen Grace photoshoot; click to view catalogue page.

MARINA: I think it has to do with the fact that there are still a lot of politics associated with this: Whose opinion is valid in the industry and whose is not, and whose ideas we should be following. And it also has to do with there still being a lot of negative commentary that comes from other people out there. I think we’re not ready for it yet, in the sense that, just like any other discrimination, body discrimination is there. And I can vouch for the fact that I’ve had a lot of negative comments come out against the statements that I’ve made to the media and press.

HSG: Really?

MARINA: Yeah, absolutely. And it doesn’t affect me, because I don’t represent these people, and I don’t create my clothes for these people. But some of the comments that people have left after seeing these articles were very, very negative and disparaging, I would say. And I think maybe these publications are concerned about what kind of effect it will produce. They’re so concerned about their advertising dollars that they’re just not brave enough to take a stand and make the changes. I think it will take a really long time to change these opinions.
      That’s the only thing that I can see, because it’s been happening for many, many years here in this country. And we seem to be following European trends, but I think Europe is becoming a lot more open to it. What’s going to happen in America? I think that the dollar is what’s going to end up influencing the changes, and the power that consumers have in spending their money versus not spending their money, celebrating the stores that carry their sizes versus not, recognizing and supporting the advertisements that put real women out there versus the brands that don’t. I think that’s what’s ultimately going to drive the difference and make the changes. This is the United States of America. Economics drives a lot of things, and—

HSG: Yes, it does, but at the same time, the people who run the fashion industry only seem to heed economic interests to a certain point. For them, economics are important, but not at the expense of their use of minus-size models. For them, it’s a case of, “Yes, I know I can make more money, but I’d rather have my androgynous, emaciated vision.” Because they’re actively turning away customers.

MARINA: Yeah, absolutely. There’s another point that I wanted to bring across. You probably saw the commentary from the American Medical Association which issued a statement last week asking photographers and magazines to stop Photoshopping and editing images, because it’s sending a really bad message, especially to the younger generation of women, girls growing up. So there are some changes that are coming from different perspectives.
      Unfortunately, the fashion industry is not listening. We have models dying of starvation. We have customers who are completely dissatisfied, because they look at the images, and they find absolutely nothing glamorous or beautiful about it. They’re not going to the stores to buy the product because they don’t see it representing them.
      So I think that’s the message of Full-Figured Fashion Week, and so many women coming together and being celebrated and empowered, and the bloggers like you, and the forums and discussions that you create. And I see that there are so many other women and men who are getting on board and involved in these discussions. Obviously, there is a lot of conversation that still needs to take place, and the more communication we send out there, the better it’s going to be.

Kelsey Olson modelling the Elena dress, in the first-ever Queen Grace catalogue; click to enlarge.

HSG: That’s absolutely true.

MARINA: And I have two daughters myself who see the images in the press and try to achieve the standards that can only possibly be achieved by starving themselves and putting their well-being, physical and psychological health, in danger.
      When my daughter picks up a magazine, that’s what she sees, and it’s very frustrating. And she is a slim girl. And especially to see a slim girl who would make comments about the fact that she is not slim enough to fit in a dress is very, very disappointing. And it’s not coming from my house. It’s not coming from my thinking. It’s coming from what’s out there in the media and the press.

HSG: That’s a very interesting perspective,. So you think that even your own daughter—who is slim and may grow up to be slim—might have a more positive body image if she experiences images such as your own Queen Grace photos of Kelsey Olson, for example, rather than exclusively imbibing photographs of anorexic waifs?

MARINA: Absolutely. And you know, here is the reality of it all: A woman’s body changes as she ages, as she has children. Eventually, it will evolve into a more curvy silhouette. Not necessarily talking about larger sizes on the plus-size scale, but even designers who will start thinking about the aesthetics of a curvy silhouette in straight sizes will deliver a message to all women out there.

HSG: You alluded to the differences between North America and Europe. Do you think that Europe still exhibits a greater appreciation for the curvy female figure?

MARINA: I think there is greater acceptance.

HSG: You do think so?

MARINA: Yes, I do. Then again, it’s very interesting, because now there are a lot of models who come from Russia, where I was born. And the kind of models whom I see in the magazines, I think, “Oh, my God. She is 6'3 and she is 110 pounds? These are not the women I grew up with.”

HSG: That has been my reaction as well. I find it incomprehensible that now, somehow, there is an association of Eastern European women with unnatural thinness. None of the girls whom I knew in the German or Polish ethnic communities ever resembled the models who are now parading down the runways. So where do they find them? It’s quite disconcerting.

Kelsey Olson walking the runway in the Queen Grace show at FFFWeek 2011; click to enlarge.

MARINA: I know. They’re digging them out and bringing them here. But I think also the unfortunate part of it is that these young girls are starting to starve themselves to emulate the images that they see in the high-gloss fantasy. And it’s changing for them too, and it’s very, very frustrating, because I didn’t grow up with that. I never saw women like that where I grew up. None of my friends looked like that. None of my family members looked like that. Everyone was accepted for who they were.
      [AUDIO] We had great celebrations. Whether it’s an Italian family or Polish or Russian or German, the greatest events happened around the big table. There was always food and drink and wine, and that was part of the greatest celebrations of life, and no one ever looked down on that. It was part of the reality. And looking back at the ages of Catherine the Great, for example, that was an example of a status symbol. People who were skinny, they were the workers, the labourers, while the beautiful, opulent, voluptuous women were women of a more noble status and higher ranked in the society. So that’s going back ages and ages, and women grew up seeing that and recognizing it. Fairy-tale books that I read as a child always showed the beautiful, voluptuous girl. And little girls grew up with that, seeing that this is exactly how see looks. A Russian beautiful girl, she had red cheeks and beautiful, long, blonde hair, and everyone thought, how beautiful she is.
      But now it’s starting to evolve in a different direction, and it is very frustrating. But overall, if you talk about the majority of women in Eastern Europe, they don’t look like that, and there is a greater acceptance of curves. And if you’ve noticed, there are a lot more plus-size designers, especially on the high-fashion level, who come out of Europe. We are talking about Elena Mirņ and Marina Rinaldi and Anna Scholz—they all come from European counties.

HSG: That’s not surprising at all. Growing up in the local ethnic community, I was completely surrounded by European culture and the European aesthetic. It was always very easy for me to reject North American culture as being the alien environment, and to regard traditional European culture as the natural, correct aesthetic. There was always an understanding that American society is wrong, somehow, whether in music (classical instead of rock and roll), or design aesthetics, or art. I think you’re on to something, that growing up with that rootedness in the past makes all the difference.
      In fact, let me pose this to you as a question: Do you think that part of the reason why Europeans still appreciate full-figured beauty is because in the Old World, there is still more of a connection to history, (and of course, the historical aesthetic was full-figured,) whereas in America, it’s more of a new culture, a young culture, where novelty and what’s new is always prioritized over history, where there’s a sense of
ahistoricity, where there is a wilful ignorance of the past?

MARINA: [AUDIO] Absolutely. I agree with you completely. The art that is studied and celebrated in Europe—any child that you have growing up in Russia, we would go on trips to the museums and see beautiful art, sculpture, and painting. And the history and the stories that we grew up with were very, very different. We were very much influenced by what happened in the past and how we evolved and who we have become. Even during the time of the communist regime, when a lot of these things were prohibited, and the museums were closed down, beautiful works of art were still celebrated.
      Here, however, we are so driven by media, and we are so driven by what’s hot and popular on T.V. But here is the reality: most of the people we see on T.V., whom a lot of young girls follow and are so inspired by, do not represent anything other than just a public image that was generated and created by P.R. people. They create characters, they create heroes, they create personalities that, most of the time, have absolutely nothing to offer other than just their presentation and the time that they’re seen in front of the cameras. And our children are growing up with that mentality, that unless you are popular and skinny and have a lot of money, you don’t represent much in the society, and you are not recognized.

HSG: You touch on something very significant there: the problem with the basic philosophy of commerce in North America, which is based on the model of destroying the customer’s self-esteem and then making her want to buy something to feel a little less awful. An alternative approach could be equally successful, one which your brand exemplifies—i.e., rather than using negative reinforcement, give them positive reinforcement; tell them, “You are already beautiful, but this can just enhance what you already possess.”

Kelsey Olson modelling the Rony blouse and Eve skirt, in an outtake from the first-ever Queen Grace photoshoot; click to view catalogue page.

MARINA: Absolutely. It will enhance what you posses; it’s going to make you feel good; and it’s just a beautiful wardrobe for you to have. But who you are is exactly where you need to be. This is who you are. I’m always very frustrated with women who stay at home and cry their eyes out, and they say, “I’m not going shopping until I’ve lost 30, 40 pounds.” You’re going to be spending all your life sitting on the couch, waiting for a miracle to happen! Go out there. Have a good time. Have the confidence to celebrate who you are. You are going to be loved and recognized for your personality, for your spirit, or for the edge that you bring, or the fun element that you bring. We all have something to offer.
      But like you said, these women have been so destroyed for many years by the notions that they’ve see in the media and T.V., and by the fact that they are not recognized in commerce when they go to the stores. Their self-esteem is so low that it’s so hard for them to all of a sudden awaken and say, “You know what? It’s okay. I can do this.”
      And we want to build that self esteem. This brand is about celebrating a woman and empowering a woman. I think we’ll continuously be invested and involved in every event that I can attend that celebrates a woman and lets her feel good and positive about herself. Because the self-image, self-esteem, and the effect that it has on women, it changes their lives. They change their careers. They come out of abusive relationships. There is so much to a women’s psyche that could be influenced by as simple a thing as making her feel beautiful. And it’s a passion for me, and it’s a mission for me, and yes, I felt always that “If you build it, they will come.” I will put it out there, and I will be so strong in communicating what this message is all about that other women will start believing it. And that’s what I’m finding now, based on the comments that we are receiving, and it’s a very empowering message for me as well.

HSG: I’m glad you feel that way. It’s a marvellous opportunity that you have created, where you can achieve your dreams commercially, but you can also have a genuinely positive effect on women’s self-esteem and body image. It’s a shining example of how the plus-size industry can offer an alternative model of commerce that is constructive rather than destructive, that is positive.
      I think I’ve gone through all of my questions. Are there any other thoughts that you would like to share at this point?

MARINA: No, I think we’ve covered so much. This was a lovely conversation. I knew, just based on your beautiful writing—

HSG: Oh, thank you. You are so kind.

MARINA: [AUDIO] It is the language that you use in your writing, which is very rarely seen. The first time I read your comment, I was taken aback. I thought, “Oh, my God. I haven’t seen something like this for the longest time. This is beautiful, romantic language.” The descriptive elements that you use in your writing when you talk about the models and the clothes, it’s just phenomenal. So I expected that from you. But it exceeded my expectations too, just because you asked wonderful questions—to the point, and very relevant to what is happening in the industry right now.

HSG: You are very kind. I think the writing style developed because I don’t have a background in fashion, but in art and literature, so rather than writing from the perspective of fashion, I write about images more in the way that a curator might write about visual art.

Kelsey Olson modelling the Mae dress in a behind-the-scenes photo from the first-ever Queen Grace photoshoot; click to enlarge.

MARINA: And of course, I love your name, because the Rubens Judgment of Paris painting, which looks back to Greek mythology and Roman mythology, is one of my favorites. I’ve seen it in England, in London.

HSG: So you got that! I’m delighted, because most people, when they read the name, think, “Oh, it has something to do with Paris, France.” And it can be read that way, as a judgment of the fashion industry, which has Paris as its de facto capital. But really, it’s a reference to classical mythology. I’m glad that you picked up on that.
      And as a matter of fact, when it comes to selecting models from my own, latter-day Judgment of Paris, Kelsey is surely the modern Aphrodite, the fairest. So you yourself were like the Paris of Greek myth when you selected her to model your collection, and you chose very well.

MARINA: [chuckles] Thank you so much. I appreciate it. It was wonderful talking to you. I hope that we’re going to stay in touch. Any new developments, I would love to get you the first scoop to put it out there, because [AUDIO] you did present us first. You were the first one who wrote about us. You were the first one who put it out there. And your writing is just so beautiful. I’ll be honest with you. It brought me to tears.

HSG: Oh, my goodness.

MARINA: I felt so inspired by the fact that you recognized our vision and you embraced it, so it was a really, really wonderful feeling. We will definitely stay in touch. And there are some other images that we are going to be using, where Kelsey is wearing our clothes, and she is having fun with it. Because like I said, she lights up in front of camera. It was a really, really fun shoot. And I’m sure we are going to see each other at the next industry event.

HSG: Yes, it will be a pleasure to have tea, perhaps: black tea with lemon, no milk—the European way.

MARINA: Thank you so much, I really appreciate your time. Look forward to seeing the article, and please stay in touch.

* * *

All FFFWeek runway images licensed from Mr. Richard Lew ( No reproduction in any form is permitted without the express consent of the photographer.

Interview recorded June 30th, 2011.

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