Many fashion schools don't offer courses in plus-size design, which is fine, because most students don't seem interested in designing plus-size clothing anyway. It's also convenient, because if more students wanted to design plus-sized lines, fashion schools would have to invest time and money to purchase larger dress forms, find larger fit models and design curriculums that teach students how to make clothes that fit the majority of American women.
All that considered, it's a wonder that curvy women can get dressed at all. Just ask Nashville designer Janice Williams.
She began her fashion schooling at O'More College of Design in Franklin with intentions of designing for women sizes 12 to 24. The problem? Aside from an instructor who suggested that she reconsider, the school didn't have a single plus-size dress form on which Williams could drape samples.
After speaking with administrators, the school purchased several, and Williams began to teach herself the art of plus-size pattern-making. Still, none of that impeded the young designer, who was already familiar with the fashion industry's biting brand of size-ism — Williams not only designs plus-size clothing, she also wears it.
As such, Williams has heard time and again that women of a certain size don't care about fashion — and if they do, they certainly have a strange way of showing it. Government statistics show that even though 64 percent of American women are overweight, plus-size clothing (size 14 and above) represents a mere 18 percent of revenue in the women's clothing industry.
But where other designers see no market — and fat rolls unworthy of couture — Williams sees an opportunity.
"I think plus-size women have buying power," she says. "I just think designers haven't given them anything to have buying power with. A muumuu is not the answer."
After graduating from O'More and interning for the likes of Kay Unger and David Rodriguez in New York City, Williams, now 36, has set out to design a new line for her own label, jmichelle. The line, which makes great strides in the anti-muumuu movement, focuses on the kind of form-fitting, flattering pieces only a woman who has dressed this body type can craft.
Many of the looks Williams creates are as body conscious — not to mention as feminine and sexy — as any look you'd find on Mad Men's Joan Holloway. It's a look that is difficult to achieve with current retail offerings for plus-size women. Yes, many large retailers have plus sections, but if you've ever shopped them, you know that many of the designs are, at best, watered-down versions of last season's trends, and at worst, grandmotherly Vegas-wear.
Williams' pretty ready-to-wear line, which she hopes to complete in May, is the antithesis of such sartorial abominations. The line is replete with airy, warm-weather separates worthy of a garden party. Embroidered silk chiffons, floral silk crepes and Anna Sui cotton voile fabrics imbue the designs with a sense of flirtation and lightness.
The jmichelle line, which is funded by Williams' work as a dental hygienist, focuses on 10 daytime looks, all touched with retro hints from the '40s and '50s (think plenty of well-placed ruffles). Pieces in the line include mix-and-match chiffon tops and skirts, tailored spring shorts, a range of unabashedly girlie dresses nipped in perfectly at the waist and even a trench coat with a shock of cobalt lining.
Aside from Williams' tailoring, the strength of jmichelle lies in its bold color story and prints, including a floral watercolor worthy of an art gallery. "The line is very frilly, comfortable and sexy — it's designed to make women feel very good about themselves," she says.
Williams plans to host a trunk show or a similarly small event to debut the line. In the meantime, customers can visit jmichellewilliams.com. Pieces start at around $100, are designed for a sample size 18 (not a sample size skinny — amazing!) and can be sized up or down upon request for, as Williams puts it, "the woman who has a little bit more to offer."
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