June 17, 2011 -- You knew it was different when the sliders came out.
"You don't get this at fashion week," said Gwen DeVoe, the founder of Full Figured Fashion Week. "We have burgers and fries. We're not evil because we're full. We've eaten."
But beyond the food -- plates of fried calamari also circulated around the rooftop lounge -- Wednesday night's kickoff party for New York City's third annual showcase of plus-size style felt unlike any mainstream fashion week bash. Designers and models exchanged hugs, not air-kisses. They beamed. They laughed. Finally, a party of their own.
Though it's a $17 billion business in the U.S. -- 17 percent of the total women's apparel market -- plus-size fashion receives little fanfare. Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the market research firm NPD, attributes that to a stigma some designers and retailers attach to plus-size customers: "They'd rather cater to the zeros than the 20s."
So DeVoe, a former plus-size model, decided to shake up the market on her own.
"I went to a Mercedes-Benz fashion week event under the tents a few years back, and while I loved everything that I saw, as I sat there, I had an epiphany," she said. "It dawned on me that no matter how much I loved the clothing I just saw on the runway, I couldn't buy anything. And I started to think, 'OK, there are other plus-size women sitting in the audience. Why are we here?' So I went home, I thought about it and I said, 'You know what, we need one just for us.'"
In addition to New York, DeVoe hosts Full Figured Fashion Week in Los Angeles; she wants to expand to Asian markets next. The event departs from the format of mainstream fashion weeks, which take place around the world throughout the year. Instead of each designer putting on a runway show, there's one collective showcase. It's once a year and not a full week (New York's runs from June 15 through June 18). Panels, shopping trips and evening events foster networking. This year, tickets for many of those events have sold out, including Saturday's runway gala. DeVoe expects 1,000 people to show up for that, twice as many as last year.
Beyond a celebration, DeVoe wants to connect designers with buyers and sponsors like Kmart, Lane Bryant, and Sonsi, an online marketplace for plus-size fashion.
"There's this mentality that fashion is fantasy," she said, "and I've had someone say to me, 'No one fantasizes about being fat.' OK. But while I'm fat, no matter how fat I am, I need to have clothes. So, create your fantasy on one side. I'm creating opportunities on this side."
For designers, it's an opportunity the mainstream fashion world doesn't offer.
"I think it's really insulting that they don't include us," said Rachel Kacenjar, creator of the punky, vintage-inspired line Sweetooth Couture. "They make things in sizes zero to eight, and if you're not making the 10s and 12s available, and you're only showing the zeros on the runway, you're not representing women in general. You're going to make people feel excluded. Plus-size fashion is just like any other fashion, and we deserve the attention."
Models, too, see Full Figured Fashion Week as a rare chance to work and get noticed.
"We're continuously beating down the door to open up more opportunities for women, real women," said Ariel Jackson, who will model for Sweetooth Couture in Saturday's show. "Not to say that if you're not plus size you're not a real woman, but there are more women out there with curves, some type of curves."
Can the us versus them mentality be escaped? The mainstream fashion world periodically works itself into a tizzy about the skinniness of its models, but over the past few years, little has changed. Jean Paul Gaultier featured full-figured Beth Ditto in his spring 2011 Paris fashion show; Karl Lagerfeld shot plus-size burlesque star Miss Dirty Martini for V magazine's 2010 size issue. Such inclusion is the exception, not the norm.
But with strength in numbers and dollars, plus-size designers hope they can integrate into an all-encompassing fashion community.
"They're going to have to come around to us," said LaTresa Harper, co-founder and designer of the trendy, tailored label La'Dan's Closet. "We're a multi-billion dollar industry. We are a force to be reckoned with."
Ultimately, though, they're on their own mission.
"This is a separate community, we are larger women, but we want the same things," DeVoe said. "I don't understand for the life of me, as a business person, why people don't want to give us what we want as long as we're willing to pay for it. So if and when the mainstream fashion world does want to join forces, I'll be there front and center. And if they don't, well, we're just going to keep getting bigger and better."