“I think, across the board, there have been really matronly types of looks for curvy girls,” Ashley Graham, the supermodel, body positivity advocate, and designer, tells Glamour, and she would know: during the last decade-plus, she’s left her mark on the fashion industry not only by being one of the first curvy women to walk the runway for brands like Michael Kors and Prabal Gurung during Fashion Week but also by creating clothing collections that address longstanding gaps in the plus-size market, from bathing suits (with Swimsuits for All) and lingerie (with Addition Elle) to, most recently, denim.
Graham is about to launch the second installment of her collaboration with Marina Rinaldi, which focuses on denim. There are jeans and chambray tops, but also standout pieces, like leather miniskirts, meant to be worn with denim. (Prices range from $165 to $815.)
What ties all of Graham’s design projects together is her mission to innovate on a historically underserved — but incredibly valuable — part of the apparel market. Graham wanted to do a denim capsule for “the exact same reason why I started lingerie and swim,” she says: “I couldn’t find things that fit me the way that I wanted them to, and I couldn’t find designs that made me feel special, that made me feel like a fashion girl. I’m not trying to walk down the street, accessorized in glam to the T every day, but I want to feel special.”
Ever since she began working with plus-size ready-to-wear label Marina Rinaldi (she’s been the face of the brand since spring 2017, and a design collaborator since spring 2018), Graham has focused on steering clear of the “matronly” aesthetic that has dominated the plus-size section for years. “I told them, ‘We have to stay away from that because it’s already out there and I don’t want to make anything that’s already been done—and if I’m not gonna wear it, then it’s not going to sell,’” she says. And Graham has been forthright about that since the very first call: “The initial conversation was, ‘Guys, if you want me, you know what you’re gonna get: You’re gonna get cool, you’re gonna get sexy.’ And they said, ‘Yes, this is what we want and this is why we want you.’ That was the initial, OK, we’re all on the same page.”
As soon as they were all in the room together, Graham remembers going through sketches and pushing the designers to think beyond what they’d already been doing: “I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no—we have to change this, we have to move this.’ It was making things, coming up with mood boards that weren’t from previous collections…. I think what a lot of people do is they say, ‘Oh, well this sold really well. Let’s make another version of it.’ I was like, ‘No. We have to go to this completely—a new, clean slate.’”
Rinaldi was receptive—and encouraging—of this feedback. Still, “I had a little bit of convincing that I had to do,” Graham says. A lot of it came down to specific pieces that she felt strongly about making, like “a leather skirt in this new collection with a really high slit and an overlap—I was like, ‘I want it to go up to the thigh brow, it’s all about the thigh brow right now.’”
The Marina Rinaldi team wasn’t sold on it at first, thinking it might not resonate with its shopper, but Graham insisted: “I was like, ‘Put it on the mood board, let’s make it, let’s see what the bosses have to say.’ And sure enough, they made it, because they have faith.”
Part of that faith in Graham’s vision stems from the success of her first collection for Marina Rinaldi, which came out in February. “What we learned was [that] everybody likes what we designed — even the tightest dresses and the smallest shirt sold out,” she remembers. “They’ve now realized that their customer wants these things. That was a really great ‘aha!’ moment for them, and it was also kind of gratifying on my end, because I got to be like, ‘See? This is what we want.’ I am a customer. I’m a full size 14/16 in some pants, and I know what I want.”
Something Graham set out to do with her most recent collection is create pieces that she simply hasn’t seen in the plus market. One example: “There’s actually a jean shirt that goes off the shoulder, and I feel like I’ve never seen anything like this, especially on a curvy girl,” she tells us. “It’s not formfitting whatsoever, but it has a collar that goes all the way around and comes off of one shoulder. [Marina Rinaldi was like,] ‘This is really cool, but is it going to be too cool?’ And it’s literally the number-one thing all the editors have been obsessed with.” Another favorite is a denim dress that falls just below the knees and, per Graham, “has these kind of bat-wing sleeves that go about quarter-length,” a silhouette she feels is totally new for curvy women. “It’s so chic to me—you put it with a leather belt and a pair of leather booties and you can go out on the town, but you can also go to date night. It’s very versatile and lightweight, but it’s a fashion piece, something you would see Virgil [Abloh] make, maybe.”
The biggest reward from her approach to design, Graham says, has been to encourage companies to go ahead and make the product. “Don’t give her basic; give her fashion pieces,” she says. “She wants to have fashion in her closet. We’ve had basic our whole lives.” When that’s available as a shopper for so long, Graham argues, you’re going to gravitate toward what feels new.
“There are so many women out there that want to buy these clothes who have the money—they want to have quality clothes that aren’t going to be ruined by the dry cleaner or the washing machine,” she says. “We wanted to give her [the customer] more fashion, because if she’s gonna spend the money, we want to make her feel like she’s special on the street or going to work.”
Graham herself is able to collaborate directly with designers she admires and has worked with on custom garments—something she knows isn’t a reality for many curvy shoppers. But that opportunity has had a different effect, she says: It has “sparked an interest in all of these designers, saying, ‘Oh, why don’t we do this more?’” By being in the room with these creators, she sees a chance to initiate the size-inclusivity conversation face-to-face. “When I’m in a fitting, I’m like, ‘Guys, why don’t we make this tighter here, why don’t we bring this up just a little bit higher, and instead of wearing the long coat, let’s wear the short coat and show off my body more’—and they listen to me, because they know that I’m the customer, they know that I’ve been doing this for 18 years,” she says.
“Yes, it feels good, but it’s also that they need an insider’s take on all of this…. It’s almost like you need to have someone come in and teach them what’s hot and what’s not for curvy girls,” Graham says. “In some ways I feel that I’m a voice to some of these designers that I’ve been working with. And you know what? They’re so receptive to it.” The numbers back it up too: She points to Christian Siriano, who recently said he tripled his business by adding larger sizes. “More designers should take that into consideration, because the numbers are there, the customer is there, and the desire is there,” Graham argues. “To me, it’s kind of a no-brainer.”
At this moment, whenever a retailer or a designer announces they’re offering sizes above a 14/16, it’s considered newsworthy — and though in an ideal world this wouldn’t feel like something that needs to be highlighted, Graham still believes in shouting every one of these developments out. “We’re in a time where it’s so new it has to be the headline,” she says. “We need people to know that this is not a trend—this is something that’s here to stay.”