More than half the women of Britain are size 16 and over. Most of them are young, confident and sexy. So why do high street retailers prefer to ignore them? Designer Anna Scholz wants to know why Marks and Spencer, in particular, doesn't stop its declining sales by taking big women seriously.
Anna Scholz is not happy. As a fashion designer she has devoted her decade-long career to making fashionable, feminine, sexy clothes for women of all sizes - from 8 to 26. Why shouldn't big women be able to dress as stylishly as their thinner friends can? What's making her so very cross is the conviction that big women are the victims of sheer prejudice rather than any sound commercial decisions.
'The fashion industry and the media are crippled,' she says, 'by the fear that plus-size is a club to which no one wants to admit to belonging. Their attitude implies large women should be ashamed of their bodies. Well, I am tired of fighting this battle alone.
'Stuart Rose, the chief executive of Marks and Spencer, used to be MD of Evans. He should know better than to ignore us. I challenge him to take on Evans and win.'
Anna Scholz has been dressing big women for many years. As she says, 'I really enjoy making women feel better about themselves. Sometimes I feel more like an agony aunt because customers call me to say they were on Prozac or Valium and then they discovered my collection and now they aren't depressed any more.'
And she is not overstating her case. For while Anna dresses the pin-thin and the average-sized, she also designs with bigger women in mind. In fact her fabulously feminine high-fashion collection goes up to a size 26. 'The women who call me,' she says, 'are feeling good about themselves for the first time. Every woman should have the right to wear beautiful designer clothes if she wants to. More designers should design for real women - and that means women over a size 14. And more retailers, at every level of the market, should stop treating big women as if they are elderly and sexless. We're not.'
Scholz herself is over 6ft tall, big, blonde and 35. And she's very far from sexless. She is lucky enough to be confident in her curves - and, of course, she has the pick of her own flirty collection in which to emphasise all her voluptuous femininity. But it wasn't always so; she knows just how nightmarish clothes shopping can be for big women.
Anna was born near Dusseldorf and brought up in Hamburg. Her father was a famous advertising man whose company, Scholz and Friends, had the Jil Sander account, and her mother was the owner of a gallery of American folk art. 'I grew up with designer tastes,' she says. 'But by the time I was 13 I was already over 6 ft and a size 16. My parents were desperate to spoil me - but they couldn't. There was nothing to buy in my size that I actually wanted to wear. I had to wear men's clothes when I really wanted to be feminine and frilly.'
She learned to sew in self-defence and, having been talent spotted by a model agency scout, became a successful plus-size model. 'I got to know my labels,' she says. 'I was so sure that there must be something for me - surely Versace, Ferre or Marina Rinaldi made clothes I'd love to wear.
'But all the other young plus-size models agreed with me that there was nothing, nothing we wouldn't be embarrassed to wear.'
Anna Scholz became a woman with a mission. She would become the fashion designer who, rather than excluding big women from the world's fashion departments and banishing them to an ill-lit corner of the store, would include them in one stunning collection for all sizes. She applied to the world's top fashion school, Central St Martin's in London. 'I walked into the dingy building on Charing Cross Road feeling like I was in the Fame movie,' she says. 'And I knew that's where I wanted to be.'
Her contemporaries were Antonio Berardi, Robert Carey Williams and Tristan Weber. 'At St Martin's they were not particularly interested in me doing plus sizes,' she says with a shrug, 'but no one tried to talk me out of it - but then, I am really strong-willed.'
For her BA graduate show, she made clothes ranging in size from 14 to 26 and earned a resounding ovation from the fashionable audience. But, as she says, while the fashion industry and the media like to pay lip-service to inclusiveness, the reality is quite different.
'There's a complete lack of exposure for plus-sizes in the media. The fashion press encourages a distorted view of what women's bodies are all about. We have to emphasise that women, like men, come in all shapes and sizes.
'Whenever new figures about the alarming rise in eating disorders are reported and fashion magazines are accused of promoting anorexia, there's a bit of an effort to redress the balance but it's fleeting. There are hardly any fashion spreads with models over a size 10. More than half the British population is size 16 or over yet there is no specialist magazine for plus sizes.
'Maybe publishers think big women are too ashamed to be seen buying such a title? Or maybe they believe that the fashion industry would not support it with advertising and therefore it could not succeed.'
If anything, Anna Scholz is more frustrated with her own industry than she is with the media. 'The fashion industry,' she says, 'doesn't accept plus collections as actual fashion. While trying to exhibit at London Fashion Week, we ran into lots of opposition for showing plus-size clothes.’
She has succeeded in overcoming many such obstacles. Her own label (spanning the whole spectrum of sizes) is stocked in Harrods, Selfridges and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as 65 stores in nine countries including the US and Japan and she has designed both clothing and lingerie collections as part of Designers at Debenhams. She has dressed many high-profile women who, as she puts it, 'aren't sitting at home watching telly and eating crisps.' They include Macy Gray, Aretha Franklin, Roseanne Barr, Dawn French, Jo Brand, Queen Latifah and Jocelyn Brown.
But, for Anna, it's not enough. 'Why does Evans have no real competition on the high street?' she asks. 'Shouldn't Marks and Spencer be taking them on seriously - not with silly ads featuring naked women with big bottoms but with really great, flattering, fashion-aware clothes?'
There is, she insists, a large and frustrated market out there just longing to be tempted to shop. 'But first designers and retailers have to recognise that these are real women with proper lives. They want chic clothes, fashionable clothes, well-made clothes, clothes that celebrate their femininity and their sensuality. They don't want camouflage.'
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION, JPGS, PHOTOGRAPHY OR AN INTERVIEW WITH ANNA SCHOLZ PLEASE CONTACT:
Dee Carpenter Public Relations,
54 Inner Park Road,
London SW19 6DA
020 8780 9944
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