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Rubenesque Beauty on the Runway

Model Sophie Dahl is breaking the plus-size barrier and helping change standards of female beauty.

October 13, 2000|VALLI HERMAN--COHEN | TIMES SENIOR FASHION WRITER

PARIS — When model Sophie Dahl comes down a runway, it looks as if a beautiful woman from the audience decided to take a stroll with the childlike girls sharing the catwalk.

Dahl, the 23-year-old granddaughter of author Roald Dahl, is a perfectly proportioned blond with a heart-shaped face who happens to have a body that's usually called "plus sized." As the 5-foot-11 1/2 Dahl, a size 12 (down from 14 when she started modeling four years ago), is increasingly featured in advertisements, fashion editorials and on European runways, she's helping to change perceptions of the plus-sized woman to simply "normal sized."

Earlier this year, the British model, who has appeared on two Italian Vogue covers, posed nude for an Yves Saint Laurent Opium perfume ad. Provocateur photographer Steven Meisel lit Dahl's pale, perfect skin to resemble the voluptuous beauties who, for nearly 100 years, have been celebrated only in fine art, certainly never for a product as personal, sensual and image-conscious as fragrance. Posing nude has been a powerful method for breaking barriers for decades. Yves Saint Laurent himself scandalously appeared in the buff for a 1971 ad and became a gay icon. The sexuality of pregnancy was challenged when expectant mothers Demi Moore and Cindy Crawford posed with bulging bellies.

On Sunday, Dahl glided down the catwalk at Christian Lacroix wearing a fleshy-pink, backless dress strung across its plunging back with thin silver chains. The dress wasn't flattering, and not because she wasn't the right person for it. Lacroix wasn't the right designer to catapult Dahl across fashion's rigid boundaries of beauty. And neither was Karl Lagerfeld when he put her in a strange silk jersey toga dress at Fendi a week earlier in Milan. Both designers have operated haute couture ateliers for years and know how to fit clients of any size so their ill fitting garments were unfair to Dahl.

Both ready-to-wear shows missed an opportunity to illustrate to women of all sizes that they can look beautiful in these clothes--which can be as difficult to understand as they are to wear. Lacroix's gown, with a limp fabric and too-tight bustline, violated the first rule of dressing well: Don't pour yourself into too-small clothes.

"In Paris, the shows are done very quickly," explained her agent, Saif Mahdi. With models arriving only a day after the Milan shows, designers often have little time to conduct thorough fittings.

Too bad. Making Dahl a token of plumpness on a runway populated by the freakishly tall and thin turns her into a gimmick, not a statement advocating other kinds of beauty. At least within the modeling world, she's no longer segregated into a separate plus-size category. "We don't represent her as a plus-size model," Mahdi said. "We represent her as a woman." Dahl was unavailable for comment because she had to dash off to London for a photo shoot.

Lacroix chose Dahl because "she's a great personality," said a spokesman. "We also like the fact that she has curves. She's apart from all the others." Apart, yes. Accepted, not yet. As she stared into the intimidating front row of heavy-hitting editors at Lacroix, Dahl smiled nervously, perhaps understanding that. Dahl is walking the same pathways once pioneered by black models, who still don't work in a color-blind world, though on some runways, they are making great strides.

Fashion embraces tokens better than it does wholesale changes. After all, even Kate Moss was a barrier-breaker. Inches shorter than the typical 5-foot-10 runway model, the 5-foot-7 Moss nevertheless has thrived as a superstar, but not as a trailblazer for other shorter, average-height women who wish to enter modeling. By degrees, fashion is making room on the runway for other types of bodies and beauty.

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