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Designers still use a skeleton crew

February 07, 2007|Booth Moore | Times Staff Writer

New York — THERE was the model at the Oscar de la Renta show in a fur vest, spindly arms sticking out like brittle twigs. And the one at Yeohlee who wasn't big enough to fill out her high-waisted skinny pants.

Alarmingly thin models may be the subject fashion can't stop talking about. But as shows here are proving: So far, talk is all the American fashion industry is willing to do.

The Council of Fashion Designers of America issued recommendations six weeks ago about health and weight but decided not to take steps to enforce them and instead asked designers to police themselves. Tougher actions have already been taken in Spain, Italy and Brazil, where the death of a model from complications of anorexia in November set off a global weight debate. The American guidelines encourage education and a healthier working environment backstage but do not adopt a minimum body mass index, as officials did at Madrid Fashion Week.

The initiative (or lack of initiative) has been a heated topic of conversation at fashion week here, where the models don't seem to be getting any fleshier. The Chelsea Art Museum even has a new show, "Dangerous Beauty," that requires visitors to walk across a "tile" floor made from working bathroom scales to enter the exhibit. And on Monday, the CFDA held a panel discussion about the health of models, enlisting nutrition and fitness experts to defend its decision not to conduct weigh-ins.

Vogue magazine was out in full force, along with designers Tory Burch, Donna Karan, CFDA President Diane von Furstenberg and about 100 media and industry insiders. Of course, no one touched the yogurt, pastries or fruit served for breakfast. Everyone was too busy trying to cover their bony behinds.

It's true, there is more that goes into determining health than a magic number (in Madrid, the minimum BMI is 18, or about 125 pounds for a 5-foot-10 model). Height, weight, activity level and genetics are also involved. But asking designers to make guesses, even educated ones, about who is at risk for having an eating disorder is ludicrous. The real question is why designers want to use models who are so thin that they can't tell if they are healthy or not. Don't they know jutting hipbones distract from the clothes?

You could blame Twiggy and lean-line 1960s fashion for bringing thin "in." Or 1990s heroin chic, when waifs Kate Moss and Stella Tennant were a trend switch from the Amazonian models of the 1980s. Others whisper privately that gay men in the industry are to blame, for preferring women who look like boys.

It's not difficult to see how you could develop an eating disorder if your career depended on it. At the forum, Natalia Vodianova, a 24-year-old Russian model who has appeared in advertising campaigns for Calvin Klein and Marc Jacobs, explained how industry pressure caused her weight to plunge to 106 pounds, when she began losing her hair. With the help of a doctor, she regained her health, only to hear designers complain about how her body had changed.

"I was lucky enough to be very much in demand, so I could ignore the criticisms," she said. "But if I had been weak, I hate to think what would have happened."

The problem isn't just designers. The pressure to be thin comes from all sides -- editors, stylists, hairdressers, even boutique owners who refuse to stock sizes above 8. But for all the lip service the issue is getting, nobody seems ready to embrace real change.

Panelist Nian Fish, who has worked in public relations and runway show production at KCD for 30 years, said forcing designers to use bigger models would be like "asking Rubens to paint skinny women or the New York City Ballet to use bigger dancers." So what the industry wants is creative freedom without responsibility.

And what would really happen if designers cut their runway samples bigger and the models had to eat, not starve, to fit? Vogue would go on publishing, New York would continue to have fashion week, black would still be the new black and thin would still be in. Just not so thin.

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