‘We use healthy girls with tits’
Emily Hill braved London Fashion Week and found few fashionistas willing to defend the use of skinny models.
When I first pitch up to report for spiked from the flesh pit of skinny models – otherwise known as London Fashion Week – I am escorted from the building. ‘Is it cos I is fat?’ I mutter, straining to spot a walking cadaver. Thankfully not; apparently it’s because I do not have the right documentation.
The skinny models panic is everywhere. Apparently skinny models are bad role models for young girls, who might starve themselves in order to look like their ‘model heroines’. The Daily Mail’s rent-a-rant Liz Jones, having attended one of Fashion Week’s catwalk shows, was outraged – first at the wan looks of the models, and second at the uncaring attitude of the fashion industry to its walking clothes pegs. Alongside presenting facts such as, ‘did you know that if you drop below a Body Mass Index of 12 you start to consume your own organs and muscle tissue?’, Jones approached top figures in fashion demanding to know why there are so many skinny models on the catwalk.
‘I am sick and tired of this subject’, said former model Catherine Bailey, arguing, fairly sensibly, that models have ‘always been thin’. But Jones claims there has been an escalation in the problem, and she says we shouldn’t wait until ‘a model actually drops down dead at the fashion industry’s Jimmy Choo’d feet’ before doing something about it. In fact, this whole debate kicked off bescause that is exactly what happened to Size 0 model, Luisel Ramos, during Uruguay’s fashion week: she allegedly died as a result of undereating, which led to a ban on ‘size zero’ models at Madrid Fashion Week and calls for further bans in the fashion capitals of the world. So is London Fashion Week another planet peopled by strange skinny people? Not quite.
Noting that the fury over Fashion Week is emphatically food-centric, and seeing as it was lunchtime, the first thing I do when I finally get through security is head straight for the café to stock up on mung beans, rice cakes and watercress gruel. But it turns out that Fashion Week sells the sort of food that would win you a stern ticking off from Jamie Oliver. Yes, there are slim slices of asparagus and pine-nut fare and ridiculous bread made of carrot and herbs – but the rest of the menu is made up of sandwiches larded in mayonnaise, cake platters, croissants, full-fat coke and bumper packets of posh crisps. The fat content gets worse as I stray over to the stalls, every one of which is offering some form of complimentary truffle, chocolate or, oddly enough, Werther’s Originals. More shockingly, there is a high quota of babies and prams.
I nip off to the toilets to run my finger along the cistern for traces of cocaine. Nothing. In this large white tent in leafy Kensington, London Fashion Week is all soundtracks by Madonna, sequins and flower prints everywhere, and some grannies sharing a cake in a red striped tearoom.
London Fashion Week is essentially a trade show: a glossy trade show where delegates dress in tangerine patent platforms, gold leaf hats and huge white shift dresses while sucking on champagne from miniature Moet bottles, but a trade show nonetheless. The models themselves are on the catwalk, not eating but working, as you might expect. But a press pass won’t get you near the catwalk. For that, you need An Invitation. You can, however, watch the models stride along the runway on giant TV screens. I have to say – maybe they have edited them? – they don’t look like they’re at the stage where their organs are consuming their own body tissue. Sure, they’re thin. But they don’t look ill. Watching them stride up and down, you start to think how incredibly daft they look in their see-through tattooed body-socks, outré globe-style hairdos, and general lack of underwear. Surely impressionable girls aspire to look like J-Lo or Britney rather than a 6ft-tall bug-eyed woman in weird clothes with protruding hipbones?
Ask fashion workers on the floor what they think of the skinny models debate, and they become testy, bordering on hostile. At Katherine Hamnett, a friendly assistant takes fright and turns to her superior for back-up when I use the ‘s’ word. ‘Look’, the PR policewoman eyeballs me, her oversized gold earrings wagging with annoyance, ‘our sample size is a 10, so our models have to be a 10, okay? All our models are well over the threshold for BMI. Does she look underweight to you?’ she demands, jabbing at the girl next to her.
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At high-fashion label Meadham Kirchhoff, which is showcasing what look like thin black fetish anoraks with a blue trim and black net dresses with orange crepe circles around the breast area, a designer with a blue tattoo spanning his arm explains that this collection is ‘very wearable’ and ‘overtly girly’. All the samples are extra small. What size of model do they use at their shows? ‘Healthy girls with tits’, he says. ‘There’s been a lot of hoo-haa about the skinny models, but we don’t use any.’ A bikini saleswoman reclining on a sunlounger in the Ready to Wear section tells me that the decidedly skinny model modelling her company’s bikinis is actually a size 10. She just ‘knows how to manipulate her body during shoots’. By contrast, most models, she claims, are size 6 to 8. Other models drink ‘cider vinegar to de-bloat’, she says. ‘How horrible must that be? Their breath must stink.’
At Canon’s ‘Other Side of Fashion’ photo exhibition, there is a large picture of Jodie Kidd being duct-taped into a designer dress. ‘People like to see a model not being able to fit into a dress’, explains the girl at the stall: ‘It gives a sort of raw look at the whole thing.’ She says she saw a show recently, and the models were ‘like 11-year-olds’: ‘It was like they were pre-pubescent but had just had a growth spurt. Lovely as they looked, I felt sad for them. They had perfect skin, no stretch marks and no cellulite. But only two girls out of a dozen had breasts.’
The PR manager of Terra Plana, which markets ethical footwear made of recycled cars, agreed: ‘I have big issues with young models. I think it’s disgusting. Fourteen-year-old girls are plucked from all their friends and family, they’re going out, introduced to sex and drugs and parties, it’s just a wrong situation. Can we do this to a girl at 14 and expect her to be normal? Everyone says, “Oh, Kate Moss was discovered at 14”, but Kate Moss is hardly one of the most together people. I think it’s awful. These girls should be in school, figuring out who they are.’
It proves impossible to find anyone mounting a defence of the skinny model at Fashion Week. Obviously, it is not good to pressurise anyone into starving themselves. But very young girls are not likely to watch catwalk shows – instead, they’re getting their ideas from magazine covers, pop videos and Hollywood blockbusters. No one points out that the average national UK size is a 16 not a 6. And no one suggests that, well, thinner girls make quite good mannequins.
I try one final store to see if someone will support the fashion industry’s supreme right to use models with impossible hip-to-thigh ratios. Strumpets, which sells only leather leg strumpets, bill themselves as daring and raunchy, with plenty of buttons. Do they use super skinny models? An assistant says they use thin models but not skinny models. ‘You see’, she says, pointing to a model, ‘she is still sexy, the legs are muscly, they have definition. You know, we’re not looking for a twig.’