Journalist and fashion blogger Sarah Magliocco discusses how, when it comes to higher fashion, certain body types are still being left out of the conversation.

When H&M announced its next capsule collection would be designed by Simone Rocha, fashion lovers' hearts started to beat a little faster.  

The Irish designer is best known for her romantic and vintage-inspired pieces that dazzle on the runway, with voluminous silhouettes, delicate embellishments and evocative fabrics. So when it was announced she would be collaborating with the high street brand – one of the more size-inclusive brands at the moment – hopes were high. 

But some plus size fashion lovers have been left disappointed by the line's limited size range.

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H&M is renowned for its annual collaborations with some of the world's most coveted designers, giving ordinary consumers an opportunity to own designs by heritage fashion houses such as Versace and Comme des Garçons.

Initially, fashion fans were promised that "all sizes" will be included in the launch. With curvy people still being excluded from many aspects of the fashion industry, despite research showing that plus size womens' clothing is the fastest growing area in womens' apparel, the idea of a high-end designer catering to everyone sparked excitement among fashion fans.

"It naturally created great excitement, myself included, that our size would be represented," said top Irish model and plus size fashion advocate Louise O’Reilly, who shares her style with an audience of 125,000 fashionistas on Instagram.

However, the brand later said that the range would not be available beyond a size 14 in its European stores, causing dismay among plus size consumers. H&M later clarified that "the majority" of items extend to a size UK16/18.

This revelation came as an all-too familiar disappointment to curvy women, and soon Twitter was flooded with messages of frustration and anger. Here was a brand that traditionally carries up to a UK26 in their permanent ranges, and yet this premium collaboration is set to exclude bodies in the top third of the brand’s size range.

In a statement to RTÉ LifeStye, H&M defended the collection, saying: "We understand the frustration regarding the sizes for our upcoming collaboration with Simone Rocha. The garments offered in L for this collection are equivalent to a UK size 16-18, but we understand that it is not including all sizes as communicated in the video.

"For us, it was important to design a collection that would work for different shapes, as this is something that has always been important for us. We hope that fashion lovers around the world will be able to find something that they can cherish and treasure forever."

Over the last decade, the elitism among high-fashion houses has become more apparent. With the body positivity movement gaining momentum, high street fashion companies have been quick to adapt their lines to include curvier sizes. 

Meanwhile, many premium brands have remained the same. They seem reluctant to recognise that the size of clothing should be yet another customisable aspect of fashion, rather than forcing size conformity on the bodies who wish to wear them.

But the rush to appease the curvier market on the high street has led to some brands merely paying lip service to body diversity. "Currently in fashion and the size-diversity world, the term 'all sizes’ is being misused repeatedly across various companies," said Louise. "The issue within this being when a brand has two distinct lines – a main range and a plus size range – your use of language and marketing needs to be very clear."

Collaborations like H&M’s annual offering are a rare occurrence and veritable events in and of themselves, allowing the average customer to access aspirational threads. Kiera Pitts, founder of popular fashion blog Just The F Word, agrees that narrow sizing ranges leave curvy women feeling excluded from the excitement surrounding these releases.

"H&M has been making serious moves with inclusivity, and of late became my most shopped brand," Kiera, who has been blogging since 2013, told RTÉ LifeStyle.

"To see that the designers they have chosen to work with are preaching the good word while excluding so many at the same time is very disheartening. In this case the biggest size available from the range is a 16/18, which is pretty much the average woman's size today.

"Plus sizes are an afterthought with most brands, if at all. With each new release comes that moment where, as a plus sized fashion lover, you get ready to ‘add to bag’ or add it to the already long list of places where you can't shop."

While high end designers are not rushing to develop plus size lines, the high street has invested in expanding their size ranges. New Look has been a stronghold for plus size customers for a number of years, with their Curves range extending to a size UK32. New Look is also renowned for their wide fit shoe collection, something many retailers don't consider when it comes to catering to curvy consumers.

Primark introduced a larger size range – UK4 to UK26 – in 2018, and is often hailed as one of the most accessible fashion retailers in both price and size. Outside of their designer collabs, H&M is known for their clothing catering to women up to a size UK26. The brand famously featured plus size bombshell Ashley Graham in their fashion campaign for 2016, flying the flag for body positivity.

While brick and mortar stores have sufficient options, plus size shoppers have found more luck online. Brands like ASOS Curve and Pretty Little Thing provide the most up to date trends for curvy customers.

While high street stores are paving the way, some high-end brands are taking small steps towards change too. 2020 marked the second time in history that Chanel opted to use a plus size model in a catwalk show. Versace also cast three curvy models in their Spring 2021 show – a fact noted by fashion publications globally.

Despite these moves, the lack of true size representation remains, with the perception of what is plus size differing between average consumers and designer fashion houses. While the average woman in the UK wears a size 16, Jill Kortleve, the Dutch model who walked in Chanel and Versace’s shows, is roughly a size UK14, according to her model card.

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The high fashion inner circle historically has a preference for models and customers of smaller sizes – a preference that has become an ingrained stereotype, parodied in fashion-focused movies, books and TV shows.

From The Devil Wears Prada to Ugly Betty, women who don’t fit the size zero mold are seen as unworthy of wearing the most coveted designer looks. The ripple effects of this attitude, however outdated and cartoonish it may seem now, have trickled down into our perceptions of who should be included in the discussion around fashion.

The curve community has worked tirelessly to change this, and while featuring plus size models on the catwalk is a promising start, there is still a long way to go before curvy women are automatically included in all areas of fashion, as H&M’s latest collaboration suggests.

Following the backlash faced by the brand, perhaps more fashion houses will truly recognise that the persistent power of the plus size community’s influence on fashion – and the strength of its market value – is too monumental to ignore.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.