In the fashion world, thin will always be in — just not too thin. What qualifies as too thin is a debate raging from New York to Milan, and no matter where one stands, there is one thing almost everyone agrees on: enforcing any kind of body-type rule for models is nearly impossible.
Following the much-ridiculed move last fall by officials in Madrid to ban what they considered too-thin models and the death last month from anorexia of 21-year-old Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston, the issue is forefront once again because Italy’s Camera Della Moda plans to promote a nationwide campaign against anorexia, recruiting the fashion industry as a key ally. The Council of Fashion Designers of America also said it is considering drawing up guidelines for American designers, editors and stylists.
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At a time when size zero is becoming increasingly common, many in the industry said that the plans to regulate model size are a noble effort but are impractical. They point out that every body type is different and that in many cases, models are thin either because they are young and not physically mature or it is in their genes and not necessarily indicative of an eating disorder.
Didier Grumbach, the president of France’s Chambre Syndicale, believes that though anorexia is a "serious public health problem," it won’t be solved by regulating the size of girls allowed to walk in shows.
"The best way to solve the problem is to talk and write about it," said Grumbach, adding that imposing rules on the size of girls would become "too subjective" and tricky to manage. "It’s a false remedy to think that by slapping down a bunch of rules that you’re going to solve a serious problem. Paris isn’t interested in creating those type of rules."
Even the man who is stimulating the latest debate — Mario Boselli, president of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana — admits the difficulties. "The idea is that a doctor certifies a model’s health based on different parameters even if they’re skinny, because skinny doesn’t mean anorexic," he said Wednesday. "Take Gisele [Bündchen]: She’s thin but in great shape and healthy. It’s like the doctor’s certificate that you need to get your driver’s license. We want to push a healthier and sunnier woman."
Boselli and Giovanna Melandri, the Italian minister for sports activities and youth-driven programs, unveiled the plan Tuesday to promote a nationwide campaign in Italy against anorexia. The idea is to develop a manifesto with support from designers, top brands, model agencies and photographers that would seek to ban the use of emaciated models in advertising and on the catwalks.
"Details [of the proposed manifesto] are still to be defined, but we hope that designers, photographers and model agencies will embrace it. For designers that don’t, we may have to penalize them by not assigning a slot on the calendar or taking them off the official calendar." He said this should also apply to the big-league designers.
Designers and industry executives generally are fully behind the ideal. Giorgio Armani said, "I am in line [with minister Melandri]. For my shows, I’ve never wanted girls that were too thin. I prefer models that know how to wear my clothes."
Following the Madrid proposal last fall, Donatella Versace told WWD, "I support completely what happened in Madrid. We shouldn’t promote models that are too slim. Anyway, models cannot be overweight as well. You work in fashion, so it’s tricky."
Diane von Furstenberg, president of the CFDA, said in a statement, "It is undeniable that fashion has a huge impact on young women. Therefore, it is important that, as an industry, we encourage good health and self-empowerment as beauty. The entire industry has to remain sensitive and aware of this issue, but not discriminatory."
Steven Kolb, executive director of the CFDA, said the association has started looking into ways to promote working with healthier models. He hopes there will be a development before the New York shows in February that will involve the entire fashion community, from designers to agencies and magazine editors, as well as health professionals who are experts in eating disorders.
However, Kolb noted, "I don’t think we would ever mandate or regulate the situation, but we can suggest or recommend healthy alternatives and bring the issue more to the forefront."
Derek Lam underscored the importance of promoting a healthy look, but the designer does not necessarily believe in legislating model standards. "Then you start to pigeon-hole an ideal," Lam said. "Some people are 5 feet 10 inches and have an incredible metabolism and genetic makeup."
Lam said that he always makes a conscious effort to cast healthy models. "There is really no way you can hide it when someone is unhealthy on the runway."
Sally Singer, fashion news and features director at Vogue, said editors want the girls to be healthy and not suffering from eating disorders. "It’s better for the industry when the girls are healthier and not emaciated, and clothes look better on them. There’s a reason why the supermodels [in the Nineties] were so successful," she said, since they projected a healthy image and looked terrific in the clothes — from the curvaceous Christy Turlington and Cindy Crawford to the athletic Naomi Campbell.
Singer said she’s observed on the runways that "the girls are increasingly young and small and not terribly persuasive as models. We would welcome designers and casting people to choose girls who project a more healthful image. We try to use girls who really project a personality. We don’t use the newest girl of the moment."
Cathy Gould, director of Elite North America, said, "This disease is being approached the wrong way. It is an illness, but there is no scientific proof that having thin models or actresses makes people become anorexic or bulimic. I would rather see all this money and attention being spent on research as opposed to pointing fingers at models who are naturally thin and tall."
One leading model’s agent, who requested anonymity, said "It’s not about the models — it’s about the designers who make the size-zero samples. The problem comes from the people who set the rules. The people who really need to do something is the designers. If a girl is a size two, she can’t do the show.
"The models have nothing to do with it. Those poor girls are being blamed. A lot of them are really naturally skinny because they are 17 years old," the agent said.
A spokeswoman for the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, a Highland Park, Ill.-based not-for-profit organization, said, "The media and fashion industry use role models that are very slender and petite. It is our hope that the fashion industry can promote positive body image and that individuals come in all shape and sizes. There is absolutely no such thing as an ideal body size or weight or height. In addition, this extreme focus by designers on the super-skinny model is not healthy for the professionals on the runway and…the young girls and teens who view them."