Monday, July 06, 2015

Lorna Jane has a fit model problem

Boutique activewear brand Lorna Jane is currently enduring a severe tutting from the online media after it posted a job advertisement for a dual role at its HQ: as a receptionist and a fit model.

My initial response was to tweet: "Fit model is a legit job that needs specific body dimensions. But Lorna Jane shouldn't combine it with another job. Obviously anyone can do a receptionist job; but not everyone can be a fit model. Your measurements need to embody the brand's sizing."

Fit modelling isn't 'fitness modelling' – which is a genre of modelling in which the models look athletic and have very defined muscles and very little body fat. Rather, fit models work in the back end of the industry. Unlike regular models, who get booked by matching a designer, art director or stylist’s desired ‘look’, fit models stay employed by winning another kind of genetic lottery – possessing a body whose proportions match the vital statistics of a manufacturer’s target customer.

When I was writing Out of Shape, I did a fair bit of research into fit modelling that didn't make it into the final book. There really isn't very much discussion of this fascinating subset of the modelling industry – just as we prefer to concentrate on the glamorous world of fashion weeks and couture rather than the nuts-and-bolts business of garment production.

At many clothing manufacturers, employees step in as fit models when required, in addition to their regular jobs. And at some fashion labels – including, famously, Leona Edmiston – the designer uses himself or herself as the fit model. (I wish I could've got one local designer to go on record with his yarn that, having used himself as his fit model, his sizing began to get smaller when he lost weight – something he only realised when a longtime customer pointed it out.)

Kathleen Fasanella – who to me is the authoritative resource on the technical aspects of fashion – had a great two-part blog series about fit modelling. Natasha Wagner has fitted for jeans brands ranging from Gap and Old Navy to Levi's, 7 For All Mankind and Proenza Schouler, leading Vogue to dub her "the model whose bottom is shaping a nation". And here are some fun first-person accounts by Sable Yong, who at 5'2" works as a fit model for petites.

When I interviewed Clea Garrick of Australian fashion label Limedrop, she told me she tests her sample garments on several fit models who wear a size 8 differently – taller or shorter, and with varying body proportions – so she can get a sense for how each garment will look on different body shapes, not just sizes.

“We still do make garments that are fluid and flowing, so our sizing is not as strict on some pieces as they appear in measurements,” she added. “We aim to make fashion that looks great on real people, not just models.”

Lorna Jane, on the other hand, needs a fit model more than many fashion labels because all its products are form-fitting and stretchy. The way tight clothes compress the body can't properly be predicted from using industrial fit mannequins, which is why it's so important to use a live model who can report how the tightness feels.

When I looked at the the websites of specialist fit modelling agencies, I was struck by their galleries of pretty girls, photographed at full length and labelled with specs of height and body measurements. The effect is slightly unnerving – like a flipbook of mugshots or mail-order brides. They all hover around a standard Australian size 8-10, and all have a similar svelte, leggy look.

Yet it’s heartening and strangely touching to see how even these girls, whose job it is to be living dress forms, represent the shape variations of the human body, their proportions all slightly different. And this is important! A fit model isn't always a 'house model' – like Clea, some brands bring in several differently shaped women to test the tolerance of the size being fitted.

However, fit models are inextricable from the practice of targeted sizing. As Christina Cato commented at Fasanella's site Fashion-Incubator:
I’ve worked with fit models at a very well known company. In the time that I worked for them we went through 4 different fit models. We were also working on an identity crisis with understanding our customer. Once it was determined who she was the fit model was replaced with someone that would better fit that ideal. It is not a general ideal or an average. It is specific to the woman that buys this line of clothing. Through constant customer feedback the fit is refined and if needed the fit model is changed.

The clothes certainly don’t fit everyone (I couldn’t wear them), but the customers that can wear them are extremely loyal. The fit is the “signature” of the industry. I think it’s very clever to keep that a secret and to keep it unique. It ensures that the loyal customers remain loyal.
Lorna Jane, however, has the same image problem as its fellow 'fashion sportswear' label Lululemon. In claiming to champion health and fitness, yet targeting a particularly small, thin customer, Lorna Jane has been accused of excluding potential customers who also aspire to be healthy, sexy and stylish, but who fall outside its target size range.

So it seems extremely tone-deaf of Lorna Jane to advertise the fit model job – which legitimately has very specific requirements – alongside the receptionist job, which can, and indeed legally must, be offered to applicants of any age, gender, ability, and body shape and size. A Lorna Jane spokesperson told Crikey:
As a fit model is only required in a part time capacity, Lorna Jane felt it appropriate to combine this position with the part time receptionist role which is also currently vacant. … There are a number of positions within our business that combine roles to accommodate the needs and interests of our staff.
For me, this media outrage stems from the same "what about me?" attitudes that I see again and again in media discussions about clothing size. I really hoped that Out of Shape would help dispel them; but they keep being repeated in article after article. And as I noted in 2013 about Abercrombie and Fitch, people really struggle to get their heads around the legitimate marketing practice of targeted sizing in the fashion industry.

There is a widespread belief that consumers 'deserve' to be able to wear whatever brand they want as long as they have the money to buy it; and that if they don't fit into the brand's clothes, then this is the brand's conspiratorial moral judgment. We hear things like, "X brand doesn't care about real women", "X brand doesn't want to tarnish their brand with customers like me" and "X brand promotes unhealthy body image".

Conversely, when a brand decides to offer a broader size range, the media report this as an act of generosity and moral acceptance rather than what it really is: a decision to target a different market. And we'll hear things like "Y brand understands real women", "Y brand is welcoming and inclusive of customers like me" and "Y brand promotes healthy body image".

For me, the main problem with Lorna Jane's two-for-one job ad is that it has allowed the perceptions of exclusion and discrimination associated with its brand to extend to its broader hiring practices. Workplace law specialist Peter Vitale told SmartCompany that it's unlawful in some jurisdictions to discriminate against someone based on their personal appearance. Much depends on the way a job ad is phrased, and “the way [Lorna Jane] have structured the ad hasn’t done them any favours … Because it’s for a receptionist as well, the ad probably sailed a bit close to the wind".

Lorna Jane has made it easy for onlookers to infer – as some media reports have done – that the company only wants to hire employees with very small body sizes, in any role. But the company is perfectly entitled to seek a fit model whose proportions reflect those of its target customer.