TORONTO — Former reality show star Roxy Earle didn't have a formal fashion education to rely on for her new plus-size fashion line with collaborator Le Chateau.
Instead, she turned to the real-life experiences that many established designers don't seem to have a clue about: the ways plus-size clothes are failing the women who wear them.
Earle says she took heed of the constant frustrations expressed by her army of Instagram followers, many of whom rallied around her hashtag #MySizeRox and its message of body positivity.
She says she's on a mission to reinvigorate plus-size clothing with Roxy Earle by Le Chateau for sizes 0 to 22W.
"So much of fashion leaves people out, makes people feel miserable — you look at fashion ads and they're not inclusive," she says.
"They make a girl feel bad about herself."
Earle says she deferred to Le Chateau's experts for technical details like construction, but she had final say on colours, patterns and how plus-size clothes should fit.
Despite her bold and brash reputation, the former star of Slice's "The Real Housewives of Toronto," says she wasn't always as confident as she is today: "I've cried in many fitting rooms like many women have because it's demoralizing. And then I decided the time is up, I've had enough. I'm going to change this."
It's a slow movement, but things do appear to be evolving as brands consider the input of average customers, suggests plus-size model and blogger Ruby Roxx.
The Vancouver resident says it's shocking to see how badly an established brand can botch the fit of clothing when they simply enlarge it for bigger sizes. There are many different shapes within the plus-size category, she adds.
"There needs to be adjustments other than just a bigger size," says Roxx, pointing out the countless experiences she's had returning items, like a recent dress she purchased.
"It fits my hips perfectly, it fits my boobs perfectly but it won't do up at the waist. My husband said, 'Why the hell would they make a dress that would fit those hips and those boobs and not do up at the smallest part of you, the waist? It doesn't make any sense.'"
She knew the reason: "It's because they made it for straight-size models and people."
One of Roxx's favourite designers is Diane Kennedy, owner of Cherry Velvet, a retro-inspired Vancouver brand that offers sizes XS through 4X.
Kennedy says her goal is to fit the widest array of people, and despite more than 30 years in the business, she believes there's still more to learn from customers about how designs can be improved.
"If somebody comes in to try dresses on and they can't find something that fits, I feel like I've not done my job well," she says.
Ryerson School of Fashion professor Ben Barry says vocal customers are forcing brands to respond to their demands. Social media, especially, has handed plus-size women a megaphone to shift ideas and attitudes.
And with that, the notion that a designer's vision should be sacrosanct is eroding.
"The really savvy designers and brands are realizing they not only need to listen but really engage consumers in the process if they want to succeed," says Barry, who specializes in diversity issues.
The professor tries to instill this philosophy in a new generation of creators, believing that while a designer plays a critical role in creating clothes, everyday wearers also have "essential expertise."
"Part of the problem has also been embedded in the design process — the fact that fashion has operated so much on this hierarchical design process where this one creative director is the source of knowledge and consumers are not part of the process," he says.
"You put a lot of pressure on one person or one small team to come up with a lot of ideas, without actually understanding how are people wearing clothes in everyday life."
And then there's the fact so much of the fashion industry revolves around "this idea of thinness."
"Even selling to plus-size women... brands have been worried that this might harm" them, says Barry.
Of course, the professor would like to see more brands embrace the plus-size market, but he also calls on them to acknowledge their role in creating a "negative view of fatness” and do their part to undo harmful stereotypes.
Fashion blogger and designer Jessica Biffi says part of the change is coming from plus-size women taking the reins to launch their own fashion lines.
"It wasn't always the case," says Biffi, a former contestant on "Project Runway Canada" who now runs the blog justbiffi.com.
"I've worked with (plus-size) brands and been the only plus-size person in the office."
Earle, too, takes issue with a business that purports to embrace diversity but remains predominantly male, white and skinny.
The needs of plus-size women have been misunderstood for too long, says Earle, as she bemoans a preponderance of dark colours, loose silhouettes and simply unfashionable patterns. Her line includes blush floral pinks, linen suits and bold reds.
"There's so many misconceptions about who a woman is, what kind of income she has, what kind of clothes she wants to wear," she says.
"I don't know what people were thinking — but glamorous, incredible women who are willing to invest in beautiful clothes come in all shapes and sizes."
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press