In a first for the 26-year-old event, Australian Fashion Week will have a dedicated runway show for size-inclusive clothing this week. Staged by Chelsea Bonner, former model and CEO of size-inclusive modelling agency Bella Management, and featuring six local designers, each with a size range that extends beyond a size 20, the runway comes after last year’s event drew serious criticism for a significant lack of size diversity. This week’s schedule will also include a standalone runway for adaptive fashion – designed for people with disabilities – for the first time.
Ahead of the runway this Thursday 12 May, we caught up with Chelsea to talk more about what we can expect from the show and what it signifies for the broader industry.
top images SAINT SOMEBODY
image BELLA MANGEMENT CEO CHELSEA BONNER
Can you talk us through how this runway finally came about?
I’ve been campaigning for inclusion [for almost 20 years now]. My hope has always been to encourage the designers to extend their sizing and to use a mix of models representing the full complement of sizes. Utilising a broader range of models, who represent the actual women who purchase said fashion, is a win-win for everyone – the women who are their customers feel included and validated as a part of the brand’s culture which therefore leads to more sales.
Fashion, style and choosing designs to wear are very personal and intimate choices women make that reflect to the outside world who they are on the inside. Fashion is not about clothing – if it were, we would only need one place to shop! It is about how we feel, what we are trying to express, our creative hearts, our intellect, our sexuality and our sense of play. That’s why it’s so important to be inclusive; you cannot say a woman is more or less of any of these things because of the size they wear or the shape of their body!
I just thought, “Enough is enough!” I pitched the idea of presenting my own runway to Nicole at IMG Events and she welcomed the idea with open arms.
So, after seeing the lineup for this year’s AFW and the designers showing – a few of whom are amazing by the way and have always been inclusive – I just thought, “Enough is enough!” I pitched the idea of presenting my own runway to Nicole at IMG Events and she welcomed the idea with open arms.
I then had to decide the direction of the runway. I called upon six designers who have been inclusive from their beginnings and who I knew would not be able to hold a show on their own because of the expense but who deserve the spotlight. It’s my gift to them for supporting my own vision for the agency and my amazing curve and plus-size models. I hope that by doing so, other designers will see that women of all shapes and sizes belong on the runway and sizing up their ranges does not take anything away from the aesthetic but in fact adds a layer of creative vision they may not have considered otherwise.
Women are not meant to be coat hangers as the good old boys of yesteryear made us believe for so long. That messaging ruined the lives of millions of women around the world and forced us into a cycle of self-abuse that will take generations to unpick and dismantle. Women wear clothes, clothes do not wear us and that ridiculous and elitist narrative needs to be eliminated completely!
Women are not meant to be coat hangers as the good old boys of yesteryear made us believe for so long.
The past few years have seen a reckoning in some regard for the fashion industry when it comes to a variety of inclusivity issues. Why do you think the industry, as a whole, is finally being held accountable?
Honestly, the designers who still believe that they don’t want women over a certain size wearing their clothes are just as brainwashed by the previous generations of advertising as we all were. Phrases that became a part of fashion culture like, ‘You can never be too rich or too thin,’ are redundant. We don’t believe it anymore because we have seen it’s, very simply, not true and there are now so many examples of incredibly successful, stylish women to look up to.
Change is here already and I truly believe we will see all designers and brands embracing this movement.
Change is here already and I truly believe we will see all designers and brands embracing this movement. We are also better educated and have significantly more access to information, meaning we are less likely to fall for the excuses of old like fabric cost. That would only be true of couture because elsewhere, costs are distributed across a whole size range. There are no more legitimate excuses, it is personal choice. As a customer, if you decide to wear a label that your sister or best friend also loves but can’t wear because of size exclusion and that makes you feel good about yourself, that’s very sad and good luck to you. Those kinds of people will always exist I know, but hopefully on the fringes where over 80% of us have been relegated to for so long. Size 12–20 women are the mainstream.
Is there a level of frustration that there’s not a greater presence of body diversity on the rest of the runways?
Of course, always! This year, however, casting has been so much better so it’ll be exciting to see what the end result will be. I hope that our show will be the final boot in the door that will keep it open forever.
Tell us about some of the designers that you’re featuring…
I met Martin Sanders from Zaliea over 20 years ago when I was a young model and he designed eveningwear from size 8 to size 20 even back then when no one else did. He is really passionate about all women having beautiful things to wear and I always felt beautiful in his dresses.
Fast-forward 10 years to when I met Claire [Primrose] and Nikala [Vagg] from 17 Sundays which is an amazing urban denim label. They were part of a runway show I sponsored in Melbourne called Curvy Couture and I loved what they were designing. We quickly became friends and collaborators. They were the first brand to do truly fashion-forward denim for women size 12 and over and have such strong fashion credentials they could have chosen to do anything. I have so much respect for their vision.
I met Kerry [Pietrobon] from Harlow through the same event – she was actually the organiser so we worked very closely together for several months to pull it off. None of us had any money back then but I threw in everything I could afford and provided the models for the runway at my own expense. We worked such long hours on that show and Kerry blew me away with her passion for design and curve women’s fashion. We have always helped each other wherever possible.
images EMBODY WOMEN
Embody Women was the brainchild of Natalie Wakeling who I knew from my modelling days. We were both modelling around the same time and often ran into each other on set. A few years after I started Bella, Natalie launched Embody and she has booked many of my models for campaigns over the years. Nat’s designs are for the woman who likes to be impeccably on brief and on trend for everything, especially cocktail hour.
Saint Somebody launched a few years ago now and was a local label in Manly where I used to have my agency. I really loved her swimwear designs and aesthetic. Lovely modern clean lines and gorgeous fabrics. Sophie [Henderson-Smart] has a strong sense of who her customers are, and it’s totally my vibe so I love it. We have worked together on castings for campaigns ever since.
Lastly, Rachel Webb from Vagary booked a couple of my models when she first launched, and her designs are made from the holiday lifestyle dreams we all have. Beautiful, earthy, soothing colourways and patterns in extremely wearable garments that make you feel dressed and comfortable at the same time. My perfect weekend dressing!
What’s the feeling you’re hoping to convey through the show?
Each designer is very different and reflects all the various moods and situations you might find yourself in throughout the day and well into the night. I want to show the diversity in the collections themselves and the unique differences in the places you would wear them.
The aim is to show that women of all sizes do all the same things and deserve the same range of clothing options. I also hope that international and domestic buyers see how fantastic these collections are and put huge orders in!
Most importantly to me personally, I’ll know that I did absolutely everything I could within my power to change people’s hearts and minds.
What does a size-inclusive runway mean to you personally?
I feel like it’s the culmination of over 20 years of work. I’ve been involved in every single minute aspect of this runway from funding to production, casting, music and graphics so, if it’s a flop, it’s on my head! I want women, buyers, designers and consumers to walk away from this experience feeling seen and completely validated. I want every woman to feel the sense of peace I have with my own size and the place I’ve made for myself within the fashion world. If not, then I guess I’ll have a super expensive video to watch when I’m in the nursing home one day but, most importantly to me personally, I’ll know that I did absolutely everything I could within my power to change people’s hearts and minds.