I see designer and Project Runway Season 14 winner Ashley Nell Tipton's head before anything else — a pastel purple bob that will prove to be as warm, bold, and inviting as she is. At the JCPenney of New York City's Manhattan Mall, she is surrounded by industry legends, including Full Figured Fashion Week's Gwendolyn DeVoe, Plus Model Magazine EIC Madeline Jones, and Style-It's Sarah Conley. Tipton is greeting everyone with a hug and a kiss on the cheek, be they strangers or longtime friends. And she's wearing an ensemble that perfectly encapsulates why she is JCPenney's Boutique + brand ambassador: It's quirky, it's youthful, and it's a mashup of closet staples and contemporary trends. It's easy, without being boring.
Her basic tee reads "Curves Are Trending," tucked beneath a pleated rose midi skirt and a varsity-style jacket with sequined sleeves and a "grrl" patch on the chest. It's Apr. 28, and Tipton is unveiling the collection that she helped put together with JCPenney. As I look at her — with her lilac mane and manic pixie dream girl vibes — I can't help but wonder what plus size fashion rules are about to be broken during this presentation.
"I think you guys are going to love what we did to this collection and how we styled it," she tells me in an interview before catwalk-time. "I think it’s going to open your eyes and let you see outside of the fashion box of what you can do, and how you can put your own style into this collection, and not just wear it how it is. I want you to use your imagination and put your style and your personality into it."
As the show starts, a combination of bloggers, including P.S. It's Fashion's Liz Black and Margie Plus, and models begin making their way up and down the JCPenney escalators. They are in bright prints and bold patterns — many featuring unique styling details like fedoras, classic Adidas sneakers, and Tipton-approved patches.
"There are a lot of fun colors in there," Tipton tells me. "We specifically tried to stay away from just using all black, and letting the girls’ personality shine through in every outfit."
Although most of the looks are simple in execution, and not uncommon of traditional plus size fashion — think tunic-like cuts, longline silhouettes, and cargo-esque jackets — the difference seems to be in presentation. There is no garment, IMO, that gives off "I'm trying to hide my body" vibes. Instead, the clothes put a contemporary, young spin on the basic styles quintessential of most femme wardrobes. They prove that even the styles and cuts previously used to condition plus size women to conceal their bodies can be reclaimed and spun around. And all pieces are available in a plus size-inclusive range of 0X to 5X, or 14W to 30W.
So amidst all the bold hues and belly-baring tops, what is Tipton's favorite so-called style rule to break? "The idea that you can’t wear crop tops and you can’t wear horizontal stripes," she says. When I ask if she'd ever wear them in conjunction, she adds, "Of course together! I think you are going to see a horizontal crop top going down the runway today."
Breaking the supposed style rules for our body shapes isn't always easy, though, particularly if your body type happens to be marginalized in any way — as most plus size figures tend to be. Fatshionistas have the majority of contemporary sociocultural dogma telling us that we are undesirable, unhealthy, unemployable, and, it would follow, unfashionable. Tipton's advice to women who might want to start making bolder sartorial choices, but aren't sure where to start, is something you might have heard before: "Definitely love yourself," she tells me. "Like, when you feel good, you look good. Just let your personality and your attitude shine through your clothing, and [don't] be afraid."
This might sound like the easy response. "Love yourself, and everything will be better," as if self-love were so easy to achieve in a world that seemingly produces more "perfect body" ads than successful Kardashian stories. But personally, I believe it's the foundation of body positivism. You cannot fight for more representation or visibility or respect from others until you believe you are worthy of those things. For a lot of folks, that starts with the decision to treat yourself — your mind, and your body — better; as you would a friend or a loved one, perhaps.
What felt particularly special about Tipton and JCPenney's fashion show was how much fun the models were having. They went up and down those electric staircases while dancing, singing, and smiling. There were no stoical catwalk faces to be seen — just good vibes and unapologetic confidence. And what's better still is that there was more diversity than is common in your run-of-the-mill fashion show. "We wanted to show diversity in that all women are beautiful," Tipton tells me. "I feel like society thinks that plus size women are one size, but we are all different shapes and sizes. We all need to embrace it and love ourselves."
Focus on diversity is evident throughout this entire line, from its inclusive size range to its style-crossing cuts, to its promo images. Although it can sometimes seem like plus size fashion and all things "BoPo" can take one step forward and two steps back — one day, a size 20+ celeb is getting an honest, non-sleazy sex scene on a major television show, the next a size 6 celebrity is being put into a plus-specific magazine issue — Tipton feels confident that things are generally improving for plus size individuals.
"More than anything, society is being more welcoming," she says. "There’s more of a positive outlook than such a negative. It’s a beautiful moment to be in this [industry]." That isn't to say that fat shaming is gone, nor that the work is remotely done in fighting the size discrimination that affects everything from healthcare to employment, but there are more visibly fat people doing things for other fat people in the public eye. That has to mark some kind of progress.
One thing that's undoubtedly helped plus size women (slowly) gain more representation is the plus size community that has developed online. For Tipton, being part of that community — and with it, listening to what actual consumers want — has been invaluable. "I’m always trying to get involved with other women on social media," she tells me. "Everyone in the plus size community has been so amazing."
When a plus size collection launches, it's often pretty evident whether actual plus size people have been involved in its creation. What is impressive about Boutique + is that, despite the fact that it's operating under the umbrella of an established department store with its own brand, the input of a plus size woman is tangible. That's likely why the size range is as inclusive as it is, why every item shown at the Manhattan Mall was boldly styled, and why the promotional materials strayed away from good fatty tropes. Neither in the show nor the images are we being presented with a line-up of white, size 12, hourglass-shaped models. We're being presented with actual customers. And it's only the start of Tipton's fashion overtake.
"This autumn, we’re going to be coming out with my fall line," Tipton reveals. "[JCPenney and I are] going to have three capsule collections, so this is just the beginning of my being the brand ambassador. And then having my own clothing line with my own label on it."
If anything is certain at this point, it's that Tipton will continue to challenge the boundaries of plus size fashion, reclaiming styles previously used to shame fat women, and creating fresh new looks along the way. "JCPenney [has] pushed and encouraged me to make sure that my style is reflected in every piece that’s coming down the runway today," Tipton adds "We went and we styled the looks and made sure that every girl that walks down the runway or comes down the escalator has a twist of me in them."
It's those twists and the styling possibilities they open up that make this collection unique. It's been curated by a woman who's dedicated her career to catering to and celebrating the diversity and individuality of plus size women. And it shows.
Images: Courtesy JCPenney/Boutique + (2); Marie Southard Ospina (12)