Plus size model Zaida Silva knows firsthand how difficult it is to find lingerie — once you need pieces over a certain size, the options become a lot more limited. She explains that even when she is able to find pieces big enough, often the cut and fit aren't right for her body.
"All that is sexy stops at the smaller sizes," Silva tells Bustle. "What they do have is always some type of cover-up night gown [sic] type thing."
The struggle to find styles, cuts, and sizes of lingerie that fit is familiar to transgender people and people with disabilities as well; they often can't find well-made lingerie that's also well-fit or adaptable.
It's also pretty impossible to ignore that the majority of companies fill their campaigns with thin, cisgender, white, and able-bodied models, which reflects the larger problem: Brands are likely not designing with a truly diverse customer base in mind.
Still, there are a handful of companies that visibly and enthusiastically cast diverse models and design for a range of people. And for Silva, "it's a breath of fresh air to see that someone actually gets it."
Take SmartGlamour, a company Silva has modeled for, and Slick Chicks, who prioritize hiring people for whom their inclusive products are designed. Indie brands Origami Customs and Shy Natives also offer underwear and lingerie for customers of shapes, sizes, and identities across the board. All of the brands featured below are unique in that they proudly hire models who share those qualities with their customers, which means they're better suited to make products that actually work for all sorts of consumers.
Who they design for: Everyone! SmartGlamour offers fully customizable pieces for people of all body types and identities.
"Casting diversely — or accurately — was 100 percent part of the plan since day one in February of 2014," says Mallorie Dunn, the founder of SmartGlamour. Dunn's ethical hand-making process allows her to offer all of her clothes, from business wear to wedding outfits to lingerie, in literally any size, customized to fit any body.
"SmartGlamour was created to help combat negative body image," Dunn tells Bustle. "And the two main ways we decided to go at that from the beginning was making clothing accessible and customizable for all bodies, and then showing all bodies in said clothing. And never airbrushing them."
Dunn has since used social media to cultivate a pool of diverse models from which she regularly hires, as well as casting new models when the need arises. SmartGlamour is running an #AllMeansAll campaign throughout 2017, spotlighting models from different marginalized groups, including trans and femme models, models sizes 24 and up, and models of color. Upcoming #AllMeansAll installments include disabled models and models over 45.
"And it makes a huge difference!" she adds. "Since the release of #AllMeansAll: Gender, I've had many trans and nonbinary folk reach out to me about shopping and specific fit issues, and also modeling."
2. Slick Chicks
Who they design for: Disabled people, primarily cisgender women, with products for cisgender men on the way.
Underwear company Slick Chicks is also committed to sourcing models from within its customer base. Founder Helya Mohammadian set out to created absorbent panties that clasp at the sides, making them easy to change on the go. She stumbled into creating the perfect adaptive underwear for disabled folks. Once she realized her product was much-needed and was being embraced by disabled customers, she began working with disabled models.
"Initially, we didn’t start out by showing true diversity in our advertising and it was in part because we’re a young company going through the growing pains that all start-ups face," she tells Bustle. "But we took a step back and listened to our customers."
Once Mohammadian recognized she had disabled customers who simply weren't getting what they needed from other brands, she knew she had to hire disabled models. "Our mission is to empower women and make them feel confident regardless of their situation," she says. "So in order for us to spread that message we think it is important for women to embrace their individuality. And what better way to tell our story then through the eyes of our customers?"
Mohammadian kick-started an ambassador program within Slick Chicks, and brought in disabled models and disability advocates like Dr. Danielle Sheypuk, who has also collabed with nonprofit Runway of Dreams, campaigning for companies to produce more adaptive lingerie.
And the disabled models Slick Chicks works with, Mohammadian says, aren't professional models. "These women have powerful voices and share in our mission of empowering others, so we want to celebrate their accomplishments," she says. "Instead of hiring professional models, we love to spotlight these real women in their day-to-day lives and give them a platform to bring awareness to a cause they are advocating. It's really important to us that women feel empowered and confident in our products."
3. Origami Customs
Who they design for: Everyone, with particular attention to transgender and gender-nonconforming people.
Rachel Hill, founder of Origami Customs, knows a thing or two about casting layperson models. "My first photoshoots were taken in Costa Rica, so although the models now in North American context seem diverse, they were just my Costa Rican friends," Hill tells Bustle.
They handmake each Origami Customs piece, and offer a range of products including custom-fitted lingerie, like this strappy open-frame bra harness.
"I've always used models from my own community," they continue. "When I moved back to Canada, this tended to be inclusive of a lot of queer, trans, and gender-nonconforming people. And [when I was just starting with Origami Customs], I still modelled the majority of my photos on my own body, just for practical reasons. While I certainly have a normative body in many ways, the dialogue has certainly shifted since I've come out as nonbinary."
Now, Hill says 90 percent of the images on the Origami Customs website feature gender-nonconforming models. "Every time I [photograph] items on diverse models, I get a lot of wonderful feedback from customers online," they say. "When I asked my customers this year what they wanted to see more of on social media, the answer was, overwhelmingly, that people wanted to see the products on lots of different body types."
But for every customer out there whose body falls outside the thin, cisgender, white, abled "ideal," there are more customers who won't purchase items shown on diverse models, Hill says. They tell Bustle an item will sell up to four times more if the model wearing it has a normative body.
"I still photograph everything on as many types of people as possible, but the reality is that a lot of normative customers won't buy an item if it's shown on a body that doesn't look like theirs," they explain. "This is a conversation that I'm trying to have, to let people know that they need to vote with their money if they want to see diverse models."
4. Shy Natives
Who they design for: Cisgender women of all sizes, with particular attention to Native women.
Like Hill, sisters Jordan and Madison Craig plan to cast from within their community. Their lingerie company Shy Natives isn't set to launch until 2018, but the sisters, who are Northern Cheyenne, have already been featured on tea&bannock, a site celebrating indigenous women photographers, wearing their own products.
"Jordan is a printmaker, painter, and designer, and Madison sews and draws," the sisters tell Bustle. They didn't expect to join the fashion world; instead, they got their start out of sheer necessity.
"Not too long ago, Madison made her first bralette because she couldn’t find one that fit her frame in the stores," they explain. "Cups never quite fit right, or the band would be too loose or tight. We know other women have similar issues with finding underwear that fits and looks appealing, so we created Shy Natives to make custom-made lingerie to fit all women."
They add, "Lingerie is the most intimate apparel you can wear in the sense that it directly hugs the body. It should be as comfortable as possible and make women feel confident and beautiful. Shy Natives aims to create sensual, stylish, and exceptionally comfortable lingerie that women look forward to wearing."
Turning a necessity into a company didn't mean making their lingerie any less personal. "We included the word Natives [in our company name] because our Native American identity is fundamental to our brand's concept: We strive to empower Indigenous Peoples in our work. Also, we are Northern Cheyenne, and we like that Shy and Chey are homophones."
Currently, in the brand's prelaunch phase, the sisters design, sew, photograph, and model their own lingerie creations. "In the near future, we plan on featuring Indigenous models in Shy Natives lingerie," the sisters tell Bustle. "We are incredibly excited to work with other Natives and showcase the beautiful diversity amongst Indigenous Peoples."
Like all the other brands in this piece, Shy Natives will be working with non-models who represent their community and their customers. "Our Native models do not need to have modeling experience; if a Native woman feels confident, beautiful, and even a little shy in our lingerie, we would love to feature her!" the sisters say.
They add, "We want to work with Natives of all tribes and ages. It is important that our company works with marginalized models, especially Indigenous Peoples. We are still here, and we are incredibly resilient and strong."
While the fight to see marginalized models taking fashion week runways by storm may feel like a losing fight when we only have incremental gains to celebrate, companies like SmartGlamour, Slick Chicks, Origami Customs, and Shy Natives, who are purposefully designing underwear and lingerie for not only a range of bodies, but a range of identities, remind us that there are folks out there fighting to change the standard, and to truly embrace marginalized customers.