Syracuse University Magazine

Passion for Fashion

Supermodel Emme ’85 (above right) kicks off the inaugural year of her Fashion Without Limits initiative during a convocation at the Nancy Cantor Warehouse last fall.     Photo by Steve Sartori

Passion for Fashion

Syracuse University and supermodel Emme are shaping the future of apparel design for full-figured women

By Christine Yackel

A wave of change is sweeping across the American apparel landscape. No longer will full-figured women be relegated to wearing muumuus and tent dresses thanks to the extraordinary efforts of supermodel and entrepreneur Emme ’85, who for more than a decade has been on a mission to attain equal fashion status for consumers wearing size 12 and above. “Although the average American woman wears a 14/16, department stores typically carry only one or two items in that size,” says Emme, who achieved international fame in the ’90s as the world’s first “plus-size” supermodel and is a nationally renowned advocate for positive body image and self-esteem. “Curvy women want fashionable clothes too, yet designers, manufacturers, and retailers continue to overlook our needs.”

Emme knew she had to think innovatively if she had any hope of modernizing a 120-year-old apparel industry steeped in tradition. Toward that end, she explored forming a partnership with her alma mater to teach the next generation of designers how to create fashion forward apparel for all women, including those with full figures. She proposed sponsoring Fashion Without Limits—a competition for students in the junior-year draping class who would design an evening dress exclusively for her. The winner of the competition was Nicole Wezowicz ’16 (see below), whose design was selected by Emme with input from the design faculty at the end of the spring semester. She will receive the 12+ Emme Award and $500. As an added bonus, Emme will wear the winning design at a red carpet event or in a fashion magazine photo. “My fashion design colleague, Jeffrey Mayer, and I thought it was a great idea, so we had Emme come to campus to kick off the competition last fall,” says Professor Todd Conover ’95, fashion design program coordinator in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA). “Someday we’ll look back and wonder why the 12-plus market has been overlooked for so long.”


Panelists at the Fashion Without Limits: Changing the Face of Fashion media breakfast held in November at the Fisher Center in New York City included (from left) Susan Moses, Aimee Cheshire, Liz Black, Marshal Cohen, Jeffrey Mayer, Todd Conover, and Emme.     Photo by John A. Hudetz

Billion-Dollar Bonanza
Last November, VPA hosted a media breakfast at Syracuse University’s Fisher Center in New York City to publicly launch the project and discuss the ongoing challenges full-figured women face when shopping for clothes. The panel discussion, Fashion Without Limits: Changing the Face of Fashion, was moderated by Emme and featured Aimee Cheshire, co-founder and president of, an online shopping site for full-figured fashions; Liz Black, who writes the P.S. It’s Fashion blog; Susan Moses, celebrity stylist and designer; Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of the NPD Group; and faculty members Conover and Mayer.  

Moses spoke passionately about her belief that women of all ages, shapes, and sizes crave beautiful clothing that is stylish, comfortable, and flattering. Yet department and specialty stores offer limited selections for full-figured women, who are often consigned to online shopping only—adding time and extra expense to what can be an already frustrating experience. Women also pay more for plus-size apparel, while big and tall men do not. Black, a vocal advocate for inclusive fashion, said she believes the marketplace for full-figured women is slowly improving and that the brands that don’t get on board will soon be out of business. The panelists agreed that expanding the 12-plus market just makes good business sense.

Cohen estimates 68 percent of women in this country wear size 12 and above, yet only 15 percent of the $100 billion fashion industry is geared toward this underserved population. That leaves about $12 to $14 billion worth of business on the table each year—$17 billion if you add in petite plus and junior plus sizes, Cohen says. He noted online sales show that full-figured fashions have real value in the marketplace. With a 500 percent increase in revenue this past year alone, Cheshire’s online success is proof positive that serving this niche market can be lucrative. “Not catering to those extended sizes seems silly to me,” says Michelle Lee ’16, a fashion design major who attended the media event last fall. “In order for me to accomplish anything within the fashion design industry, I believe I need to know about more than just what looks good on a size 6 model.”


Ashley Blume ’16 drapes her evening wear design in muslin on a plus-size dress form donated by Wolf Form Company.     Photo by Michelle Lee ’16

Curves Ahead
At first, not all of the fashion design students were as enthusiastic as Lee about the Fashion Without Limits initiative. Some were uncomfortable with the idea because, like most young designers, they aspire to create chic fashions for the rail-thin models who strut down the runways of Paris and New York. After much lively discussion, Conover realized not all of the students wanted to be part of this cultural shift, so he made the competition optional. In the end, 90 percent of the students embraced the project. “I think some of the students may have been apprehensive about the idea of designing for an actual person,” says Hannah Ballinger ’16, who had previous experience doing client-based custom work. “I was very excited about the project because the plus-size movement is gaining momentum, and I know this opportunity will have a major impact on my career.”  

By conducting research and keeping weekly journals throughout the creative process, students learned to think beyond stereotypes when designing apparel for a woman’s curvy proportions. They soon discovered that drafting a pattern for size 12 and above is not as simple as scaling up a size 6 because the sleeves would hit the floor. So they began by draping their designs in muslin on size 16, 18, and 20 dress forms donated by Wolf Form Company of Englewood, New Jersey, and then turned the drapes into paper patterns. They sewed their garments up again in muslin to check the fit and make any needed alterations, then cut them out of final fabric and sewed them together. “During the inaugural year of the project, the students developed their design ideas in consultation with Emme to reflect her specific style and color preferences,” Conover says. “In the future, we’ll make it more general so students will have greater freedom in the design process.”

Emme has made a five-year commitment to the Fashion Without Limits competition, after which time she hopes the concept will be well integrated into the curriculum. Since there are no existing guidelines on the art and science of designing apparel for the full-figured woman, Emme and the SU fashion design team are collaborating on writing the first textbooks of their kind, as well as developing a new curriculum that will revolutionize how fashion design is taught. “We want Syracuse University to be the first fashion design school to develop this idea, and then we’ll make what we learn available to the global fashion industry so that full-figured women’s fashion needs can be served,” Emme says. “It is going to make me very happy to see millions of self-confident women looking and feeling fabulous because of this program.” «

Learn More...

For more information on the full-figured fashion revolution, go to EmmeNation.

To view a video of the Fashion Without Limits: Changing the Face of Fashion event, click here.

Fashion Without Limits Competition Winner


Nicole Wezowicz '16

“I am extremely proud to be selected as the winner. It is an accomplishment and honor to be a part of the Fashion Without Limits competition. It empowers the idea that in fashion, all shapes and sizes are beautiful. There is no better feeling to know that all of my hard work and dedication are paying off not only from this competition, but as a fashion design student. Winning this competition is a great stepping stone for myself as an aspiring designer to become more recognized in this very competitive field. I hope that I can continue to grow and further myself as a designer.”

—Nicole Wezowicz '16, fashion design major, College of Visual and Performing Arts

About the Design: The fabrics I selected for my design were a cobalt blue stretch satin and a navy lace with embroidery. While designing this dress one thing I focused on was making sure the dress had a form of stretch to it. This is something Emme emphasized to the junior class when she came up to Syracuse in the fall for our first meeting. The cobalt blue satin fabric I used had a shiny side and a more matte finished side. I used the shiny side for the waist belt of the dress and the non-shiny side for the majority of the dress. The navy embroidered lace was scalloped along the top of the dress and was used for the skirt of the dress flowing into a long train in the back. I wanted the fabrics chosen for my design to be classy, elegant, and make the woman wearing it feel luxurious as well as comfortable.

Photo by Steve Sartori

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