Is this the end of Paris thin?

Patty Huntington traces the origins of the ‘Paris thin’ ideal in the fashion industry on this side of the world.

Twice a year, the world looks to Paris and the other big fashion cities to see what we’ll be wearing next season. It’s not your imagination that the models are looking younger and thinner than ever before.
In April 2015, France passed a law that sets a minimum weight for catwalk models. The French Parliament’s lower house voted through three ‘anti-anorexia’ amendments to a new health reform bill, proposing a ban on employing models with a Body Mass Index (height-to-weight ratio) below 18. Model agencies and fashion houses found in breach would face fines of 75,000 euros (NZ$106,000) and six months imprisonment.
Two other amendments seek to criminalise commercial images where a model’s body has been modified to look thinner without disclosure, and an outlawing of ‘thinspiration’ or ‘pro ana’ websites, which glorify anorexia. For the first time in history, governments may start to dictate the ideals that designers peddle to the masses.
The fashion industry watched nervously. For the first time in history, governments have started to dictate the ideals that designers peddle to the masses.
“I think they [designers in France] will follow the rules as they are forced to, but I don’t think we are going to see a revolution in body size on the French runways,” says Wayne Sterling, co-founder of New York-based Models.com and now the Creative Director of Mix Model Management.
Christy Quilliam in 1996.
Yet as one international model scout noted, referring to one of their biggest international names, “Someone like ‘Juliet X’ is probably not going to pass that test. And so what does that do? It changes everything.”
Insiders say the industry has suffered dual blows from an influx of extremely young girls from Eastern Europe – some as young as 12 – plus a post-9/11 crash in advertising rates.
“Girls were used to six figures before 2001,” says one New York producer. “So who would accept $10,000? The 16-year-old girl who’s just starting out. All of a sudden, clients discovered they could get the same [look] with these girls, who were just more or less like disposable mannequins. They were younger, and they were thinner. There wasn’t the crucial need for the supermodel any more. Since then, the money hasn’t really gone back up.”
In the mid-2000s, international runway sample sizes dropped – from a US 2-4 (NZ 6-8) to US 0-2 (NZ 4-6). According to a health list compiled using data from the World Health Organisation in 2012, the average Kiwi woman weighs 74.6kg. Our average size is 12-14.
“You can clearly see the girls who are naturally slim and the ones who are struggling – they’re grey and pale, and black under the eyes, listless and using substances to keep themselves going. And everybody turns a blind eye,” says Chelsea Bonner, director of plus-size model agency Bella Model Management.
In her book The Vogue Factor, former editor Kirstie Clements points to 2004 as the time models became ‘Paris thin’ – with one agent revealing they had four models in hospital from extreme diets, such as eating orange juice-soaked tissues.
After at least six eating disorder-related model deaths from 2006-2007 in South America and Israel hit the news, a range of mostly voluntary initiatives began. This included bans on under-16 models. At New Zealand Fashion Week, models who are just shy of 16 are sometimes allowed to take part, but must be chaperoned at all times and need approval from event director Dame Pieter Stewart.
“There was one girl who said she was 15, then I found out she was 13,” Pieter recalls. “I said absolutely no, that’s just too young.”
With no formal legislation on how slim a model working in New Zealand can be, decisions on the size of those hired is down to each designer’s taste. But Pieter believes Kiwi models tend to be more wholesome.
“They aren’t the sort of really skinny types you might see in Paris,” she explains. “Sometimes I see a model here who is on the skinny side and usually they have come from overseas. Most designers are aware of [not using girls who are too thin], and I talk to the modelling agencies and tell them to make sure everyone is healthy looking. We’ve never looked at [enforcing minimum] BMIs; I don’t think it’s our job to do that.”
Cassi van den Dungen in 2014.
Christy Quilliam, a model now based in New Zealand, was held up as an example of how models were excessively thin as long ago as 1996. Taking to the runway at The Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Australia (MBFWA) in a Morrissey Edmiston olive green swimsuit, the sight of the top Australian model’s ribs protruding through a cut-out midriff led to headlines screaming ‘Too thin!’
Work dried up overnight, says Christy. The 1.55m model says she was a size 8 at the time – at least one size bigger than many runway models today. “I was naturally that size – I was working hard and I was definitely not starving myself,” she continues. “I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. I saw the moving footage and you can see me turn and take a breath, and that’s why my ribs became so prevalent.
“All of a sudden, I’ve gone from just being a model to being this spectacle,” says Christy, who travelled to New York later that year to look for work there, only to be told she needed to lose an inch from her hips. “I wasn’t prepared to lose more weight – that would have made me anorexic,” she says.
Fast-forward two decades and what has changed? Internationally, runway models are thinner.
Designer Alex Perry wishes he had cancelled model Cassi van den Dungen for his show last year. After doing Perry’s 2014 show, Cassi was widely slammed as underweight. “I kind of dropped the ball [in the fittings]. I knew she was thin, but it wasn’t shocking to me,” says Alex. He also partially blames “brutal” runway lighting for highlighting Cassi’s thin frame, while other even slimmer models in the show escaped scrutiny.
“The image I sent out there, I felt embarrassed about. I recoiled from it. She copped a lot of flak, I copped a lot of flak.”
Back on home soil, Pieter believes the quest to be rake thin is not part of the Kiwi model’s mindset.
“Backstage they do eat, they’re not watching what they eat. [Trying to be super skinny] is an attitude we don’t understand here. I think we’re a lot more responsible and aware.”
Words by: Patty Huntington, additional reporting by Sara Bunny
Photos: Getty Images, Newspix

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