James Corbin never set out to be a model. Scouted on Instagram during the 2020 lockdown, the 24-year-old’s first-ever shoot was for the revered fashion magazine, Vogue Italia.
At 6ft 1in Corbin has the height of a traditional runway model. However, with a 56-inch chest and 44-inch waist – taking a size 3XL – he fell into a male modeling category he wasn’t familiar with: plus-size.
“A casting director sent me a message on Instagram,” says Corbin, who has regularly posted his OOTD (outfit of the day) and shopping haul videos on YouTube from his home in London. “I thought it was to assist on a shoot, as I had recently graduated from studying film at university. I was so confused that it was me they wanted to photograph.”
Pictures of the shoot with Corbin topless while leaning against a wicker basket, were published in July 2020 and immediately went viral.
Within hours, Naomi Campbell had reposted it on social media, and Corbin received hundreds of comments and messages from viewers, many telling him they were thrilled to see someone who looked like them in a high fashion magazine.
There were also some negative comments, something Corbin says he has become accustomed to. “People try to link plus-size with being unhealthy. It’s just an excuse for them to be fatphobic. I go to the gym and everyone assumes I’m undertaking some sort of body transformation process. For me, body positivity is how I feel about my body regardless of what size my body is.”
Since his appearance in Vogue Italia, Corbin has signed with Supa, a London based agency focused on breaking boundaries and championing inclusivity. He has fronted campaigns for Levi’s and Valentino and starred in editorials for Dazed. But for him, the catwalk – the birthplace of size zero – still remains elusive. He is not alone.
Vogue Business found that just eight out of 69 shows during the autumn/winter 2023 menswear season – which took place last June across Europe – included one plus-size male model. The season before that, the number was seven out of 77 shows.
The brands that did include a plus-size male were emerging ones, such as Etudes and Kidsuper, rather than established fashion houses.
This season so far the number looks set to be even lower. Aside from Pharrell Williams – who, during his Tuesday-night debut as creative director of Louis Vuitton included a variety of body shapes including petite, tall and curvier – models have fallen into two camps: traditionally sample-sized, with a 28- to 30 -inch waist, or gym-honed beefcakes.
“We need to see all different body types for true diversity,” says Corbin. “Even plus-size is a spectrum. Someone may have broad shoulders and a tall frame but may not have a bigger stomach. Someone with a bigger stomach can have small arms. Using one [plus-size] a model in a show is not a representation.” Adds Corbin: “I don’t mind the term plus-size, but I would never describe myself as a plus-size model. When you look at me, it’s obvious that’s what I am. Fashion loves to categorize. I would prefer to get to a place where a model is a model.”
Recently there has been a focus on womenswear, with plus-size models such as Ashley Graham, Precious Lee and Paloma Elsesser becoming household names, walking for major brands including Versace and Fendi and appearing on magazine covers such as US Vogue.
However, the luxury menswear market continues to lag behind. It’s not due to a lack of interest from the public, either. Research shows that every year, UK lazy are continuing to get bigger. The average UK male now has a 43-inch chest and 37-inch waist, wearing a size XL or above.
According to the research agency GlobalData, the menswear plus-size market is predicted to become one of the strongest performer drivers in the UK fashion market over the next five years.
High street brands such as H&M and Asos have plus-size sections, but the range of sizes is more limited when it comes to the majority of luxury brands. Selecting the “5XL” tab on Mr Porter brings up just 192 clothing options compared to more than 8,000 when the “L” tab is selected.
Anna Shillinglaw, who founded Milk Management, says the plus-size male model market is at a similar stage to how the plus-size women’s was at the beginning.
While female models can be anywhere from a UK size 12 to 22 and upwards, Shillinglaw says the measurements for men are much more specific. “They want men to be both big and tall,” she says. This made it harder to scout both male models and to cast them. For example a rugby player may meet the chest requirements, but if he is under 5ft 10in, he would generally be ruled out.
“It’s completely different to the female market,” says Shillinglaw. “The number of clients who book models from our female curve division compared to models from the male curve division is so much bigger. It’s not for a lack of trying – the business just isn’t there.”
Both Shillinglaw and Corbin cite designer sample sizes as a prohibitive factor in the category’s growth. Often there are simply no clothes to fit a plus-size male.
Casting director Christie Phedon continues to discuss the topic with clients to see what is possible, and to create positive change. “To make true size inclusivity a reality, it needs to start with the ranges within the brands,” says Phedon. “The luxury market simply isn’t catering to larger sizes in their stock, so they are not always following suits in their campaigns and shows.”
While Corbin has had positive runway experiences with designers such as SS Daley and Tommy Hilfiger, other times he has left feeling uncomfortable. “I’d love to wear something like a clean suit, but often my body is treated like a spectacle,” he says. “My measurements have been taken during the casting process, yet when I arrive backstage there are a lot of clothes for the other models but they’ve decided they are going to just drape me in a cloth. Sometimes on the runway I feel like I’m just being used to make a statement.”
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