Hayley Morley, 21, five foot nine, a size 14 and a model for two years, is big in fashion circles. And I mean big as in large. In the world in which Morley works, even size 12 would make her "plus size". It doesn't bother her, she sighs: "I'm very happy the way I am.
I have never felt any pressure to change my size or lose weight for my job." Work at the international fashion weeks in London, Paris and Milan, however, is rare.
Models like Morley can't walk the catwalk because they don't fit into the size eight samples. The "big" girls get most of their work posing for mail-order clothes catalogues aimed at the larger lady.
Until now. Last month Morley was one of three "plus size models" – sizes 12 and 14 – at the show by knitwear designer Mark Fast for London Fashion Week.
It caused a storm. The pictures of Morley in Mark Fast's sexy cobweb dresses – with Gwyneth Harrison and Laura Catterall – made front-page news around the world. "I was shocked by the coverage. I had no idea it would be such a big deal. I was just doing my job."
But Morley's job description is changing. She has become part of a sea change that has swept across the fashion industry in the past month. Suddenly women who don't look emaciated – or even svelte – are part of fashion's story. For anyone sick of seeing dangerously underweight adolescents dominate the style landscape (and who isn't?), this was what they call in the trade "a moment". For some of us, it feels like a cultural turning point, long overdue.
For the past century, and long before, extremes of the female form have been celebrated. In the 20s you were out of fashion if you had breasts, whereas in the 40s you needed an ample bosom. In the 60s, Twiggy took us back to the flat-chested, boyish form. Then we returned, in the 80s, to the Amazonian image with models like Cindy Crawford. For the past 20 years, though, we have been stuck with variations on the waif. Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira may have all supposedly heralded the acceptability of curves (all, incidentally, tiny in real life), but the models on the catwalks, and in the magazines, have continued to shrink.
The concern over super-skinny models has been growing in recent years. In 2006, model Luisel Ramos died during Uruguayan Fashion Week, having fasted for several days. Later the same year, Ana Carolina Reston, a Brazilian model, was killed by an infection resulting from anorexia nervosa. Earlier this year, British Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman wrote to all the major design houses about her concerns that models have "jutting bones and no breasts or hips", they have to wear "minuscule" garments and that Vogue frequently has to retouch photographs to make the models appear larger. There have been repeated calls to see a greater variety of sizes on the catwalks and in photoshoots but, until recently, these seem to have fallen on deaf ears within the fashion industry.
Designers have always claimed that the practicalities of designing for lots of different shapes at once are nightmarish. Most of them work up to the last possible moment on their catwalk shows, often finishing the clothes only in the last few hours before the curtain goes up. There is no time to make these one-off pieces in multiple sizes or even to fit them for an individual woman's shape. Having one sample size, which can be fitted on interchangeable women, frees up the designers and the magazine stylists, saving time and money. It allows the fashion bibles – with lead times of two or three months – to get the clothes photographed before they appear in the shops. It's basically a marketing issue.
Fashion commentator Caryn Franklin understands this. The problem for her is that the sample size – and, with it, the girls – just got way too small. It is currently size eight. "The collection that changed everything for me was Balenciaga a couple of seasons ago. Nearly every young woman had legs whose thickest part was the knee. I found it deeply upsetting. And it was a collection that got enormous praise."
Debra Bourne has worked with designers such as John Galliano since the 80s. "In 20 years," she says, "I have witnessed the difference. Ten years ago it wasn't like this. The original supermodels – Naomi Campbell, Tatjana Patitz – these were curvy women by today's standards."
The controversy over the Mark Fast show, though, seems to have contributed to a new mood of aesthetic realism. Last month, US Glamour published a picture of a naked model, Lizzie Miller: 5ft 11, 12.5 stone and rejected by several fashion houses. The magazine's readers, scandalised, flooded its website with messages of support. This came just as Crystal Renn – the world's only size 14 supermodel – published her autobiography, detailing how she starved herself down to seven stone to get into modelling before re-establishing her natural weight – 12 stone – and becoming a favourite with modish photographers such as Steven Meisel and Patrick Demarchelier. Elsewhere, the hourglass figure of Madmen actor Christina Hendricks (36-32-36) has been celebrated in US Vogue, Lily Allen is the face of Chanel's latest ad campaign and the voluptuous Paloma Faith is riding high in the charts.
This new, more inclusive direction has been prompted by a wave of influences, from the economic to the technological. Perhaps the establishment of a new, less uniform, more "normal" aesthetic is a natural consequence of the extremes of Photoshop. After a decade of airbrushing, it is now apparent what happens when it becomes routine. Magazines and advertising shots are full of people unlike anyone you are ever likely to see in real life. Even the style mavens are rebelling against it.
Earlier this month, Andreas Lebert, editor-in-chief of Germany's bestselling women's title, Brigitte, announced that from 2010 the magazine would no longer use models but instead would pay ordinary women model rates to appear in photoshoots. "For years we've had to use Photoshop to fatten the girls up," he said. "Especially their thighs and decolletage. But this is disturbing and perverse, and what has it got to do with our real reader?"
Another force for change is the rising power of the high street, and the pressures of the recession. In these competitive times, high-end designers have no choice but to wake up and give people what they want, Franklin says. "The fashion industry has finally begun to hear the anger that is out there at their inability to listen. Women actually want something in return if they're going to pledge their loyalty to a brand. These are tough times and this whole change might just be driven by brands saying to themselves, 'We didn't have to listen before… but we do now'."
British high street designers have always understood the importance of customers' different sizes, she adds, because they have always had to cater for a "normal" woman whose average size is 16. At last month's London Fashion Week, Marks & Spencer came to the rescue of catwalk initiative All Walks Beyond The Catwalk – a show matching designers with models aged 18 to 65, sizes eight to 16 – when the organisers ran short of cash. The high street increasingly leads the way in terms of harnessing spending power, Franklin says. "Fashion has become democratised by mainstream retailers. Now we see something on the catwalk and we are able to access it."
This means consumers are no longer beholden to the design houses. They can easily buy cheap copies of their pieces, after all. The high street – influenced though it is by the fashion industry – has to some extent given the shopper the power to reject any aesthetic she dislikes. What drives trends is changing, too: celebrities, TV, the internet. People are as likely to get their ideas of what to wear from The X Factor or online fashion store Asos as they are from a magazine. The catwalks no longer dictate everything. Perhaps the time is approaching when they won't dictate much at all.
Using size 12 models is not without its problems. Mark Fast's show caused such a stir because a respected stylist, Erika Kurihara, one-time fashion editor of style bible i-D, dropped out at the last minute. She argued later that the three larger girls didn't have the "walk" down as well as the more experienced, slimmer girls. She said she wanted the three size 12-14 models to look perfect, because they would get so much attention.
Afterwards, many fashion types did in fact comment that the three girls could have been better styled: the clothes looked small on them and their underwear was cutting into them. In fashion, these details make all the difference. "It was pointed out that their boobs were jiggling up and down," Shulman says. "The girls were at a slight disadvantage and it wasn't because they were bigger, it was because the clothes didn't suit them." We have to be wary of tokenism, she says. "You want to see a few bigger models from time to time and get the eye adjusted to the idea that a more rounded shape is attractive." But she agrees that something significant is happening. "I don't think the Mark Fast show alone will change anything. Or one picture in Glamour. It's not as simple as that. You are trying to change a whole culture. But my own feeling is a slight optimism that things will be changing."
Mark Fast was able to include girls with different figures because he shows knitwear: it's stretchy. He is keen to play down the politics of his move, not wanting to irritate other designers. "I wasn't trying to make a huge statement," he says, "Like, 'Look, you're not doing it right.' I just thought it was time: I see so many beautiful women out there and I just want to put them on the catwalk. I think attitudes are changing. There is something in the air. Some people are picking up on it. Others… not so quickly."
Karl Lagerfeld has been swift to respond negatively to the new direction, describing as "absurd" Brigitte magazine's decision to use real women. He said recently that the pro-diversity movement is driven by overweight women who don't want to face their own issues: "These are fat mummies sitting with their bags of crisps in front of the television, saying that thin models are ugly." He added that fashion is to do with "dreams and illusions, and no one wants to see round women". (Anyone remember Lagerfeld when he was six stone heavier than he is now?) Despite Lagerfeld's tirade, however, the fact that Lily Allen – no six foot model – was the centrepiece of his most recent show speaks volumes. She was the inspiration behind his new collection and features in a massive ad campaign. He may not want to admit it, but perhaps he's more influenced by public feeling than he realises.
Meanwhile Sarah Watkinson, 38, who runs Hayley Morley's model agency, 12+ UK, is busier than ever, with 36 models from size 12 to 18 on her books. The nature of the work they are being offered has changed this year, she says: "I've had one girl appear in Italian Vogue's jewellery supplement – it was a beautiful nude shoot. We've had covers for British magazine supplements. It used to be that they could model only for German catalogue clients – not the kind of clothes my girls would like to wear in real life." Until recently Morley, for example, modelled for Anna Scholz, Elena Miro and Littlewoods – all so-called plus size jobs. Now lingerie bookings are booming: "Most of my girls are a 34DD, and someone who is buying a bra for that size wants to see what it really looks like." Progress will be limited, though, she adds, until these girls are on the covers of the big magazines: Vogue, Elle, Harper's Bazaar.
This is the time for them to seize the moment. There is no need to cast aside all the pretty skinny young things currently gracing the ad campaigns: they, too, have their place. But let in some women with a different look. As therapist Susie Orbach says, this is a chance for all women to change how we feel about our bodies: "If you watch something like Loose Women on television – I caught it at the gym the other day – you have the worst kind of misogynist, internalised self-hatred from women about their own bodies. We need a cultural change on that front. I don't think [sample size] is the size women think they should be. But they see they're not represented in a beautiful way in other sizes."
This is fashion's opportunity to make all women – who are their customers, after all – feel like they matter. Morley recalls getting her biggest high not from the Mark Fast show – which attracted huge publicity – but from the next one she did, for another new designer, William Tempest. That show passed without fuss and her "curvy" presence was not singled out. "It was just like normal. There was no controversy. It felt great."
That's all we want. To feel great. Hell, to feel normal.