The rising star talks runway representation, reclamation, and pushing for real, meaningful change in fashion
When Versace sent three models whose bodies didn’t fit fashion’s historically narrow body ideals down the runway this season, if you didn’t know better, you’d swear they’d been there the whole time. Strutting out alongside Adut Akech and Mariacarla Boscono, Jill Kortleve, Precious Lee, and Alva Claire embodied everything the Versace woman is understood to be – powerful, strong, and sexy, with exactly the kind of bombshell attitude Donatella has been championing for the last two decades.
Making history as the first ‘plus-size’ models to ever walk for Versace, seeing Kortleve, Claire, and Lee out there felt like a monumental moment not just for the Italian house or even the fashion industry, but for wider culture and society as a whole. With catwalks still largely devoid of models above a sample-size, that a label whose name is known far beyond the realms of fashion had included women with bodies like theirs seemed to herald a long-awaited, seismic change. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t continue with ‘business as usual’ – seemingly, designers are finally realising that includes the message they’re sending the world when it comes to their models.
Speaking to Alva Claire on the phone a few days after the show, despite a dodgy WiFi signal doing its best to cut our conversation off, it’s clear she also feels the gravity of the moment. “It was all so surreal, but from the very beginning of my trip (to Milan) I felt quite emotional about it. It felt like a historic moment from the get-go and I knew it was extremely important. It was just so incredible to be in that environment and to feel like I belonged there,” she explains. “But beyond just me, knowing what walking that catwalk would do for models coming up behind me and a new generation of girls seeing themselves reflected in fashion felt pretty moving, you know? Being the person you wished you’d had growing up is quite amazing.”
Versace wasn’t Claire’s only huge gig this season, though. Just a week later, the South London-born, New York-based model also made her second appearance as part of Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty line-up, starring alongside everyone from Normani, Lizzo, and Paris Hilton, through to Rico Nasty, Rosalía, and Paloma Elsesser. Where fashion’s progress in representing a diverse range of bodies is still painfully slow, and Victoria’s Secret was adamant anyone bigger than a size ten didn’t figure in ‘the fantasy’ at all, Ri’s utopic vision of the runway showed just how easy it really was – and signalled real change for Claire. “That’s where it all starts, right at the very top,” she says. “Put us on the runway, it trickles down to the magazines, put us in the magazines, then we’re on billboards – and eventually it trickles down into aspects of our society. Savage x Fenty is like a battle cry.”
Here, we get to know Claire better as she discusses her hopes for fashion and beyond, the long road to true representation on the runway, and her dream booking.
Hey Alva! Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get into modelling?
Alva Claire: I mean, how long have you got?! I was scouted on a lot of different occasions when I was younger, but nothing ever really came of it. Then when I was in my late teens I was reading one of those cheap magazines in the corner shop that had an article on plus-size models in it. There was an agency listed at the bottom, so I applied because I thought it looked cool and I was interested in modelling, and they took me on. I’m 28 now so it’s been ten years since I first got signed, and it was so vastly different to how it is now – back then there was so little work around for someone like me, you know, if you didn’t fit these exact measurements or this exact height.
What was it like coming into fashion at that time? What kind of jobs were you doing?
Alva Claire: I didn’t work much! ASOS was one of my first jobs, but I was also doing a lot of stuff modelling clothes for women double my age who were much larger, which, because I was a size 12 at the time, kind of didn’t feel fair to them? At the same time I was at London College of Fashion studying art and design, and although I didn’t know in what capacity back then, I’ve always been obsessed with being a part of the industry.
“Knowing what (seeing me) walking that catwalk would do for models coming up behind me and a new generation of girls seeing themselves reflected in fashion felt pretty moving, you know? Being the person you wished you’d had growing up is quite amazing” – Alva Claire
How did you land the Versace gig?
Alva Claire: It happened really fast! I was working in LA on the Fenty show and had to film a casting while I was there, not long before the actual (Versace) show at all. I feel like things are changing quite quickly right now, in fashion and beyond in global society, and I didn’t know what this season would bring. And it brought Versace!
How did you feel on the actual day when it was all going down? Did you feel the gravity of what was happening and that you were making fashion history?
Alva Claire: It was so surreal! I definitely felt the importance of it because Versace is such an iconic, legendary fashion house. It goes beyond even household name, like, it’s in a fashion league of its own. I was actually quite emotional about it, it felt very historical from the get-go and I knew it was an important moment. For my nerves and myself I just had to focus on what each day was going to bring with fittings and prep and try to not think so much about it because I didn’t want to overwhelm myself.
I’m so not surprised you were emotional, it was also a really moving moment for me and I’m sure plenty of others who were watching…
Alva Claire: What were your thoughts, tell me!
So my mind immediately went back ten years to that Mark Fast show (SS10) when he cast size 12 and 14 models and I finally saw women whose bodies represented my own on the runway. I remember thinking ‘This is it! Things are changing!’ and then… basically nothing. But watching the Versace show felt like a huge leap forward and the start of something big. There is so much further to go until the runway is truly body diverse, but I felt quite emotional thinking of a new gen of kids who perhaps feel like I did growing up seeing you on the runway and feeling powerful!
Alva Claire: It’s so interesting you mention that Mark Fast show from all those years ago – it happened when I first started modelling and I remember seeing it and thinking the same thing, ‘Wow, it’s happening!’ But actually, when I look back at that time, all the magazines and runways were very white and all the shows were full of skinny models. It felt like a gimmick in the end, and something we’ve seen happen so many times over the years. It often feels like brands do things like this for the press even now, when actually it should be… are we really going to do this, is this something that is not going to be a one-off season here, a one-off season there? It has to stop being ‘We’ve done a great job’ and then that’s it – we have to keep pushing on for true representation.
But it’s so nice to hear you say you were moved because if you think of all the people who’d worked in fashion who are also on the outside. To feel seen and valued in this industry and for young women, young men, young people to feel seen – what that can do for an individual and a person in their life is just incredible. It goes so far beyond fashion itself. It’s about the confidence and validity you feel day to day.
How did it feel walking with Jill and Precious? That also felt powerful, seeing all three of you together…
Alva Claire: So powerful. It was a big moment for us all. That unity was really special.
Something that was also great to see was that Donatella’s mindset seems to have changed, after she made some pretty controversial comments about her clothes ‘not being for everyone’ – meaning ‘plus-size’ women. It was nice to know that even these legendary designers who have been in fashion forever are making progress and reevaluating.
Alva Claire: Totally. Reading her Vogue interview, which was released just before the show, she talks about how there is no option but movement, inclusion, and change at this stage, which was interesting. Do we want this or not, are you human or not? I think people have learnt a lot this year, and it’s amazing to see such an iconic house act on that. It was really important that they did it and I think they should feel proud of themselves.
“It has to stop being ‘We’ve done a great job’ and then that’s it – (designers and brands) have to keep pushing on for true representation” – Alva Claire
I also want to talk to you about the terminology we use when we talk about models like you, Precious, and Jill. Historically the term has been ‘plus-size’ but we’ve found it to be a contentious subject on our Instagram when we used it. Obviously I hope it will get to the point when we’re not even talking about larger models being seen on the runway because it will be so normal, but without employing terms like ‘plus-size’ or ‘curve’ it’s difficult to talk about how monumental shows like Versace are. How do you feel about this? How do you refer to yourself?
Alva Claire: Yeah that’s hard because otherwise you’re like… ‘Model walks runway’ and everyone would be like… ‘Yeah, so?!’ (laughs). It’s interesting, because, for me, it feels subjective and down to the individual. We are our own people and I can only speak for myself.
Society has a way of sticking people in boxes, like, you go there, and you go there. People shouldn’t have to exist in a box, and however a girl wants to feel or refer to herself, it’s her choice. I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong. But when you consider the community in a wider sense, it almost has an adverse effect if I, as a UK 14-16, am being referred to as plus-size, then how is someone much larger going to feel? Or how are they going to feel if someone is being heralded as representing their community and they don’t feel that person does?
I generally just refer to myself as a model when I meet people, and sometimes that gets funny looks if I’m at a party or whatever – but for me it’s about subverting in peoples’ mind what they believe a model to be. When it comes down to it, yes I’m a curvy model, yes, I’m a plus-size model and I don’t take offence to any of those phrases being used because yes, those things are true. But first and foremost, before any other label, I’m Alva Claire, and I’m a model.
I feel like a lot of the stigma around these labels is because there’s still a negative connotation there – fatphobia is such a deep-rooted issue. We published an interview with an artist recently and she was talking about how she just wants to be referred to as fat, and there’s this growing movement of people who feel the same. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot and I’ve actually been starting to refer to myself in the same way, as a way to unlearn my own prejudices.
Alva Claire: Yes! It’s using terms that were used against us, it’s a reclamation of them. It’s interesting how those words can take on new meanings and new forms and the idea of owning something. Have you found your peers or your friends being alarmed by this, or have people noticed you’ve changed your terminology?
Totally, it’s the ‘You’re not fat, you’re pretty!’ for me…
Alva Claire: And ‘You’ve got a lovely face’, love that one. Or the ‘Oh I wish I had boobs!’ and it’s like… okay then! (laughs). I enjoy taking back the word ‘fat’, there’s a power to it. I don’t know how you feel but I feel so much more powerful than I did when I was at school, and not giving a shit any more. I remember looking at Glastonbury snaps and it was just like Kate Moss and Alexa Chung, and that was it, that was who I grew up seeing. Especially being a person of colour and being larger, it was like being invisible. Who did we see? Nobody.
Exactly. And I totally understand where people are coming from, but for now, I’m less concerned about the terminology, and more interested in celebrating this monumental, history-making moment…
Alva Claire: And it’s fucking incredible! And right now, it feels like we’re cementing it – this is not something that’s going to fade away and it’ll be like ‘Oh that moment that happened ten years ago’. It’s something that’s building momentum. I want to see girls in ten years time remembering this moment and saying we’re now doing all these things and our experiences are more positive inside this industry and beyond because of this incredible moment. I want us all to celebrate it!
“I want the teams behind the scenes to reflect the changes we’re seeing. You know, I’ll be on a lingerie shoot and the whole set is really skinny white women even though I’m working as a plus-size model” – Alva Claire
Talking of building momentum, where do you see yourself going from here? And what do you hope the future of fashion will look like?
Alva Claire: With every single season, I hope to see more and more girls like myself and my colleagues on the runway. I want fashion to push itself every season, every year, every month, and every day. I want to see things happen in a real way, not in the performative way we’ve seen historically. I think we’ve seen that a lot in fashion’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement, it really showed its arse, it was all just damage control. Let’s actually start working with depth and meaning, because surface-level things have been happening for so fucking long and I’m frustrated and angry, and things without depth are so frightening and cold to me.
For me and my own career, I want to be able to show my personality and my style – much like how you see models who are straight-size allowed to adopt lots of different personalities, I want to see that in my community. Sometimes, I dress really masculine and I think when you’re a curvier woman there’s this assumption you’re always going to be in skintight Fashion Nova dresses. I want to see women like us given freedom, a real sense of expression of the individual, and not be put in a box of the way this industry and society thinks we should be.
And I want the teams behind the scenes to reflect the changes we’re seeing. You know, I’ll be on a lingerie shoot and the whole set is really skinny white women even though I’m working as a plus-size model, and there will be fatphobic comments flying about – and then they turn round and they’re like ‘Oh, but not you!’ Slim women sitting around saying they need to be on a diet all the time when I’m sitting right there, and it’s interesting, because you know they’re battling their own issues, but it just shows how deeply fatphobia is embedded in our society, and how fearful people are of being seen as fat.
Basically, I want to see a deeper understanding of what inclusion means within this industry. I went around the houses, swam in the sea, and finally arrived at what I was trying to say (laughs).
And now you’ve ticked Versace off your list, do you have a dream runway you’d love to walk next?
Alva Claire: I suppose my dream runway is Alexander McQueen. My friend Jill’s done it, and it’s really incredible to see her up there! For me, he was one of the main reasons I became so interested in fashion and when I was in my late teens he was everything to me. There are so, so many I can think of, but McQueen, in part because it’s a British fashion house, is very dear to my heart. I loved that he reflected social change and things happening in society through his work, so McQueen would be my ultimate dream.