Celebrating the power of curves with Belle Models

Belle Models Agency

Annabelle Rose, founder of Belle Models. Images supplied.

Curves have yo-yoed in and out of favour in society for centuries and the fashion industry has had the most turbulent relationship with curvy bodies of all. While for the past 50 years fashion has mostly shunned bigger bodies to the sidelines, times are certainly changing and the past decade or so has seen a plus size revolution. It’s been particularly evident in the past few years with the likes of supermodel Ashley Graham strutting her size 16 body down the runway at many international fashion weeks and plus size model and activist Tess Holliday on the cover of Cosmopolitan. Fashion is finally waking up to the power of curves and the fact that plus size women are no longer willing to be sidelined.

Here in New Zealand that change was evident at New Zealand Fashion Week 2019 with more diversity seen on the runway than ever before. It was also the first time local plus size modeling agency Belle Models were invited to showcase some of their models at the NZFW casting, with some of the girls successfully cast in the designer’s shows. The agency is the brainchild of Annabelle Rose and is currently the first and only exclusively plus size modeling agency in NZ. Annabelle launched the agency in late 2017 after seeing the gap here for a body positive agency that focused on promoting curvy women.

We caught up with Annabelle to find out more about how Belle Models started and how she feels about diversity in the fashion industry? We also chatted to two models – Abigail and Tia – who are signed with Belle Models on their thoughts on the industry and plus size modelling too.

Where did the idea for Belle Models come from and what has the reception been like since you launched the agency?
I’ve been in the fashion and publication industry for over a decade and I’d always felt a bit of a disconnect, actually more so, genuinely let down with the status quo of female representation in our media. It was in 2016, when I launched an activewear label and was looking for plus, natural, curve, strong size models to shoot, that I realised, we have a serious situation here! I couldn’t find one agency representing these women. Since establishing Belle Models, the reception has been overwhelmingly positive, although it’s a tough old industry, we’re growing slowly.

What is it that you’re looking for when scouting for models?
Most importantly, confidence. We sign a really diverse group of wahines so when the dream brands want to diversify their imagery, we hope to be able to answer every brief with beautiful kiwi women of any shape and size.

How did it feel to see models from Belle Models at the casting for and on the runway of NZFW and how did the week go for you?
It was amazing! It felt surreal to see such a beautiful range of people at those castings. The week was awesome for us, we didn’t get selected for as many shows as we’d have loved but it’s always a start! And the women selected did a phenomenal job.

What has it been like working with the brands that have cast Belle Models in their shows and campaigns?
So fantastic. I think the brands have really felt supported and recognised for their stunning collections this year and  we’ve been stoked to help in a small way.

Diversity is definitely a buzzword in fashion but actual change has been a bit slow, what are your thoughts on it and how do you see fashion changing to be more inclusive?
Oh diversity is a big word, and holds a different meaning for everyone. In the context of body size, yeah it’s a slow burn for sure. For all the positive talk and hype surrounding diversity, we’re not seeing it translate to actual models booked nearly as much as we’d hoped. It’s happening, but slowly.

Have you encountered push-back or resistance from any segment of the industry?
We’ve struggled to be seen as a ‘real’ agency, to be included on your ‘go-to’ list for models. We are a plus size agency yes, but we are also an agency just representing local women. Everyone has been very positive, and that’s awesome. But I’m a real believer in proof is in the pudding. And I call out to all New Zealand brands and media who’d like to diversify their image to BOOK some diverse models!

Are there any misconceptions you’ve encountered about plus size models so far?
I think a lot of people assume that plus size is size 16+ but we have models from size 10+. I think another misconception would be that plus size models only shoot for plus size brands and that’s not the case at all.

Where would you like things to go from here and what are your plans for Belle Models?
More models, more brands, more representation and more love towards this plus size, all size, curvy movement goodness! I think it’s essential to the wellbeing of all New Zealand girls and women.

Belle Models Agency

Model Abigail Dohnji on the runway at Augustine NZFW 2019. Image by Lyle Adams.

How did you first get into modeling?
I first looked into modelling after I had my first son. My body had changed a lot and I decided to do something to help me embrace my new curvy figure. I discovered Belle Models – a modelling agency dedicated to celebrating our womanly curves. After a my first photoshoot I decided that this was something I enjoyed doing.

What do you enjoy most about modeling and what has been your favourite job so far?
I enjoy having the opportunity to be creative and I love having my hair and make-up done as it makes me feel glamorous compared to my every day life of being a mum.

So far I have enjoyed walking in fashion shows. New Zealand Fashion Week 2019 was my very first runway, and I enjoyed every second if it!

How has your upbringing and identity shaped how you view and have handled the fashion industry and how do you keep it in perspective?
Growing up I never thought about being a model. I never thought I was pretty enough or had the right look. Now being in this industry, I realise it’s my uniqueness that allows me to be a model. Every different face and body is what makes modelling interesting and I try and keep that in mind when working, just to let my authentic self shine through.

Diversity is definitely a buzzword in fashion but actual change has been a bit slow, what are your thoughts on it and how do you see fashion changing to be more inclusive?
I LOVE diversity. I cannot emphasize enough how much I love meeting people from all walks of life. So to see diversity in the fashion industry is exciting. I think diversity is imperative in shaping the next generation and if I can help just one person feel included and like they belong, then I know modelling is something I will continue to do as much as I can.

At NZFW 2019 I saw a lot a of diversity which I didn’t expect to see. I saw people with disabilities, and lots of different ethnicities and ages. I think the transgender community will be embraced more into the fashion industry moving forward and I can’t wait to see this change especially in New Zealand.

A big part of diversity is representation, seeing people that look like you in the media and magazines, what does that representation mean to you personally?
It means a lot to me as I grew up in a town where I rarely saw any other African people. It makes you feel bit of place and in my late teens I found myself having an identity crisis. To look in a magazine and see someone who looks like you being an absolute boss is inspiring and makes you feel like you can make something of yourself too.

What was your NZFW 2019 like and what did you most enjoy about the experience?
I was so excited to be a part of NZFW 2019 as it was my very first fashion show runway. It’s hard to say what I enjoyed the most as I simply enjoyed the whole experience from the chaos behind the scenes to walking the runway. But I probably enjoyed modelling the beautiful clothes down the runway the most. The feeling you get when you step out on stage is a rush of adrenaline and so much fun!

Belle Models Agency

Model Tia Pirihi. Image by Kit Wise.

How did you first get into modeling?
I started as a Brand Ambassador for a well known Australian company. The experience provided opportunities working with the media, campaigns and overseas events in LA, Singapore and Japan.

What do you enjoy most about modeling and what has been your favourite job so far?
I love the feeling of living a long held dream.  That sense of wow, I’m here, I’m doing this. My favourite jobs are the ones that involve travel especially overseas. Traveling abroad regularly was not something my parents generation, grandparents or great grandparents had the opportunity to do. It is a humbling feeling to create new realities that were not previously possible for past generations.

How has your upbringing and identity shaped how you view and have handled the fashion industry and how do you keep it in perspective?
I am fortunate my upbringing has provided a foot hold into two worlds. (Thank-you Jason Momoa for this reference). My ancestry is Māori and my upbringing was in Australia.

Existing between two worlds has been challenging at times. At school in Australia I was the only little Māori girl and this continued into high school. Growing up I did not see my culture reflected in the faces, experiences and media that I saw everyday. As a little Māori girl I started to feel that I was different from my friends. This childhood feeling of knowing I was different, later became as an adult a feeling of contentment as I discovered who I am as a Māori woman.

For me this is how I keep my perspective on the fashion industry in check. Modeling for me is a vehicle that creates a narrative to shine a light on having an identity that has a foot hold in two worlds. With the visual imagery created by modeling being able to help redefine how women are represented and what is now possible.

Diversity is definitely a buzzword in fashion but actual change has been a bit slow, what are your thoughts on it and how do you see fashion changing to be more inclusive?
Diversity in the fashion industry I feel is a big term, meaning many different things to me. I love fashion campaigns in the US. Whether they be women’s campaigns, men’s or children’s the diversity in the selection of their models shines through. At home we can see this in varying degrees coming through.

Moving forward I would like to see diversity messaging reflected in a number of different ways. We currently have size diversity messaging encouraging women to feel beautiful at any size. However, I would like to see this messaging extended to women feeling beautiful at any size, any age and any life stage.

Women’s bodies journey through many unique life stages. Over the past year I have been undergoing IVF. I noticed on social media that the journey the body goes through during IVF was not really shown. After my last round in October I decided to do a photoshoot 2 weeks after my operation. Still with one little bruise on my tummy and a little softer around the edges I got myself onto a beach and into a swimsuit. Photo proof above.

Being more fashion inclusive is also about removing the internal barriers we think are in place before we can wear that dress or put on that swimsuit. Align yourself with the brands that align with your values and make you feel amazing in their garments. Choosing to show this outfit off on a beach, optional but recommended!

A big part of diversity is representation, seeing people that look like you in the media and magazines, what does that representation mean to you personally?
What is means to me personally is that you need to get out there! In order to be represented you have got to show up.

Although everyone may not have the chance to be on a billboard in Times Square (inner dream goal being revealed here), we can post on our own pages, create our own content. This is how I have used social media as I wait for the gaps in mainstream to become more diverse and where I see more women like me.

New Zealand has some of the most stunning whenua in the world. Celebrate the beauty of Aotearoa, celebrate your diversity and celebrate having the power to contribute to the narrative of the fashion industry.

Images supplied.

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