Australia’s most famous plus-size model was mortified. Men’s jeans, because nothing in her size was available? It wasn’t the only wardrobe insult meted out in that world of rail-thin bodies.
“Most of the clothes chosen for my shoots were too small, so I had to wear them pinned or unzipped,” says Natalie Wakeling, recalling the early years of her modeling career.
Two decades on, she is equally well-known as the founder and designer of Embody Women, the online plus-size label launched in 2006, starting with denims and now offering a comprehensive fashion range.
Manufactured in Sydney and Melbourne – “not just to ensure quality control, but sustainability and fair work conditions” – Embody Women comes in sizes 8-22 and allows customers to send in their measurements so suitable styles can be recommended.
Prominently featured on the label’s website are Nat’s Top Five wardrobe essentials, comprising a chic tailored skirt and linen shirt, a full-length jumpsuit and two pairs of jeans – one classic, the other sharply trendy.
They underscore the Wakeling mantra: “Your size should not define your style”. Also the enigma that characterizes much of Australian designer women’s fashion.
Namely, why is sizing so skewed towards thin bodies in a country where the average size is 14-16 and numerous women – including the young and trends-conscious – are more amply endowed?
“It’s crazy to ignore a huge proportion of market share,” says Natalie. “If I were a venture capitalist, I’d be investing in plus-size brands.”
Even crazier is the notion that a size 14-16 body is plus-size – except, of course, in the modeling industry and fashion glossies.
It took two young trailblazers to break down that barrier: Natalie Wakeling, the curvaceous blonde beauty from Mudgee, NSW, who had moved to Sydney at 17 to study photography, and Mia Freedman, who was 24 when, in 1996, she became the youngest editor of Australian Cosmopolitan.
In 2000, the pair created a publishing sensation. “I was 19 when Mia featured me in an eight-page fashion spread with no mention of the term ‘plus size’. This was followed up with a cover for Cosmo in 2005,” says Natalie.
Buoyed by her success, Natalie flew to New York and was promptly booked by leading modeling agencies including Ford. The Americans may have loved her, but she had a husband and baby – first of her three sons – at home, so the adventure was short-lived.
Still, the vibrant US plus-size market planted the seeds for Embody Women. “I did some business courses and used a government grant, to start my company,” says Natalie.
She also had years of first-hand ragtrade experience. “I grew up in the back of my mother’s boutique in Mudgee – one of two boutiques she had in rural NSW – so I was immersed in fashion.”
With its emphasis on flattering, classic shapes, quality fabrics and ethical manufacturing practices, Embody Women has won a strong following nationwide.
Its founder has also continued modeling – “I’m now with Silver Fox Management for over-35s” – and may soon realize her dream to sell Embody Women in the world’s premier plus-size market.
She is currently in negotiation with a major American department store, reveals Natalie Wakeling.
– Zelda Cawthorne