Candice Huffine, model who is adding curvaceous to high fashion
From catwalks to a Vogue cover and the Pirelli Calendar, plus-size American - she's a US size 12 - has blazed a trail for acceptance of women bigger than the standard fashion model
Candice Huffine glides through the elevators of Condé Nast in New York as though she were entering a friend’s apartment building. Her breezy demeanour is tinged with excitement. She is heading to the Vogue offices for a fitting for an event before the upcoming Met Gala. It’s a pyjama party based on the theme of this year’s benefit for the museum’s Costume Institute, "China: Through the Looking Glass," and a tall order for someone without a personal stylist.
"My biggest fear is looking like Lindsay Lohan in the movie Mean Girls," she says, half joking. "You know when she goes all out for the Halloween party and everyone else is in cute outfits?"
Soon Huffine is in the trusty hands of market editor Kelly Connor, and within 20 minutes she has settled on a black-and-white pleated Thakoon dress with a chinois red overcoat. No Lohan moments here. It’s an easy outfit but perfectly extravagant for a Vogue fete.
"What, you wouldn’t wear this to bed?" Connor says wryly.
The talk moves on to accessories, the merits of Claire’s jewellery and those fishnet chokers that had a stranglehold on pre-teen girls in the early 1990s. The experience feels more like rummaging through a stylish sibling’s closet than an appointment with America’s pre-eminent fashion publication, although the importance is not lost on Huffine.
At a size 12, she is categorized as a plus-size model. A few years ago, she may not have had the opportunity to work with high-fashion magazines, let alone receive an invitation to borrow clothing for an exclusive insider event. Huffine is at the helm of a new tier of models pushing to expand boundaries for curvy models and to eliminate the label "plus" from the fashion vernacular. That hardly sounds like an unrealistic goal in a country in which the average dress size is a 12 to 14. But for an industry that has been accused of having a dangerous obsession with thinness, it is a mea culpa.
Huffine, 31, had a non-traditional path to the plus-size category and the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Many of her counterparts started out on straight boards (agency rosters of models sizes 0 to 6) then switched to plus boards (above size 10) when puberty set in or the strain of maintaining an unnaturally thin frame became too much.
Huffine says she was a social butterfly. In her second year in high school in the US state of Maryland, an audience member at a pageant said she should visit modelling agencies in New York. She made the trip with her mother, Holley Huffine, a fragrance representative for L’Oreal. The two saw a dozen agencies - and Huffine was rejected by all but the last. That agency suggested she join a new division that represented models larger than a standard size. She was a size 6 but had curves.
"I walked away with a contract signed as a plus model, which is the interesting thing. I didn’t know that existed," she says.
At the time, the designation felt like an inconsequential industry term, Huffine says, and didn’t impede the excitement of having a signed contract at age 16. "The other (plus-size) models were working and they were beautiful, and I said I would totally do that."
After high school, she moved to New York to pursue modelling full time, sharing an apartment with an aunt to temper her parents’ fears about living in the city at such a young age.
She took periodic modelling assignments, mainly in Europe, because "the plus industry then was quite new and the American market desired a more mature woman who was around a size 16. I was a kid who was a 10."
To augment her income, "I got odd jobs - I was a reservationist, a waitress in Times Square and a coat-check girl from listings I found on Craigslist."
Huffine hustled with side positions until her shoots became so demanding that she could support herself with modelling.
"That’s when I first felt like I made it," she says. "I’ll never forget one of my very first agents told me that I would maybe make enough money to cover college, but modelling would never be a long-term or full-time gig. Maybe she said that because no one knew what the future of ’plus size’ modelling was, so I can’t be mad at her in any way. I can just be really, really glad she was wrong."
Huffine’s first major commercial campaign came with national retailer Lane Bryant in 2000. She was cast for shoots featured in the plus-size company’s catalogue and store windows. It became a steady gig.
Another pivotal assignment came in 2011. She was cast alongside top plus-size models Robyn Lawley and Tara Lynn in a shoot by famed fashion photographer Steven Meisel for Vogue Italia. It was the first cover to feature plus-size models in 10 years and served as a springboard for Huffine’s career and the plus-size community.
"That will go down in history for me as a really major moment in my life," she says. "People were looking at me in a different way. Curvy girls didn’t have the opportunity to do editorial work that much. We were catalogue girls, online, e-commerce. You didn’t really see us in an edgy, high-fashion way. That really changed the game."
After Vogue Italia, the floodgates opened: she has appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, W and CR Fashion Book. And in March 2014, she landed in Vogue again, this time in the American edition as both model and guest editor representing the Isabel Toledo capsule collection (mix-and-match staples) for Lane Bryant.
"Even when I was doing pageants, I was dreaming about being in Vogue - that was the ultimate dream," Huffine says.
The feature - a one-page slot with a narrow photo and short description of the designer collaboration - was a footnote in the controversial issue with cover stars Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. And that spoke volumes for Huffine: It "fit among those pages seamlessly. It wasn’t shocking that there was a plus girl in there."
Other hints of change were the colour and cut of the dress: a white, sleeveless sheath that fit Huffine’s frame like a glove. "Curvy girls think they should be in black all the time," she says. "It’s such an old rule. Everything was a total departure of what people think for how curvy women should dress. It was a light colour, tight, showed my arms. And I loved it. I bought it and the shoes, too."
A few months later came Huffine’s most remarkable accomplishment: She made the Pirelli Calendar, a legendary publication for the multinational’s VIP advertising clients. The images were shot by Meisel and styled by former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld, who put Huffine in a latex corset and thigh-high stockings. The 50-year-old calendar has become a veritable roster of the most famous models of their time. Sophia Loren, Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford are among the notable alumni. Huffine appeared alongside veterans Adriana Lima and Carolyn Murphy, as well as new stars Gigi Hadid and Joan Smalls.
"I didn’t put that on my career bucket list," Huffine says. "It’s so high, I was like, ’How would that ever happen?’ "
The images surfaced online, and bloggers and fashion writers clamoured to interview the first major plus-size model to make the calendar.
"Pirelli for sure put the period at the end of the sentence," she says. "These people, Steven Meisel and Carine Roitfeld, these people believe in beauty that has nothing to do with the size of my skirt.
"For me, in my career, I think it really, I don’t want to say shook people up, but opened people’s eyes. This is not a trend, this is not a fad, or a way to create controversy with a buzz. It is the way it is now."
And therein lies Huffine’s personal charge - which she is broadcasting on all platforms, including Instagram, as well as her recent work with Lane Bryant on its "I Am No Angel" campaign. "The firsts are really exciting, don’t get me wrong," she says, but she lives for the time her inclusion is common, not headline-worthy.
Huffine still has a few frontiers to explore. A question she receives frequently is when she’ll walk the runway in more major fashion shows. The answer is complex.
"My theory is that if a designer puts plus girls on the runway, it might imply they are making plus clothing, and until it is clear they are going to do that, it might be best to avoid that confusion or controversy."
Although some designers such as Michael Kors have plus lines, they are different from their high-end namesakes presented at New York Fashion Week. Huffine has been encouraged, however, by the greater availability of size 14 designer garments - in the past most lines stopped at size 12.
She feels confident that runways will be a next step, as well as major beauty campaigns featuring plus-size women.
After wrapping up at Vogue, Huffine heads up a few floors to Glamour to finish an interview with associate fashion writer Lauren Chan.
"Oh, you’re wearing culottes!" she giddily greets Chan, a former plus-size model. The two have bonded over a disregard for what they say are antiquated rules for dressing women larger than size 10, such as: No culottes or jumpsuits.
"I love a good jumpsuit," Huffine says, detailing her capsule collection for Italian brand Elena Miro. The eight-piece collection bucks at the canon passed down to curvy women: No horizontal stripes. No body-conscious dresses. No wide-leg pants.
In a cab, Huffine recounts a frustrating and all-too-common shopping experience as a plus-size woman.
"I went to the plus floor and I was certain I was on the wrong floor. I had to walk through all the mattresses, the home section, chairs, pillows, sheets; all this until I got to the very, very back, and there were like four racks and that was your plus section. And I thought, ’Why are we in the back like this?’ The other floors are pumping music and have makeup stands and shoes and this one is up on the quiet floor with the bedding."
This division is even more pointed when compared with the abundant options for smaller sizes, she says.
"There is a store I love to go to, it came over from London, it’s very popular. It carries everything: men’s, lingerie, purses, makeup, accessories, tall, petite, maternity, regular, shoes, amazing shoes - and no plus. So if you want to go in with your friend, a girls’ day out shopping, you think, ’What a fun one-stop shop!’ They’re blasting music, you want a dress to go out tonight. ’Well, I guess you could go look at shoes and a necklace.’ It is just a bit infuriating."
A few mainstream retailers have started to embrace this consumer segment. Lane Bryant — whose entire customer base is 12-plus - has a new effort to make trendy pieces work for their customers, says chief executive Linda Heasley.
"We don’t want our client to be bounded by notions of what she can and cannot wear," Heasley says. "Part of the reason we say we lead with fashion and not size is we’re telling our internal teams we have to make this work for her. How do we give her the latest trends? How do we make fringe work? How do we make horizontal stripes work?"
A major part of this push has been designer collaborations. Heasley and her teams have turned designs from Isabel Toledo, Sophie Theallet and Lela Rose into clothes that fit their customers. And by all accounts, they have been successful. Pieces of the Lela Rose line sold out the day it launched this spring. In June, the company announced a collaboration with Christian Siriano to much fanfare.
Spanish contemporary brand Mango has also waded into the trendy plus-size market with the launch of its line Violeta. A spokesman said the company had been pleased with the results and planned to open 75 more stores in Europe and South and Central America.
Huffine starred in Mango’s spring lookbook. Her aunt, a slender size 6, texted saying she wished the dresses came in her size. High praise, Huffine says.
Plus-size model Danielle Redman also lauds the design of Violeta. Redman is a member of ALDA, a collective of models headed by Ashley Graham who are working to break down the divisions in fashion.
"The material of the clothes, that is what has been the biggest change," Redman says over the phone from New York. "The cuts, they can be beautiful for a plus-size woman. They aren’t these boxy things any more."
Redman and fellow ALDA member Inga Eiriksdottir started as straight-size models. For Eiriksdottir, the shift to the plus boards happened after she turned 20 and grew into her adult body. Bordering on a size 6, she was dieting to an unhealthy extreme, had quit playing sports to avoid building muscle and had problems booking jobs because she was larger than the set measurements.
Redman similarly struggled to stay thin and healthy before switching. "I have really big shoulders, really big hips," she says.
Both women think their plus-size colleagues may be healthier than their thinner counterparts. Huffine echoes that sentiment. She also agrees with ALDA’s stance against the word "plus" and its ramifications for consumers who may feel ashamed when trying to find a size above 12 in the back of a store.
Though she understood the separation for the industry when she was first signed, she now wonders if " ’plus’ being in front of my title as a model is becoming as harmful for young girls as seeing really skinny girls. Because if a girl is larger than me, and I’m called plus and then they’re always like, ’What does that make me?’ "
Lawmakers may also have a role in the push. In April, France’s parliament approved a law that will impose fines and jail time on agency officials who employ models who have a body mass index under 18 - about 55kg for a 1.7 metre-tall woman. The vote was symbolic in a country that boasts the most revered fashion houses and runway shows in the world.
Nancy LeWinter - a former ad director at Vogue and now editorial director for Fullbeauty.com, a shopping site and brand for sizes 12 and above - does not think the American market would flourish under similarly strict policing. "That is just as stigmatizing as any other restriction of that type," she says.
But she has changed the name of her brand from OneStopPlus to Fullbeauty. "The reason ’Fullbeauty’ works so well for us is it represents that much more modern sensibility, it’s much more than a size or shape," LeWinter says. "It is about feeling great as well as looking wonderful."
That is why LeWinter cast Huffine as the first cover model for her redesigned Fullbeauty magazine: "We think she is both extraordinary as a model and as an inspiration. She has a natural confidence."
Huffine’s breezy confidence is on full display at a casting call for Home Shopping Network. A similar scene plays out: hugs and banter about what everyone has been up to, then a headshot and a few questions.
"What size are you?" lobs a casting agent. Without pause, Huffine belts out "12," as if someone asked her favourite colour.
At a Starbucks, she says she’s proud of her size, although her best advice for young women is not to fixate on a number.
The conversation moves on to beauty trends that have steered the modelling industry over three decades. The glamazons of the 1980s. The Kate Moss-era waifs of the 1990s. The mannequin shapes of the early 2000s. And the question arises: are curves the new defining factor of supermodels?
"Maybe this new era really is more than ever about being and loving yourself? If that is the generation we are in, that is an awesome one to be a part of because everyone fits in it."