At the Forefront of Fashion Studies

associate professor justin leblancAssistant Professor Lauren Downing Peters (left) and Associate Professor Justin LeBlanc discuss the future of fashion. Photo: Phil Dembinski ’08
Lauren Downing Peters and Justin LeBlanc join the Fashion Studies Department to advance the department’s mission toward a curriculum focused on innovation and inclusion.

This semester, the Fashion Studies Department added two major influencers from the fashion industry to their faculty: Lauren Downing Peters and Justin LeBlanc. According to Fashion Studies Chair Colbey Reid, “These two new faculty members are going to energize the interest our students already have in fashion's 'queer' spaces, in every sense of the word.”

Reid, who joined Columbia College Chicago in 2017, adds, “Fashion often seems preoccupied with 'perfect' bodies—whatever that means. But that's not very Columbia, and it's not Justin and Lauren. The entire Fashion Studies faculty is taking us all deeper into a version of fashion that explores the intrinsic relationship between style and divergence, but doing it in a way that makes everyone want to get in on the action.”

Lauren Downing Peters

Fashion Studies Professor Lauren Downing PetersAssistant Professor Lauren Dowing Peters is a leading expert on body diversity in the fashion industry. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08

Fashion Studies Assistant Professor Lauren Downing Peters’ arrival to the Fashion Studies Department comes at a time when the plus-size fashion industry is growing at six percent a year, whereas the fashion industry as a whole is only growing at three percent a year.

As a leading expert on body diversity in the fashion industry, Peters has discussed the fraught history of fashion and its implications with O, The Oprah Magazine, Racked, and peer-reviewed journals Fashion Theory, International Journal of Fashion Studies, and Journal of Curatorial Studies, among others. While some progress has been made, it’s clear to Peters that there is so much more work to do.

Can you talk about the term “plus-size” and some of the history behind it and how we talk about bodies?

The matter of how to refer to the fat woman and her clothing is a topic of continuous debate. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need explicit terms to label large-size dress because everyone would be able to shop off the same rack. For the moment, however, euphemisms like “plus-size” are something of a necessary evil.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, women of size were referred to as matrons, or matronly, and then there was stout, or stoutwear, which disappeared in the 1930s and was replaced by chubby in the 1950s which then fell out of use. Then, plus-size was used in the 80s which then fell out of use around the 2000s. Now, we have the resurgence of curve as the preferred term which I think will be villainized in a few years.

In our capitalist society, the perception is that if you can’t take care of your body then that reflects poorly on other aspects of your character. Because fatness in the US is so closely associated with obesity—and all of the discursive baggage that comes along with it—it’s linked to poor health, laziness, and a lack of self-control.

Until our society comes to grips with the fact that fatness is not an inherently negative attribute, there is unlikely to be a neutral term with which to refer to the fat female body.

How far has the fashion industry in 2018 advanced in terms of being more inclusive?

A curious thing happened in the last year or so where it became “fashionable” to sell plus-size clothing. There’s been a rash of retailers like J. Crew, Madewell, Everlane, and Glossier who are now using fat women in their advertisements, even though they’re not really catering to them in an earnest or thorough way. They’re doing this because it looks good to be inclusive but I’m not really seeing these companies put their money where their mouth is. They don’t really seem to understand the plus-size consumer that well, so the gesture comes off as tokenizing and insincere.

I see a lot of these conventional retailers finally waking up to the fact that plus-size is a viable market segment. Plus-size consumers are a viable market. But, if they don’t actually have plus size people working for them, plus-size designers, and plus-size merchandisers, then they’re not going to get these consumers in the door. Plus-size consumers have been treated so badly for so long that they’re much more savvy to this kind of tokenizing. So, we’ve got a long way to go.

Any time we have more images of more diverse bodies in fashion media it’s a win, but if women can’t go in and buy a tailored shirt or a pair of jeans that fit properly, what’s the point? It feels like a lot of these marketing efforts are more geared toward slender people in the vein of making them feel better about themselves. In a recent article, I referred to this practice as “size appropriation,” but you could also call it “inclusivity porn.”

This semester, the Fashion Studies Department has held various Special Topics Seminars on campus highlighting various issues of diversity in the fashion industry, many of which you were a part of. What makes your work as an educator and advocate relevant to Columbia students now?

There’s something very political about being in a place where we’re trying to initiate a more inclusive design education. It’s political because we’re opening up students’ eyes to the inequities—and opportunities—within the fashion industry. If we’re trying to get students jobs and turn them into innovators we need to make them aware of these inequities.

I think there’s something to be said for being angry, being an ally, or being a person of size and knowing that you have opportunities to effect change and to create better opportunities for people who have long been marginalized by fashion’s insiders.

How do you see the Fashion Studies Department’s role in shaping the future of fashion?

I see the students as the change-makers. In order to be change-makers, they need a critical perspective and a firm grounding in fashion research methods. I think of Columbia’s curriculum as both critical and problem-oriented. We have to parlay a certain amount of basic information to students but I also think that we have to teach them to be critical and incisive and aware of problems that need to be solved as they move forward and approach their projects and their scholarly work.

Justin LeBlanc

Fashion Studies Professor Justin LeBlancAssociate Professor Justin LeBlanc uses 3D printing and other techonlogies to "tell a story" through his designs. Photo: Phil Dembinski '08

Many people might recognize Associate Professor Justin LeBlanc as a finalist on season 12 of Project Runway. He was the show’s first Deaf contestant whose innovative designs garnered him a dramatic “save” by the show’s co-host Tim Gunn. Since the show, LeBlanc has kept busy designing, teaching, and creating new collections. Both in and out of the classroom, LeBlanc continues to explore the intersections of fashion and emerging technologies.

How do you define your approach as a fashion designer?
I see myself as a storyteller and I tell stories through fashion. First, I start with a theme, usually from a life experience. My last collection was based upon my wedding day. Through fashion, I usually tell a story that focuses upon the emotions of that experience.
I‘m all about trying to find ways for people to share the emotions that I feel when I see my garments. I’m kind of anti-trend. To me, storytelling is something that my audience will always be able to relate to.
How does identity inform you as a designer?
I identify first as a Deaf person. I was born Deaf, so it’s a major part of who I am. Beyond that, I’m a Deaf designer, who’s also gay, I’m interested in the application of technology to fashion; and, I happened to be on a reality TV show. My identity has evolved over the years, and I expect that it will continue to evolve.
It’s tricky because when people learn about me and my work they want to identify with me in some way. But, they tend to see Deafness as a barrier between me and them. Sign language is my first language, but most people can’t communicate using sign language. So to eliminate this barrier, I often incorporate sign language into my designs by putting LED lights on my hand, and slowly capturing time-lapsed photos of signs. I then re-create these captured images using 3D printing.

Students at Columbia are finding their identity and providing them knowledge and inspiration in apparel design or product development helps them to build a passion that they can identify with.

How do you use your work as a designer to inform your work as an educator?
I’m constantly presenting my work or giving lectures at trade shows and fashion shows. These opportunities allow me to see, first hand, how fashion and the fashion industry is changing. I then bring this information back to the classroom so that our students are kept current with industry trends. To me, a teacher can be effective only if they are in close touch with what’s happening in the real world of fashion.
I try to communicate to the students that there are multiple ways of showcasing their work. I love fashion shows, don’t get me wrong, but people only see the garment for a few seconds. So, when you put a month of effort into a garment and only to see it on stage for a few seconds, something is wrong with the process. Exhibitions are another way for the garment to be appreciated. In an exhibition, a garment can be viewed from many angles and distances. The effort that goes into the construction of a garment can be appreciated. Other outlets available to students are social media, including YouTube videos. The possibilities for students to showcase their work to the public and to the industry are endless and I strive to introduce all means of presentation to our students.
What made you choose Columbia?
We have an awesome facility here. The offerings for the students are incredible and it’s really amazing to see the tools and the fabrication labs. All of that equipment creates so much opportunity for the students and the faculty to experiment—especially with people with very different skill sets. It’s been a really positive, collaborative environment.
Columbia is an unconventional college; there is a dynamic here that I’ve never seen before. I came from a state college which was very organized and everything had its place. At Columbia, everything is very organic, there are so many different collaborations on campus and you can always see what other programs are doing. I was also very impressed with Columbia’s American Sign Language Department.
What are your thoughts on fashion in Chicago?
I remember coming here when I was interviewing for this position. I had to give a lesson to a class on trend spotting. I remember walking into that class of about 25-30 students. What struck me was that the students came from different walks of life, different backgrounds, different upbringings, and different areas. I still have goosebumps thinking about it; it was a real snapshot of Chicago.

As for the city, I attended graduate school in Chicago, so I knew what to expect. Chicago is a vibrant fashion hub with its mix of academia and industry devoted to all aspects of fashion design and production. Chicago has all of the elements to keep a fashion enthusiast like me excited and full of passion.
What makes your work as an educator and advocate relevant to Columbia students now?
Columbia is all about testing boundaries and venturing into the unknown to find truth. My challenge to the students and for the department is: Don’t be afraid to let go of the past so that you can extend your reach forward. Be creative enough to imagine what lies ahead and confident enough to recognize your accomplishments.