Plus-sized fashion blogger and model Karyn Johnson strolled into her neighbourhood coffee shop on Saturday and was met with an increasingly familiar question from the barista: ‘You’re kind of Internet-famous, right?’
Two years ago, prompted by constant questions about where she gets her outfits, the 32-year-old Torontonian started a blog to promote plus-sized fashion. Since then her Killer Kurves blog has attracted over 15,000 followers and growing, and turned Johnson into Canada’s default plus-sized fashion authority.
“There was a point where I had only had a few hundred [followers], and then all of a sudden one night it was up to 1,000, and then it just started going from there, non-stop growing,” Johnson says.
“It’s crazy becoming this role model, it really is. It’s cool though. I’ve always had this drive to make people look their best. I always had that innate sense to help people and nurture them.”
Johnson represents a new form of blogger celebrity—women who are turning their online influence into real-world commercial success. With a lack of plus-sized representation in Hollywood and few trendy retail options, curvy women have turned to these bloggers for fashion advice, support, and community.
These online communities have become a defacto grassroots movement that aims to increase the visibility of plus-sized women in fashion—without waiting for industry and media to take the lead.
“We’ve created our own role models, our own plus-sized celebrities,” says Johnson. “Hollywood isn’t giving us these celebrities, so we’ve created our own role models and people to look up to.”
But industry has started to recognize the influence these bloggers have, and taking note that plus-sized stores have a lot to gain if they are accepted and respected by the lively and close-knit online sisterhood.
After Johnson’s blog gained widespread attention, Canadian plus-size brand Addition Elle contacted her to collaborate—featuring her in their ad campaigns, inviting her to events, and devoting a section of their website to “Karyn’s picks,” a bi-weekly collection of Johnson’s favourite Addition Elle clothing, also posted on her blog.
‘Fatkini’ goes Viral
In the U.S., the plus-size blogger-retailer relationship is more commonplace, with influential bloggers such as Gabi Gregg (GabiFresh.com) and Marie Denee (TheCurvyFashionista.com), turning their online personas into a full time career writing product reviews and columns, working as brand ambassadors, and designing and promoting their own collections.
Last year, for example, Gregg shot to Internet fame for posting photos of herself in a ‘fatkini’—a fashionable bikini designed for curvy women—while making a statement about society’s ‘Sports Illustrated’ ultra-thin beauty ideal. The post went viral and Gregg landed a spot on the “Today Show,” then signed a deal to design for swimwear company Swimsuits for All.
Earlier this month Gregg, Johnson, and high profile plus-sized New York model/blogger Nadia Aboulhosn joined forces, appearing together in Addition Elle’s ‘I Have Great Genes’ campaign, set to debut in September.
The campaign includes a video with the three women wearing jeans and T-shirts, celebrating their physical features and confident attitudes. In the video, the bloggers have the words “I have great genes” scrawled on different body parts.
From Frumpy to Trendy
Johnson says Canada’s plus-sized industry has come a long way in the past decade, moving from frumpy, boxy clothing toward clothing to suit a younger, trendier demographic. Hip online stores have also emerged, opening shoppers up to new fashion worlds.
But Canada still has a long way to go to catch up to the momentum in the U.S., she adds, where many plus-sized bloggers, models, and stores flourish.
Currently Johnson works a full-time job in marketing in order to make a living alongside her modelling and endorsement work, and knows of only one or two plus-sized Canadian models who have successful full-time careers.
“I wish I could do it full-time. It’s getting to a point where hopefully someday I can but it’s hard. There’s not that much going on in Canada in terms of plus-size modelling, blogging. There’s only so many clients I can obtain now,” she says.
Fewer Options in Canada
The industry has a lot to gain from attracting more curvy Canadians, however. According to one research firm, about one-third of Canadian women are considered plus-sized. But aside from stores like Addition Elle, Pennington’s, and a handful of independent boutiques catering to larger sizes, Canadian women have few on-trend options if their local “mainstream” stores don’t carry sizes 14 and up.
Many U.S.-based stores will ship to Canada, but this leaves customers waiting for weeks, and robs them of the fun in trying on outfits, window shopping, and shopping with friends.
But despite the lack of retail options in Canada, Johnson is optimistic that the industry is evolving and will continue to improve as plus-sized retailers modernize their brands and mainstream stores respond to market demand.
She hopes the change happens as quickly as possible, however, so bigger women can gain confidence and self-worth from finding clothes that fit well and look great—given that they face an onslaught of pressure from society to be thin.
“So many people ask me how to feel beautiful,” she says.
“It’s so hard—it took me 10 good years, and I still work on it to this day. A big thing for me was finding clothes that fit, that made me feel awesome. And then you’re like, ‘Wow, I look good in this, I feel good in this.’ It’s like taking little baby steps, [starting with] finding clothes that fit.”