Bebe Rexha garnered a lot of support when she announced on Instagram that she had trouble finding a dress for the Grammys because designers said she was “too big.”
It seemed like the entire Internet was on Rexha’s side: Demi Lovato hopped to her defense, while designers like August Getty, Tanya Taylor and Elizabeth Kennedy all volunteered to make gowns for the musician, who is nominated for Best New Artist and Best Country Duo/Group Performance at the awards show.
During a discussion about inclusivity in fashion at New York Fashion Week on Thursday, curvy model Candice Huffine sympathized with Rexha as well. Huffine told a story in which she was invited to celebrate her first Pirelli Calendar appearance in 2015 alongside Gigi Hadid, Isabeli Fontana and more top models—and while her fellow models had designers clamoring to dress them, she had more trouble sourcing a look.
“I couldn’t believe it, it was my moment,” Huffine, 34, said of being rejected by fashion houses at the NYFW Beyond the Shows “Meet The Front Five” Panel, presented by E!, in New York City. “It would be amazing to have a conversation. Instead of being just turned away.”
But designer and fellow panelist Laquan Smith was keen to point out that there’s a problem with painting fashion designers—and the fashion industry as a whole—as the villains.
Smith, who has dressed some of the most-watched women in the world like Beyoncé and Kim Kardashian West and collaborated with the fast-fashion retailer ASOS, said that creating a red carpet dress takes both money and time. And when you’re a smaller label, both of those resources are extremely scarce.
“People don’t understand the full situation,” Smith told PEOPLE after the event.
“It’s not that designers don’t want to dress these women, but in the event of smaller designers, it’s (a) have we even been presented the opportunity and (b) if we are presented the opportunity and there’s no budget involved, we take on the financial burden or bend over backwards to basically hope to be placed on the red carpet,” the designer told PEOPLE. “It’s never guaranteed. Those are the kind of situations that I try to bring awareness to.”
Indeed, a red carpet dress doesn’t just appear out of thin air — especially a custom one, which can cost thousands of dollars. (His sample sizes come in size 2 and 4.)
“You’re taking on the fabric cost, the manufacturing cost, the pattern development cost, the timing that you take to source, the time you take to sketch, the back and forth communication, the dialogue between you and the stylist and the celebrity and the staff,” Smith explained to PEOPLE. “It takes out time to cater to that specific person. Those are the losses. As a designer, those are the obstacles that you go through.”
That’s why he also thinks big fashion labels have no excuse: “Do I think that big fashion brands should be able to dress women of all sizes especially if it’s a great platform? Yes. Especially if they have a budget for it.”
Rebecca Minkoff, who was also on the panel, agreed with this sentiment.
“As a smaller company, we got a call that Lena Dunham was on her tour and she needed something and we didn’t have her size. But we said, ‘You know what, we’re going to make it,’” she recalled. “It took my team entirely off task. They went to the garment center and they sat and did it. But these luxury houses, they should have no excuses.”
That’s why when stories go viral that deem fashion designers as antiheros in the size-inclusivity conversation, Smith says there has to be more going on behind the scenes that people don’t see.
“When you have women who cry for help, like ‘No one will dress me,’ you have to wonder if there is more to the story,” he told PEOPLE.
“How have you been resourceful is all I’m saying to Bebe. Have you been resourceful with your fashion directory? Which designers have you even reached out to? Those are the answers I’m always looking for. I find it hard to believe. She’s a beautiful woman. A lot of designers that I know would have been like, ‘Oh sure, I’d love to help her.’”
Did Rexha reach out to Smith? No, he said. Though, when asked if he would have dressed her, the answer was a resounding yes.
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