Igigi designer and founder Yuliya Raquel has always been obsessed with fashion, but it was fate that she found her very specific passion, designing clothes for the plus size market. Outspoken and articulate, Yuliya has a vision of a world in which everyone is allowed to feel beautiful. Kirsty Evans sat down with her in her office/workshop/warehouse, surrounded by gorgeously colorful dresses, to find out what drives her and her hopes for a future in which fashion is for everyone.
Kirsty Evans: When did you first become interested in fashion?
Yuliya Raquel: I was five years old, and my grandma had a really cool sewing machine.
Kirsty: Do you have any formal training as a designer or a dressmaker?
Yuliya: Not formal. I did take classes in high school in Russia; it was part of the standard program. And then, because I was so fascinated by it, I took additional classes when I was still in Russia. When I got here, I took a few classes too. It was just something that was very natural to me.
Kirsty: How did you first become interested in plus size fashion in particular?
Yuliya: When we first came to the United States, my mom gained a lot of weight. It was a medical thing, actually, and she went from a size 12 to a size 24. Her confidence plummeted.
Kirsty: And, of course, none of her clothes would fit.
Yuliya: Of course. Secondly, there was this judgment from everyone else. And she couldn’t go to the stores and just buy things.
I went around to every store and said OK, I’m researching this, please tell me what’s available, what’s out there. And the end result was the same answer one time after another. It was devastating to me as a woman.
I was a couturier prior to this, and a lot of the women who came to me actually were women who were size 18, 20, 22, 24, and the main complaint was – “I want something beautiful, I’m going to this wedding, that event, and I have nothing to wear because the stores don’t cater to me.” So I would design for them.
Kirsty: So when did you decide that you were going to focus on plus size and make this your business?
Yuliya: In 1999, after I’d done my research, I’d realized that there’s this unbelievably disgraceful situation, and opportunity at the same time.
Kirsty: I’m gradually starting to see a few more companies focused on plus around now – back in 99 was there anything?
Yuliya: Nothing that you would really…
Kirsty: …Nothing that you would get excited about?
Yuliya: Oh God no. And even Igigi clothing didn’t immediately become exciting and amazing, it’s an evolutionary process.
Kirsty: Right now you’re still selling mostly through the internet?
Yuliya: Yes, our main business is internet.
Kirsty: Is the clothing in any stores?
Yuliya: Yes, we have lots of stores. Mom and pop boutiques, all over the globe. Australia, England, Germany…
Kirsty: Consumers now are becoming more interested in where their clothes are made, how their clothes are made. There are more and more companies where their selling point is, made in America, workers paid a living wage. Can you tell me a little bit about who does your manufacturing?
Yuliya: Sure. Basically, we employ sewing contractors here in San Francisco, if you get a chance to look around our workers are here as well, it’s all done here in the city. We do believe in fair wages. And also we were just talking about this, the fuel and the environmental impact the industry creates.
Kirsty: The carbon footprint.
Yuliya: Exactly. Also, the women we employ here get health insurance and so on. It’s very fair.
Kirsty: When I was doing research into plus size fashion I noticed that a lot of companies claim that the reason they don’t offer it is cost. Are there any specific issues you’ve run into designing for plus sizes?
Yuliya: It’s not so much an issue as it is simple geometry. I mean, the body will take more material, a full figured woman’s body will take more fabric.
Kirsty: How much of a cost difference is it?
Yuliya: In my experience, at least 25-50%. I’ve read that it’s 10% and I’m trying to figure it out, because I can’t see how it’s 10%.
Kirsty: Maybe economies of scale for companies that manufacture in large quantities?
Yuliya: OK, that makes sense. But in our experience, at least 25-50%. I mean let’s take an example, a straight size dress, it takes maybe one and a quarter, one and a half yards. The same dress will be about two to two and a quarter yards, sometimes two and a half, in plus.
Kirsty: So basically you’re just talking about the cost of materials. Because I also saw a number of claims that the cost issue has to be with how to upsize the design itself.
Yuliya: Oh, I see. Well that’s true too, but we design for full figured women [to begin with].
Kirsty: I noticed on your website that you have a system in place to recommend to customers what garments will work best for their body type. Can you explain how you came up with that system?
Yuliya: That came from my couture background, working with actual women and creating garments just for them trained my eye. OK, you have a more prominent tummy but you have a smaller derriere – what does this mean? Or, there was a friend of mine who was a very defined triangle, she was a size 12-14 on the top and a size 18-20 on the bottom. And obviously the same garment’s not going to work on both. So it was just experiential, just draping the fabric and working with women one to one was a very different experience and a very different technique.
Kirsty: And it doesn’t matter how much you weigh, your shape is still your shape.
Yuliya: Exactly – weight is nothing. Learning and studying that, and already designing with that in mind. I had a conversation with Catherine Schuller, we were saying wouldn’t it be great to establish a whole new system, so she was also the initiator.
Kirsty: Who is Catherine Schuller?
Yuliya: Catherine Schuller is a stylist from New York. She took the concept of shape shopping and recreated it in a more personalized, individualized way. And of course I was like, hey, this is a great idea, why not? And then I took my knowledge and what I’ve learned from working with women and took it to a completely different level. But she was the trigger.
Kirsty: There’s a tendency for that kind of advice about dressing for your body shape to be presented in a very negative way, as “these are your flaws, this is how you hide them.” But it seems like the way you’re doing it is more, this is your shape, this is the best way to show it off.
Yuliya: Our body is our body, it’s just what it is. How we interpret it is more up to us. And my belief is that every single human being on this planet is beautiful, truly beautiful, beyond any description.
Kirsty: Fashion as an industry has, as you know, been very hostile to the idea of accommodating full figured women. So you’re putting yourself in a position where you’re choosing be an evangelist for this idea?
Yuliya: Oh, I am, with everything that I am.
Kirsty: I find it interesting that you are mostly focused on dresses, because I don’t think there’s any garment that, for women, has that same connotation as a dress.
Yuliya: It’s true. A dress is very feminine. There’s something about a dress, and particularly there’s something about a dress that molds to your body.
Kirsty: I’m also interested in your plans for the future. Are you thinking about getting into things like work wear? Because that’s a very noticeable gap in the market too.
Yuliya: Actually we are doing this right now. Last year we recognized the need and we experimented, and it did really well. We’re selling suiting, and separates, and work related dresses. We’re working on a suit right now. We’re definitely noticing that this is a huge need.
Kirsty: As far as your body shape system, have you got that set up to coordinate with the suiting as well? Because that’s where if something doesn’t fit exactly right it’s a real problem.
Yuliya: Yes, tailoring is much more difficult. And we’re perfectionists. Last year, to get a jacket right, we did twenty fittings, which is unheard of in the industry. No one ever does it, because it’s so expensive, but we wanted it to be just right. So this year, because we got our patterns to be so good, we were able to offer little adjustments.
Kirsty: The other issue is tops. Are you doing button down shirts? Because for women who are busty that’s always a tricky issue.
Yuliya: It really is. Last year we did two button down shirts that did really well, this year we’re introducing something a little drapier, a knit version. But there are a few people that have been requesting a cute blouse. But everything has to have a twist for me, I’m bored with the basic button down shirt.
Kirsty: Tell me about your evening wear. I notice that you have a couple of wedding dresses hanging here. So you do event wear too?
Yuliya: That’s what we’re known for, many women know us for event wear. Wedding apparel is something that we had such a huge number of requests for from women who bought our evening wear, just things like “oh does that come in white?” And of course, I’ve done many weddings in the past and that’s something I love. So that’s another option that we have available for women.
Kirsty: Do you offer a standard line of wedding dresses?
Yuliya: It’s not a big line, four or five styles. It’s semi-formal, very affordable. Here, basically, for the price of a regular dress you get a wedding dress.
Kirsty: Another thing that I noticed about your design is that you’re not using the materials that are typical for plus size garments, and that’s actually been an ongoing complaint about plus ranges, materials that are really not up to par. What is you philosophy in terms of what kind of materials you choose and why.
Yuliya: Well, first they have to look good on the body, and they have to drape beautifully. They have to wear nicely, and they have to be comfortable.
Kirsty: There’s a tendency for plus sizes to be made in drab colors, but I notice that everything you have here is in very bright saturated colors. Is that something that’s part of your basic design philosophy?
Yuliya: When I first got started I was very conservative with my colors, but then I learned that a woman wants to celebrate herself and she wants to wear the turquoise and the beautiful oranges or magentas or gorgeous royal blues.
Kirsty: Do you feel that might be part of why you have such a loyal customer base, because there’s not that much out there in terms of vibrant colors?
Yuliya: I think it’s a combination in terms of the loyalty of a customer. There’s something about putting on that first Igigi dress and looking in the mirror and feeling transformed.
I actually had an experience when I was doing couture: this woman comes in to see me, beautiful woman, and she’s depressed. She’s all – “I’m having my college 20 year reunion and I’m depressed, I’m not going to go, I don’t want to see them, I’ve gained so much weight, they’re all going to hate me, I look so ugly.” And she puts on one dress, looks in the mirror, and she starts crying. And first she stands taller instantly, and then she says “oh my God I’m beautiful.” That was the one thing she said, she didn’t lose one pound, nothing changed, but she saw herself as beautiful. She was already beautiful, it was just her perception of herself that she was not. So it’s interesting how a garment can do that to you.
Kirsty: And also maybe the sense of other people outside yourself having made this garment, because if it’s just not available, that’s sort of a quiet signal in the other direction.
Yuliya: That’s true too; it’s like other people saying “I don’t want to see you”.
Kirsty: That’s the other thing that struck me about the bright colors is what those are saying from a psychological point of view is “I’m choosing to be visible”.
Yuliya: Wow. That’s a very big statement, “I’m choosing to be visible.” A lot of women who’ve felt invisible are finally starting to claim beauty, to choose to say they exist, and not only do they exist they’re also beautiful and inspiring.
The way I see my job, the way I’m going to transform the world’s view of beauty is by helping create masses of gorgeous, self-acknowledged, self-loving, self-appreciating women. So you see a woman walking down the street and it doesn’t matter what size she is, she’s at ease with herself, she’s radiating beauty. There’s just something about her and you just can’t help but gasp, and you feel good about yourself.
Kirsty: I see what you’re saying. Every woman who feels bad about herself creates a vicious cycle that sucks other people in, and then we all end up feeling awful about ourselves.
Yuliya: Very true, and we’re all told that the only way we’re going to be beautiful is if we look like those models.
Kirsty: It’s deferred. You’ll be beautiful when you do this, and then this, and…
Yuliya: Exactly. It’s when I lose weight, in a few months…. But then you see a woman who is beautiful now, she’s gorgeous just the way she is, and it has an impact. It changes how we feel about ourselves.
Kirsty: So when that happens is that you’re creating a chain reaction.
Yuliya: Exactly, a chain reaction of those women who walk down the street and everyone is made happier.
Kirsty: There’s a sense of momentum picking up and I don’t know if it’s the economy, or that the percentage of women who need plus sizes has hit critical mass to where the industry just can’t afford to ignore them any more, but it feels like it’s different to how it was a year ago, or five years ago.
Yuliya: Well, first of all it’s the first time that there are three shows on TV acknowledging the existence of voluptuous women – “Drop Dead Dive,” “Dance Your Ass Off” and “More to Love.” The acknowledgment is there. Is it positive? No, not yet.
Kirsty: But visible is already a step up from invisible.
Yuliya: There you go, so now we just have to elevate it to the next level.