It began at the circus. In November 2014, the French troupe of Clowns Without Borders organized a fundraiser to support Uruguayan projects with a performance in the Teatro Solís of historic Montevideo. Among the nearly 1,000 in the crowd was Loreley Turielle, the creator of Srta. Peel, an iconic lingerie brand. But as Turielle watched the clownish chaos and menagerie of painted faces, one person stood apart — Victoria Ripa, lead singer of the local band Croupier Funk. “I saw Victoria and fell in love with what she emanated: sensuality, energy and freedom. She showed her body and her spirit at the same time,” Turielle says.
The next day, Ripa received a call from the famous fashionista. “I was nervous and happy at the same time,” Ripa says, through a translator. It seemed like an unlikely ask: Ripa, who wears a size XL, did not look like the models lining buses and magazine pages in the South American country. But the brand’s inclusive reputation inspired Ripa to accept her first foray into modeling, appearing in a photo collection titled Miradas Peel a few months later.
Now I know that modeling means to communicate a very important message to society.
Since then, Ripa has risen to the level of mini-celebrity — one previously not afforded to larger models in Uruguay. The 33-year-old has worked for a number of major brands and Uruguayan fashion labels, from Dove’s #IDoveMe series to Stadium’s “All of the models, all of the sizes” campaign and Parisien’s brand-new “plus” line. The latter sold out of its spring-summer line last year, and her album for Parisien reportedly drew a record number of Facebook interactions for the Montevideo firm. The fashion blog Mirada Couture saw similar results when it posted a photo from Ripa’s Srta. Peel collection. “The ‘likes’ started to rain,” blogger Alejandra Pintos wrote in a subsequent post. Ripa was even a judge for Teledoce’s “Master Class,” a popular Sunday television show similar to “American Idol.”
Ripa is a Southern Hemisphere ambassador at a time when plus-size fashion is booming across the globe. In the U.S., Ashley Graham was a top-10 earning model last year at $5.5 million and became the first plus-size model to grace the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition cover in January. Major brands from J.C. Penney to Target to New York & Company have added new plus-size collections recently, while curvier models have started walking at New York Fashion Week and appearing on the television show “Project Runway.” While Uruguay has been notably progressive in areas like gay marriage and legal marijuana, the plus-size movement is still nascent. But Ripa’s and others’ successes have created an incentive to adopt larger sizes, particularly among Uruguayan swimwear and lingerie brands such as Bamba and SiSi. Other stores in Montevideo, including The Opera and Forever 21, have also opened up space for plus-size products. “For several years, there has been a demand for plus-size clothing that was not just about comfort, but about added value in fabrics and design,” Turielle says. “The market today makes it easier for customers to be more demanding.”
It’s a surprising star turn for Ripa, who never imagined modeling as a career while growing up in Montevideo. She was “sociable” in high school but never settled into any specific scene, the jocks or the nerds, class clowns or drama geeks. Though Ripa sometimes felt self-conscious about her weight, it never stopped her from pursuing what she wanted: a music career. Her heroes back then were American artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Etta James, and Uruguayans including Alfredo Zitarrosa and Hugo Fattoruso. For the last decade she has worked as a singing teacher for the Ministry of Education and Culture. She joined Croupier Funk, a band she had long admired, as lead singer in 2013.
More recently, her role models have included actual models, such as fellow plus-size catwalkers Graham, Tara Lynn and Denise Bidot. She views modeling as an exchange of energy with her photographer and environment. “I just try to flow with what the moment is generating,” she says. “Now I know that modeling means to communicate a very important message to society,” she says, and she takes special satisfaction in seeing the responses her photos elicit. “Victoria is transparent when it comes to showing herself as she is, and that makes many people feel accompanied and identified with,” Turielle says.
Significant obstacles remain. Boutique clothing shops and indie designers have led the charge on experimenting with sizes, but convincing customers to buy craft products is challenging. “We do not seek to compete with department stores,” Turielle says, though the buy-local movement has grown. “We started in October, and it was such a success: We were selling bikinis for $100, and we had to ask for more,” says Antonella De Guida, creator of the boutique fashion brand MILØ swim. But only 1 percent of their sales were for size XL, and S and M sizes still reign supreme. “We’re used to communicating with thin models. It’s hard to take that step and get curvy models to show an intimate centerfold, rather than casual clothes,” she says. Rotunda, perhaps the fastest-growing fashion brand in Uruguay after recently opening its eighth store, did a plus-size lingerie photo shoot with “very positive” response, De Guida notes, but didn’t go any further despite positive feedback online.
Although new modeling opportunities have emerged from her efforts, it’s telling that Ripa sees her future as a musician rather than a model. But whether it’s through photo shoots or from behind the microphone, her goal is to continue fighting stereotypes of beauty in popular culture. “I don’t think it works to treat large sizes as something separate, but campaigns and fashions should be adapted to all sizes,” she says. “Step by step, little by little, it’s becoming more inclusive, and it feels freer.”
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