Interview with Michelle Ellis from FatPhrocks
We know that FatPhrocks and Wingz both came to be because of a real need – fashionable arm coverage with Wingz, and of course FatPhrocks was created for tall, plus size women who just weren’t catered for anywhere else. But what makes Michelle tick, and what can we expect from the brand in the future? I caught up with Michelle to find out a little bit more…
Michelle, was there a particular trigger event that made you decide to design your own clothing range? What made you think “That’s it, I’ll do this myself”?
I have Lipoedema, which is a genetic illness that shows up as abnormal fat deposits on the legs, hips, buttocks and arms.
Most ladies with Lipoedema have what they call a ‘big bang’ blow up at some point – with me I know it’s related to my hormones because it happened in my first pregnancy. I gained almost 9 stones in ten months, but my craving was for ice!
I went from a size 14 to a size 24, and when I should have been enjoying my new baby I was commiserating my new body. To make it even worse, none of my clothes fitted me, which for a fashion lover was very bad news!
I spent months looking for decent clothes, and realised that you were OK if you were small and fat, or tall and slim, but not tall and fat. I knew how to use a sewing machine and had a basic knowledge of pattern design so I decided to make my own, but it was expensive - a maxi dress takes about 2.7 – 3 metres of fabric at £15 a metre, zips and buttons add another few pounds and embellishments even more. I also wanted sequin and bead work but didn’t have the talent to create the looks I wanted.
Dressmakers were expensive but after hearing my husband negotiating costs on the phone one night I realised that to lower the cost I needed to scale up the production. FatPhRocks was born – Plus Size from conception, not just sized up!
What do you think about the positive body image movement? Do you believe that women (and men) should be happy if they are fat, or encouraged to lose weight?
Where do I start? While being so fat you cannot walk isn’t healthy and clearly shouldn’t celebrated as it’s such a waste of life, anyone in that situation needs care and compassion not hatred, shame and more hurt.
‘Health’ is given as the excuse for prejudice and bullying but you can be healthy at a large size and you can be unhealthy at a small size. There is proof that a positive outlook on life, including your body is good for you and can improve your health. People who say they only pick on fatties for their own good really need to wake up and admit that it’s actually more about their own feelings than the welfare of the person they deem in need of their help.
I think that size prejudice is more about control, billion pound businesses profit from making women worry about their bodies. Imagine what we women could have done or be doing if we weren’t so preoccupied with getting fatter or getting older? All that energy could be used on more productive things than whether we’re worthy of a bikini. True freedom is not gained by losing weight and fitting in with the norm, this keeps you locked in to it, the freedom comes when sizeism is no longer acceptable in society in the same way that ageism and racism is frowned upon and recognised as narrow mindedness.
What do you think about plus size fashion at the moment?
It is improving, but not because the big businesses realise they have been lacking, it’s just a commercial move – cashing in on the so-called obesity epidemic.
Most plus size clothes are just sized up and when a mainstream retailer starts selling plus sizes - most are unflattering as they fit so badly. As I am tall, fat and have size 10 feet I still have very little choice – this may change if there is a tallness epidemic - ha!
Until that time I make sure I have dresses for when I need to feel good and look good from FatPhRocks, dresses in unique fabrics which fit properly. No more walking into a room and finding the only other plus size lovely is wearing the exact same dress as me, now I get loads of compliments!
Why does FatPhrocks specialise in maxi dresses particularly?
Because I can’t buy one anywhere and alter it to fit me. Yes, I could buy a mini dress in a plus size and wear it as a top, no problem, but stunning dresses are impossible to find in my size, and you can’t just add length to a dress.
A dress is a complete outfit, feminine and shows the female form without putting everything on show and last but not least – it is comfortable to wear.
What, and who, inspires you when you’re designing a new dress?
I see women from all around the world and think ‘WOW they look amazing’.
Often, a woman tells me what she’d really love, I give a nod to current trends and my own life experiences help. For example, I know if I was in a hot country, with a five-course formal dinner to attend, I’m going to swell up with the heat and food but I want to feel comfortable and glamorous. I might also expect to be sitting for a while, and don’t want creases to ruin my dress.
With all that in mind, I’d design a dress like the Soir Noir that takes all this into account, the job the fabric has the allowances and advantages the design must give and the glamorous look the finish calls for.
Whose style do you really admire?
Easy – Madonna!
She changes her look to suit herself and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of her. She’s a trend setter not a follower, wears designs from all over the world including ethnic prints and embellishments that I love to wear too, and so much of it has meaning, with effort and care poured into the prints.
She can rock the red carpet with sophistication or turn heads in jeans, embroidered shirt and cowboy boots.
Madonna is one woman who really loves and understands accessories, overly matched is contrived and can appear stiff, she knows sometimes less (and not size wise) is more –a big statement necklace looks so much better than a petite earing, necklace and bracelet combo ever can.
We’re really excited about the new FatPhrocks designs after seeing the sneak previews; what can we expect from the rest of the new designs?
I travel around the world to buy my fabrics and materials, so the material prints are dependent on what is available in the markets. Unlike big businesses who buy miles of fabric from the mills in their own design and then they try use the print in as many different items of clothing they can, I buy small, I buy unique and I buy what is beautiful as a standalone piece of fabric.
I then think about what design of dress will show the fabric off best, which design lets the print sit in a certain body area and what effect it has on the eye of the beholder. Then, I buy embellishments and beads which complement the print and design or enhance an effect. I make beautiful dresses designed to respect the fabric and enhance the female figure – they are timeless and never out of fashion.
You started designing Wingz because of your lipoedema – can you tell us more about the condition?
Yes. Wingz came about through my desire to cover my disproportionately large arms without overheating or having to cover up a pretty dress or top with a shrug or jacket.
Wingz were my answer, and these days lots of women love their Wingz for many more reasons! I hope one day every woman will own a pair of Wingz, like a cardigan or shrug. Through my lymphoedema clinic I’ve met women who developed lymphoedema in the arms following breast cancer surgery and they too love their Wingz and appreciate the coolness and comfort of wearing them, especially when it’s hot.
Lipoedema is an underdiagnosed, progressive chronic disease that can rob you of your mobility, so the earlier it is caught the better. It presents to the world as fat legs, bum and arms which is hard enough with the weight stigma in the medical arena and prejudice in society.
Having a medical condition that makes you fat, when the fat is not affected by diet and exercise means that most Lipoedema Ladies have a tough time, many have eating disorders. I’ve lost count of the times I have heard from women who were told by their GP to go away, diet and move more, they are treated as simply stupid or dishonest.
What the body shape does not show is that pain accompanies the fat. You can be in pain every single day, your children can’t sit on your knees, you can’t sit, stand or walk for too long, washing your hair makes your arms ache, travel can be torturous - you miss out on a lot of activities and fun. Many of us are hypermobile too so we have joint problems, especially in the knees. If Lipoedema goes undiagnosed and mis-managed the lymphatic system is compromised and this is called Lipo-Lymphoedema, again this is very uncomfortable and causes further swelling, it makes the immune system weaker and a perfect host for cellulitis and other complications.
Where can women who think they might have Lipoedema go for support?
For more information please see www.lipoedemaladies.com and you can connect with more ladies via this site for support both worldwide and regionally in the UK.
Are there more Wingz designs coming soon, too?
Yes! I am often sent requests for a certain style or colour and when I see the same suggestion cropping many times up I will add it to the collection.
I am really excited about our coming ‘Support Wingz’ that will stop the jiggle and give support to the upper arms and will look just as great with an evening dress as they will with a vest top and jeans.
I am sure these will knock our ¾ fitted sleeve Wingz from off the top spot in popularity. Watch this space for when they are launched or ‘like’ our Facebook pages to be the first to know.
Thank you and PHRock On! Michelle Ellis x