In his debut book “The Power of Plus,” journalist and SUNY Schenectady County Community College graduate Gianluca Russo chronicles the fight to make fashion more size-inclusive.
Russo weaves interviews of 80 models, influencers, advocates and more with his own personal experiences to craft a compelling narrative that makes the issue relatable to those both inside and outside the fashion industry.
The Guilderland native’s path to writing was a winding one. Growing up, Russo was interested in theater arts, but after graduating from Guilderland High School he decided to pursue a paralegal degree from SUNY Schenectady. While he received the degree in 2017, he knew legal work wasn’t a fit for him, and instead felt compelled to write. He began blogging about local theater while studying journalism at the University at Albany. There, Russo gravitated toward fashion journalism.
“What drew me at the time was kind of watching from afar Teen Vogue go through this very public revolution, where they switched their content to reflect their audience in a more accurate way, and so that really meant bringing identity into the reporting that was being done there, and I resonated with that,” Russo said. “While I have this love for theater journalism, I felt like at the time it wasn’t ready for hard conversations. And I wanted to be able to bring those cultural moments and identity conversations into the reporting I was doing.”
Russo found he was able to do that through fashion journalism. While taking classes at UAlbany, he began writing for Teen Vogue, GQ, Glamour, Nylon and other outlets.
“It just felt like I was coming to journalism at a time when we crave this conversation around size inclusivity and diversity, and that was what I could comment on,” said Russo, who has since become a Nylon columnist.
The idea for “The Power of Plus” came out of a wide-ranging series of pieces he wrote about size inclusivity and New York Fashion Week.
“I spoke to over 60 people for all of them and just tackled the issue from every different angle I could,” he said.
Russo tweeted each story in a thread and mentioned that he hoped to write a book on the topic. A day later, he signed with an agent and started working on the book proposal.
“I’m going to take everything I’ve done in the past four years now and I’m going to turn it into a book that celebrates us and also pushes fashion to where it needs to still go,” Russo said.
That’s exactly what “The Power of Plus” does. It opens with a bit of history on the movement, including the story of Lane Bryant, a company founded in the early 1900s that became a leader in providing clothes for curvy women.
Russo also touches on how plus-sized people have been demeaned and criticized over the years. Perhaps one of the most notable examples is told through an interview with trailblazer Emme Aronson, who is considered to be the first plus-sized model. During a photo shoot early on in Aronson’s modeling career, a photographer refused to shoot her at first, saying, “I’m not shooting that fatty.”
“I was frustrated. I was hurt. I took it personally, but I knew that it was wrong. This is not the way any woman or person should be talked to,” Aronson said. She went on to be named one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, and has become an advocate for size-inclusivity in the fashion industry.
“It’s just such an incredible thing to see how far she’s come in what she’s been able to do since the 1990s,” Russo said. “She was the first person I ever interviewed for this book and it felt like it set the tone for it. That’s why I wanted to open the book with her story, because for me, she opened my eyes to this.”
Another notable interview from the book is with model Hunter McGrady, who, after landing a spread in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, was told she would have to lose weight if she wanted to keep working as a plus-sized model.
McGrady, a proponent of body positivity, refused to cater to the idea of the “perfect plus,” even if it meant losing out on jobs. During New York Fashion Week in 2019, she turned down more than 30 jobs she felt weren’t size-inclusive. McGrady’s resolve resonated with Russo, who in the book discusses his struggles with dieting culture.
Russo said his own experiences helped him connect with the 80-plus people he interviewed while reporting for the book.
“I’m someone who has a personal investment into this topic because I also am affected by these kinds of fashion-industry norms, and I have been since I was a child,” Russo said. “That really helped us connect and find that common ground, which allowed them to then be more vulnerable and open up more, and really understand this project at its core.”
One of the challenges Russo faced early on while reporting on the size-inclusivity movement was picking the right label. Russo identified with terms such as “plus-size” and “fat.” However, when he was writing one of the features that inspired the book, he discovered the controversy behind those labels. Russo wanted to call the feature “Fashion’s Fat Rebels,” but some of the people he hoped to interview refused to be included unless he took the word fat out of the headline.
“It was hard because I wanted to include some people I really admired and looked up to and they just didn’t want to be lumped in under this conversation,” Russo said. “At first I was turned off by that. And I was like, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to support this?’ ”
But while reporting for the book, Russo began to understand where those people were coming from. Some were afraid they would lose out on jobs, while others just didn’t want to be labeled in that way.
“The complexities there of understanding how fashion works and why labels matter in the way they do currently was something I had to learn throughout this process because not everyone wants to be labeled as plus-size. Not everyone wants to be labeled as fat or curvy,” Russo said. “They don’t all want to lend their voices here because, at the end of the day, it is putting you in a box. Some people want to be put in those boxes, they find community in those boxes. I’m one of those people. But some people don’t. They want the endless opportunities. They don’t want to be labeled, because being labeled means being limited to them.”
While the book comes in at fewer than 200 pages, Russo also delves into the complexities of fashion brands such as Old Navy and Target expanding their offerings into plus sizes in a way that makes plus-sized customers feel supported and included.
“The Power of Plus” covers the struggles of the size-inclusivity movement as well as the wins with big-name brands. Those wins notably slowed during the pandemic when Russo wrote the book. With the release slated for Tuesday, Russo, who now lives in Arizona, hopes the book will pick up momentum.
“I think after two years of being in this pandemic, the momentum on size inclusivity has unfortunately died down a little in the industry. It’s really unfortunate to see. I wanted this book to remind people: We’ve come this far, let’s celebrate that, but don’t let it die out,” Russo said.
“The Power of Plus” is published by Chicago Review Press. It will be available starting Tuesday at BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon and other book retailers.
Russo will be at the Guilderland Public Library for a book signing and discussion from 6:30-8 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 7. The talk will be moderated by Times Union journalist Steve Barnes.