A fitting career? A behind the scenes look at the life of a NY Fitting model

NY Fit Model 16

New York Fit Model Dawn Lorusso

Which model makes the most money for their fashion industry clients? Is it waif-like Kate Moss? How about the more regular sized Crystal Renn? Or is it perhaps a curvy celebrity like Kim Kardashian?

Of course these women generate thousands of web and print pages of PR for the brands they work with, and get paid handsomely for their distinctive looks. However, looks aren’t everything. The purpose of a fashion company is not to make a supermodel look good on a catwalk or in Vogue, it is simply to make money by selling clothes. Supermodel fashion shows, red carpet celebrity events and Terry Richardson photoshoots certainly attract attention to a garment, but what then?

This is where the fit model comes in. Arguably the most important of all, the fit model is the one on who’s shoulders rest the success or failure of every fashion brand. A fit model makes sure Dior doesn’t end up in Daffy’s, that Ann Taylor is tailored properly and that the garment you saw Kate wearing in Vogue will also fit you in the dressing room.  Everyone is pushing forward to innovate, expand and increase sales but the hardest thing to sell is a garment that doesn’t fit.

Once a designer has designed a garment, they have an exact sample made up by the factory, usually in China. It is the fit model’s job to be a human mannequin, trying on the garment, walking around, feeling how the garment stretches, creases or retains its shape. The fit model was chosen because her body is of a shape which most closely matches the maximum number of people in the segment the company is selling to. Not all fit models are size 8, some are size 6 or 4, some are petite, some are Size 18w or even 2x. The perfect body for production is not Bo Derek, it’s the one that most matches the most people.

One of those perfect matches is Dawn Lorusso, a NY based fit model, still on top of the game after 20 years in the garment industry. She has given us unprecedented access to one of her fittings. We literally chased her out of a cab and caught up with her at the design studio fitting room of Fleet Street, who are helping Ivanka Trump launch her new outerwear line. Dawn was there to fit some of Trump’s gorgeous looking winter coats, despite it being 100 degrees outside , and was gracious enough to answer some questions for Bloginity.

NY Fit Model 11

NY Fit Model 9

NY Fit Model 1

NY Fit Model 18

Q: It seems weird to be fitting these coats in the middle of summer.

Dawn: One thing a fit model has to expect is that the season outside the fit room doesn’t match the clothing inside. We fit winter coats in June and July and tanks with shorts in January. It is a good form of escapism to be working on summer outfits while a blizzard rages outside. We have been fitting these coats since May, and now we are at pre-production. These garments will be shipping to the stores in September/October. We are really pleased today how the factory has made up production, in fact we are fighting over who gets to keep the samples even though it is currently 90 degrees!

Q: Are you jealous of supermodels and the fact that fit modeling is practically unknown outside the industry?

Dawn: Not at all. The glamorous jet-set life of modeling has always been its appeal. Working in this industry is fantastic and often time glamorous in a different way, but it is hard work.  I’ve flown all night to Milan to fit a few garments with Giorgio Armani himself, caught the next plane back to NY and got straight in a cab to my next fitting. Fit models must maintain their body specs to maintain an exact standard, I’m sure the pressure is more on a print model to keep her looks the same while ever morphing into the flavor of the month for editors and designers. A good fitting model makes $300+ per hour in today’s market and the career can span 30 years, not the 3 years of some print models.

Q: Are you happy to remain anonymous in comparison to print or runway models?

Dawn: In a way, I am not anonymous. My work affects millions of people for the whole day. Everything in retailing is now monitored and the fashion industry’s goal is ‘excellent sell through.’ Sell through is when a customer picks your garment over another vendor’s. Sometimes it’s the price point, or the color and print design, but if the customer takes three items in a changing room and only one fits, that is the one she buys, regardless of any other factors. My larger corporate clients may use several fit models due to their production volume and will often compare the sales on very similar garments to see which model has the best sellers. Most of my current accounts have been with me for 5 or 10 years, as I am able to  give them a consistent size/fit with many best sellers.  It doesn’t really make a difference if your model is in her 20’s or in her 40’s, as I am. What fits, sells.Often i see women on the street wearing clothes that I have fitted 6 months earlier.  It gives me a real pride and professional satisfaction that they look good and are comfortable thanks in part to my talent.

Q: You say talent but don’t you just take clothes on and off all day? I know plenty of women who could do that.

Dawn: I get where you are coming from, and we are well paid for what sounds like  an easy, vapid job. Keep in mind that I am measured weekly by some accounts to insure my specs are consistent. No gaining or losing weight. You need to have military grade planing to get a cab around half a dozen Manhattan design studios every day, we only have 15 minutes between leaving one client and starting with another. Once in the fitting rooms, I have to fit between 6 and 25 garments an hour. Often in high heels, fabric is pinned on me, cut into on me, stapled and sometimes taped on me. We do what ever it takes to get the designers’ vision to market in my size. I get scratched by pins on a regular basis. I have actually been snipped with scissors, and bled. Some clients want professional advice, others prefer I keep quiet the whole time. The garments range from simple tops, to elaborate dresses, to yoga clothing. In every fitting, the sole purpose of why I am there is to be examined for faults, so it can be fixed for production.

Q: Wow. So what drew you to this in the first place?

Dawn: When I was a designer I always tried on my sweaters in the factory and made corrections. Once I found out I could stay in fashion and make a higher salary as a fitting model, I was off to Ford. A reason I have remained a top model for Elite, Ford and now on my own, is that I graduated with a BFA in knit design from FIT here in NY. As I said before, this career is not simply to parade up and down looking attractive, it is to improve the product by moving around in it and seeing how well the garment feels and looks. Using my training, I can specify to the pattern makers where I am feeling loose or tight, and in some cases share techniques other techs have used on me in the past. Knowing fabric qualities, the difference between stretch versus woven, I talk with the tech and product merchandiser to insure that all fabrications feel and fit their customer the same across categories. Also I have a great deal of “insider” info on past best sellers and upcoming trends, and how to fit these new silhouettes and still look slender. It’s an emotional sell when you are in the fitting room. If you don’t look good, you aren’t taking that style home. One thing all my best sellers have in common is I would buy most of them because I look good in them. The clothes make me “feel” a certain way, and most women want to feel sexy and happy in their new clothes.

Q: Do you visit the factories at all and how much has China taken over production?

Dawn:  My first trip to a Chinese factory was as a fashion designer in 1984. To say things have changed since then is obviously an understatement, having watched first hand as the Garment District factories closed due to cheaper Chinese wages. From a fitting point of view, this has made the process much slower, as factory samples now have to be sent to and from 7,000 miles, not 7 blocks, away. Also, China does flat patterns, and most styles the past few seasons are draped styles, meaning 3D and not flat patterned. Fifteen years ago,  fittings were barely affected by Chinese New Year, now most fit models take vacation then as fits basically stop for 2-3 weeks when China shuts down for the holiday. There are delays for a month because of it.Some clients are moving to India and Peru, because of price and delivery problems. As the Chinese have a completely different body shape, garments still have to be fit on Western models and I am currently consulting for a company in Shanghai on improving the whole sample fitting process.This concept will benefit both overseas factories and manufacturers, yet having said that, I am also convinced that there is a demand for some production facilities to return to Manhattan. The advantages of local production are starting to make sense again.

Q: So you still see a future for the Garment District?

Dawn:  Definitely. Fashion is more popular than ever with superstar designers and programs like Project Runway and America’s Next Top Model. Even events like Fashion’s Night Out were envisioned to get the ‘public’ excited about the celebration and fanfare that is fashion. Unfortunately, the recession is still here and I have been affected along with everyone else.  My accounts are doing well in this retail climate, by keeping costs down as much as possible while giving the consumer something new and exciting in color or silhouette.  In the course of a day, I work alongside patternmakers, samplehands and technical designers who can turn the sketches into reality. It’s pure magic to see and wonderful to be part of the process. My clients are varied, some are big, like Saks Fifth Avenue and Ralph Lauren, and some are small husband and wife operations. The common thread is they all love what they do. It’s a  combination of creativity and ambition that keeps the Garment District producing exciting fashion that consumers want to wear.