It’s a refreshingly warm March afternoon—68 degrees, to be exact—providing the perfect setting for a Friday outing along West 27th Street. Upon reaching the agreed meeting place at the corner of Eighth Avenue, my phone buzzes in my hand.
“Going to grab a cab now,” the text message on the screen reads. “It’s too hot to walk. I overdressed.”
Several minutes later, Catherine Schuller arrives. The FIT adjunct professor is immediately recognizable as she approaches with a regrettable, but chic, leather coat draped over her arm. One might say she’s overdressed for this spring-like weather, but the fashion maven is working it in a striking black, white, and gold ensemble that she modestly mentions she “loosely coordinated.”
Schuller is excited to host a Dean’s Forum on the Business of Gender Neutral Fashion on March 28 in the Katie Murphy Ampitheatre. Produced by Runway the Real Way, the event is intended to celebrate androgyny, gender bending, and non-binary and gender-neutral fashion, featuring a fashion show followed by a panel discussion with the designers. The idea for the segment was born out of Schuller’s love of diversity, her journey since moving to New York, and the creative personalities who have inspired her along the way.
“Living in New York City, I have my ear to the tracks, and I feel like I know what’s happening at all times,” Schuller says. “I just started seeing all this genderless, fluid, blurred-lines kind of fashion happening, and I thought, ‘Let’s do that.’”
Schuller shows off her accessories to me: an ethnic-weave statement necklace by Chinese-born, London-based jewelry designer Jianhui, a stack of African and Indian bangle bracelets, and a Hindu Om-emblazoned bag. The eclectic fusion functions to create a most appropriate look for someone who’s passionate about promoting diversity and inclusivity in fashion. She’s particularly proud to show off her vest from premium plus-size brand See Rose Go, a gift from co-founder Yi Zhou.
“I asked her if she wanted me to help her market it, so she sent me an outfit, which is great,” Schuller says, giggling.
We find a quiet bench where Schuller explains that her interest in alternative fashion became piqued when she moved to the city in 1975. The wide-eyed, 22-year-old Pittsburgh native, who still exudes a youthful charisma, found herself instantly drawn to the city’s individualistic culture while she was dating the original drummer for the New Wave band Blondie. Schuller, with her blonde waves, heavily lined blue eyes, and bright-pink cheekbones, bears a remarkable resemblance to Debbie Harry.
“Everybody said, ‘You know, you look like her,’ and it’s so funny ’cause my boyfriend was her drummer,” she says. “She’s older than I am, but to this day, people come up to me. It’s weird.” Schuller’s face expresses genuine bemusement by the persistent comparison to a celebrity whom she happened to know back in the day.
“Her first question when she came up to me was ‘Are you a model?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ Then I suddenly realized—You’re supposed to be doing something if you’re in New York!” Schuller leans forward and chuckles at this obvious-in-hindsight revelation. “And, it has to be something cool and interesting. So, she taught me with those four words: Do something. Be something. Don’t just be the drummer’s girlfriend.”
With her newfound sense of purpose, striking face, and innate personal style, it didn’t take long for Schuller to meet photographer David Steinberg, who helped her create a modeling portfolio. After months of preparation, she went in for an interview at the Ford Modeling Agency. The booker took one look at her and said, “You gotta lose weight.”
“I was crestfallen.” Schuller recalls the rejection with disenchanted eyes. “I mean, all my time in New York—it was just like, ‘Where’s my place?’ I didn’t feel like I fit in at all, you know?”
But just when it seemed the fashion industry had passed on Schuller, a model scout approached her in the early 1980s. Pat Swift, founder of Plus Models, signed her with the agency on the spot. For her first gig, she found herself walking in a fashion show as the only size-14 model on the runway. The audience “went crazy” over her unconventional body type.
“They’d never seen this freak, you know, on the runway,” Schuller jokes. “I’d go in the back, and the models would say, ‘What are you doing out there? Cartwheels or something?’ I said, ‘No. It’s pretty much that I don’t look like you, and they appreciate it.’”
This was exactly the kind of recognition Schuller needed to get her foot in the door. Realizing she’d found her calling at last, she stuck with modeling for the next several years.
“I got bit by the diversity bug big time,” she says. “I got known as this plus-size model, and I’d never heard those two words together. ‘Plus-size’ was very empowering to me because it showed me where I belonged.”
Schuller credits that empowerment with saving her life. Before she was able to define herself as proudly plus-size, she had struggled with depression, low self-esteem, and obsessive dieting. Now, suddenly, she’d found an opportunity to gain acceptance for who she was and make a name for herself in the New York fashion world.
“People said, ‘You’re so innovative and so groundbreaking,’ and I was like, ‘Whatever. I’m just being me,’” Schuller says. “I was making good money being who I was. There’s nothing more empowering than getting paid to bring your own game on, and get appreciated.”
Schuller’s modeling contract expired in the early 1990s, but her career in fashion was only beginning. She took on a retail editor position at MODE, a magazine aimed at plus-size women. Now she had a platform for spreading fashion diversity nationwide.
At the same time, Schuller studied image consulting at Parsons School of Design. The program, through the Association of Image Consultants International, would later move to FIT, where she now teaches a continuing education course on Image and Style for Petites and Plus-Size Customers. She would like to see the school offer more courses of a similar nature.
“The students need to know what the niches are for them to explore, and for them to make a living,” says Schuller, who’s been teaching at FIT for eight years. “This school is about giving you tools so that you can go out in the world and work, so what we need to do is show them the viability of the market, what it looks like, and the history of it.”
“Plus-size was very empowering to me because it showed me where I belonged.”
In 2012, Schuller created Runway the Real Way in response to the marginalization of plus-size models, minorities, and the LGBTQ community in the high-fashion modeling industry. “Runway the Real Way represents my dream to provide a vehicle for celebrating fashion for everyone, regardless of height, weight, body type, race, nationality, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation, because we believe that beauty comes in all shapes, shades, sizes and colors, and everyone should show off that beauty on the runway,” according to her website.
While the fashion industry has become much more progressive since Schuller began modeling, she believes there’s still room for more inclusivity. Her mission is to discover new designers and models who deviate from the mainstream and give them the chance to showcase their unique talent and gain exposure in fashion shows.
“I want to be the person I wish I’d met when I first moved to New York,” she says. “That’s what I always live by. I foster young talent. I foster their creativity. I’m always about inspiring people because there are too many people who are like, ‘Who do you think you are? You can’t do that.’ Who am I to tell you that you can’t make it? Go for it! If you think you can do it, you can.”