Lauren Chan Is Bringing Queer Pride to Size-Inclusive Fashion

"I had been repeatedly told by both designers and executives that plus-size consumers only want to spend up to a certain (low) price point on clothes. However, plus-size people have never had the option to buy anything besides cheap clothing."
Lauren Chan (Photograph: Youn Kim)

Once a fashion editor at Glamour, model, journalist and entrepreneur Lauren Chan has long been at the forefront of making plus-size women more visible within the fashion industry. And 2023 saw her skyrocket into the spotlight: Her suiting brand, Henning, was recently acquired by size-inclusive fashion trailblazer Universal Standard, and Chan was just named the first queer, plus-size Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Rookie of the year. We spoke to Chan about the singular focus and drive that spurred her towards success.

When I was a kid I wanted to be so many different things: a marine biologist; a dentist; a lawyer; a WNBA player; a fashion designer. I was a pretty tall kid—I hit my current height of 5 feet 10 inches by eighth grade—so I started playing basketball when I was five. Growing up in Brantford, Ont. I played on every school team, my regional team, the Ontario provincial team and almost made the Canadian junior national team. I went to Western University in London, Ont. on a basketball scholarship with the intention of playing varsity basketball, then having a semi-pro career overseas.

But the first summer after I started university, my appendix ruptured. I had complications and was in the hospital for a few weeks; I had sepsis in my blood and abdomen, and my left lung collapsed. After a month of recovery, I was able to walk again, but even months later I couldn’t go for a jog, let alone play 90 minutes of basketball.

Most of my energy went into my recovery, but in my spare time, I leaned into my love of fashion. I started writing articles for the arts and life section of my university newspaper and for a local online outlet. In the summer before my fourth year of university, I got an internship at FASHION Magazine and started volunteering at Toronto Fashion Week.

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At the same time, I started applying for internships and jobs in New York City because I wanted to work at one of the magazines I grew up reading, like Cosmopolitan or Vogue. I quickly realized that U.S. work visas are a thing, and it’s next to impossible as a writer out of school to prove that your skill is so extraordinary that a job would have to be outsourced to you. So I thought that if my job skill was something a little more intangible, like my unique representation in fashion and focus on size inclusivity, that might be my ticket to the States. In 2012, my dad drove me to NYC to attend a Ford Models open call for its plus-size division. I had zero experience modelling and I was super intimidated the whole time, but I got signed that day. They sponsored my visa and I moved to NYC in the fall of 2013.

Model Lauren Chan sitting on a white block wearing a green dress and white sneakers
(Photograph: Osvaldo Ponton)

I was doing largely commercial catalog work, modelling a few times a month for Macy’s to make rent, and spent the rest of my time going to journalism workshops, networking and writing freelance stories. I did that hustle for two years and it didn’t seem to be getting me anywhere. Just as I was about to make my way back to Canada, I got a job at Glamour as a fashion writer, complete with a visa sponsorship.

It was amazing to be able to walk into the Condé Nast building every day and see Anna Wintour in the hallway. I started out writing 10- to 20-word captions for the fashion editorials in the back of the book, and by the end of my time there, I was running the fashion news section and covering the womenswear market. I had also carved out a niche writing about plus-size fashion, which consisted of a monthly print column, an online vertical and co-designing clothing collections for a Glamour x Lane Bryant collaboration. But the entire time, I faced the issue of being a size 18-20 and not having the same access to clothing as my peers. I was sitting in story meetings wearing Forever 21 surrounded by people sporting designer clothes. 

After four years, I felt like I had hit the ceiling in terms of promotions and growth at Glamour. Magazines were going through an industry-wide restructuring, and our editor-in-chief, Cindi Leive, departed at the end of 2017. It felt like the universe was saying to me, “Okay, it’s time to move on.”

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I had been repeatedly told by both designers and executives that plus-size consumers only want to spend up to a certain (low) price point on clothes. However, plus-size people have never had the option to buy anything besides cheap clothing. That’s like only offering blue denim to consumers and then saying that nobody wants to buy black denim. I decided to build my own fashion start-up, Henning, to fill a specific hole in the market for sharp, tailored, luxurious clothing in larger sizes.

My passion really carried me through the early stages of building my company. I returned to modelling for income, and started Henning in 2018 with a small amount of money from myself, friends, family and angel investors. With that “change the world” energy, I researched and executed everything from a business plan, to product samples, to building a social community until there was a real business in front of me. As a deprived plus-size customer, it was so satisfying to be able to make the high-quality suit I’ve always wanted.

I built Henning with the intention of being acquired—I never took home a paycheque and continued to model while growing the business—so I was delighted when it was bought by the size-inclusive clothing brand Universal Standard, which offers garments in sizes ranging from 00 to 40, in April. Nine out of 10 start-ups fail, so not only am I incredibly proud on a personal level, but I’m also thrilled to prove that plus-size fashion is a viable business.

Since the acquisition, I have been working with Universal Standard as head of brand partnerships. Recently, I’ve been launching the brand’s swimwear, which feels apt because I was recently named the Sports Illustrated 2023 Rookie.

“I’m the first plus-size, queer model to earn the Rookie title, and I’m super excited to be sharing my story about coming out in my 30s”

When the team at Sports Illustrated reached and asked for a casting tape, I was going to give them my usual spiel which is, ‘Hi, I’m Lauren Chan, I am a plus-size model, a former fashion editor and a clothing-brand founder. I care deeply about size inclusion…’ but I felt called to share a more personal story of what I had been going through the year prior, which was a divorce, coming out as queer and a new chapter for myself. Evidently that resonated, because the next time we spoke over Zoom, MJ Day, the editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated, told me I was going to be a 2023 Rookie.

When the cover came out, it was an incredible moment for me because I got to celebrate my hard-fought pride on such a large scale. I’m the first plus-size, queer model to earn the Rookie title, and I’m super excited to be sharing my story about coming out in my 30s. I lost 7,000 followers on Instagram but gained 13,000 new ones. I got lots of positive texts and emails from everyone in my extended Chinese family, which I was relieved and happy about.

I really love what I do, whether that’s modelling, working at Universal Standard or connecting with the audience I’ve built through social media. I find so much joy in being able to relate with people on shared experiences. I’m lucky to be working in a space that allows me to do just that.

As told to Isabel B. Slone
As told to Isabel B. Slone
Isabel B. Slone is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Financial Times and others.