Supermodel Emme: Designing Woman

Back in the mid-’80s, a then unknown Emme trekked out to California and got a job as a page at the NBC studios. In her 1998 book, True Beauty, Emme recounts that when the supervisors at NBC handed out uniforms to the new pages, she discovered that “Apparently, female NBC pages came only in sizes six, eight and ten…. Once again, I got the message that I was too big, that I would never fit in. There was no room for me here.”

But this time, instead of feeling hurt and victimized, Emme got mad as hell. She realized, “I wasn’t wrong…. The world…was wrong for not accepting me.” Her life-altering epiphany was that “I had to make a place for myself; I couldn’t sit around waiting for the rest of the world to let me in.”

Flash forward 15 years, and Emme’s new clothing line is proof positive that she’s still making a place for herself. Calling herself “the missing link” who falls between the cracks of the Missy and Plus departments, Emme says her motivation for creating her own line of clothes is “a very selfish thing. I found I didn’t have enough choice in the department stores. Instead of always trying to cover, cover, cover, I was looking for a great pant – not one that binds and gathers. I wanted to have a graceful duster.”

With a bit more nudging, though, it becomes clear that Emme’s motivation for designing her own line isn’t selfish at all. She is equally frustrated in finding clothes for her gig as the host of E! Entertainment’s Fashion Emergency! Revealing the tricks of the trade, she says, “You should see my back (when I’m) on TV. I have clamps. The clothes are cut. I have tape.” Her discomfort with projecting an image that didn’t reflect fashion reality for plus-size women collided with her realization that “If I have a hard time being at the lower end of the (size) spectrum, what are my larger sisters doing?”

When she began her quest to design her own clothing line, Emme envisioned the collection going from sizes 4 through 24, all carried in one department. “They looked at me like I had a third eye,” she says wryly. So, she thought, “Let me start in my own backyard,” and design a line in sizes 14-24. In a unique twist for the fashion industry, where plus-sizes are usually the Johnny-come-latelys, Emme expects to expand her line to include straight sizes within the next year and a half.

As this issue goes to press, Emme is plowing full steam ahead to adhere to the bizarre calendar of the fashion industry. She and her design team, led by Cynthia Pseng, have already nailed the trends for Fall 2001, and are discussing design concepts and fabric selection. Her Resort and Summer 2001 lines are in the design stage, and are set to have a 1940s feel. “Look for dots in very different patterns and arrangements,” she reveals, “and wrap-front tops and flounce skirts.” What else is in store for the future? “Cowgirl crocheted sweaters, double layers with fringe, geometric shapes, bell sleeves, wonderful necklines, and skirts at knee length or a smidgen above,” she says.

Emme has a clear vision of her endeavor. “The purpose of the line is not to be a trend setter,” she declares. Instead, her goal is to interpret the trends for plus-size women, and provide “An element of style that has a trend feel, but very sophisticated while at the same time being useful.”

Saying that “it’s not an issue of size, it’s an issue of style,” Emme stresses that her line is a wardrobe system designed for “every kind of woman who is on the go – a mother who wants to pick something up and run, or get together with girlfriends, or go on a special date with her husband.” With its emphasis on separates, Emme says that it’s important that the line have “a great pant that fits, so that you don’t always have to wear a long jacket…. A waist area that has shape to it, so that you feel good, and so your personality comes through.”

Emme’s personality is evident in all aspects of her clothing line, since as Creative Director, she’s contributing much more than simply her name. “You have to have the right partner to create wonderful things,” she says. And she feels that she’s found that partner in the manufacturer Ivy, a division of Kellwood Co. In addition to Emme’s line, Ivy manufactures for JCPenney and QVC, while Kellwood produces the Fern Bratten plus-size line, as well as Sag Harbor and Koret of California.

While Elisabeth, Liz Claiborne’s plus-size division, reportedly turned down collaboration, Ivy embraced Emme’s vision. “Once we signed the agreement with Ivy,” she says, “we were running at the speed of sound.” Instead of the restrictions usually imposed on the rigid retail industry, Emme says Ivy welcomes an approach that is outside of the box. The attitude is “let’s try it, let’s create,” she exclaims.

That’s been Emme’s motto since her revelation back at the NBC studios, but for years prior, she struggled with feeling as though she didn’t fit in. The übermodel we know as Emme was born “Melissa” to Sally Lamar Owens and Tom Miller. Her parents divorced when she was an infant, and she and her mom lived in New York on the Upper East Side until a new man walked into Sally’s life. When her stepfather Bill entered the picture, “I went from being the center of my mother’s universe to a self-conscious kid who was never good enough.”

When Emme was about eight, her family moved to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, where Bill had landed a job as a junior high music instructor for the Aramco oil company. In True Beauty, which could be described as both an autobiography and self-help book, Emme describes the devastating effect that Bill’s feeling about his own weight had on her. “He couldn’t do anything about his own weight,” she writes, “so he set about controlling ours.”

There were weigh-ins, there were food control issues, and at one point, Bill even took a black marker to Emme’s adolescent body, drawing circles around “trouble spots” on her thighs, hips, arms and stomach. “My entire relationship with Bill, and eventually with my mother, came to be about food and weight. It defined me. It defined us.”

When Emme was 15 and preparing to go to boarding school in the States, she was hit with the devastating news that her mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer. Her family, which by now included brother Chip and sister Melanie, moved back to Houston, while Emme went to boarding school in Kent, Conn. When her mother died, Emme found solace in athletics. Rowing on her school’s crew team was “a critical watershed” in how she felt about herself. Not only did she discover that her size was an asset in her chosen sport, but “My success…left me feeling good about myself due to tangible achievements unrelated to how I was feeling about my body.”

Emme’s success ultimately led her to a full athletic scholarship at Syracuse University, where she majored in communications. After graduation and her yearlong stint as an NBC page, Emme moved on to Flagstaff, Ariz., where she was a general assignment reporter for KNAZ-TV. After two years of long hours and low pay, she decided a future in news broadcasting looked grim. Around that time, “A friend of a friend had just signed on with the prestigious Ford modeling agency in New York, in their large-size division.” Although dubious at first, Emme moved to New York, where she landed a job as a secretary at an investment firm. During her lunch hour one day, she went on a cold call to a small modeling agency. The rest, as they say, is history.

These days, Emme doesn’t have time to wait for history to catch up to her. She shares her multi-faceted life and New Jersey home with her husband and manager Phil Aronson. Emme has appropriated part of that home to begin rowing again. “I turned half my garage into a rowing boathouse, so I crank my music and row for at least a half hour,” she says. Calling rowing a “godsend” after spending sleepless nights stressed over her new clothing line, she maintains, “I have to get back down to basics again. If I row every day, I’m cooking. If I can’t for three days in a row, I miss it.”

Saying that “the concrete jungle is great, but…,” Emme finds rejuvenation in nature. She and Aronson vacation at both the ocean and the mountains, and cross-country ski in the winter and camp in the summer. Emme also spends time with her brother and sister, who live in the greater New York area. “We’re extremely close, and we have our own way of reaching out to one another,” she says with feeling.

While she’s cut down her traveling from 150 days a year to about one week a month, Emme revels in her role as the star of Fashion Emergency! “You get to meet all these different people,” she says, “and it’s so fun to share the resources of the show with them, to see their eyes light up.” From her perspective, “We all have personality pies, a full 360 degrees,” and Emme delights in encouraging people to think outside the box. “I love to say, ‘Hey, Mr. Banker, have you thought about leather lately?’ Or ‘Hey, Ms. Stay-at-Home Mom, have you thought about the latest duster style?'”

Although fashion is her passion, “Being in a democratic society, I take my citizenship very seriously, and use my voice when I can.” Most often, that voice is utilized for issues close to Emme’s heart. Because her biological father had multiple sclerosis and was confined to a wheelchair for over a decade prior to his death from a heart attack, and two other people in her life have MS, Emme is the celebrity spokesperson for the Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Bike-a-Thon. She’s also actively involved in eating disorders prevention efforts.

As for the future, Emme is looking to break into acting. To date, though, she reports that when she goes to auditions, “Either I’m not big enough or I’m too pretty to be the big girl.” With conviction in her voice, she says, “Until casting directors can see beyond the size issue, I’m not pining away. I’m keeping myself busy with areas that are suited to me right now.”

One suspects, though, that it won’t be long before Emme will be making a place for herself in the world of acting, and not waiting for the world to let her in.

emme2Q & A with BBW

BBW: What’s the most fun, funky item in your closet right now, and when was the last time you wore it?
Emme: I’m wild about my full-length zebra coat with fuschia lining from my collection. I just wore it to my friend’s birthday party.

BBW: If you were chief of the fashion police, what would you outlaw?
Emme: I would outlaw girdles for now and forever!

BBW: If you had a magic wand and could change one thing in this world, what would it be?
Emme: I wish that every child would be given the opportunity to understand and develop his/her own unique abilities.

BBW: Which historical figure do you most admire?
Emme: I admire Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his peaceful yet passionate approach during an adverse time in history.

BBW: Which living person would you most like the opportunity to meet?
Emme: (Secretary of State) Madeline Albright.

BBW: What legacy do you want to leave the world?
Emme: No matter what your size, weight or ethnicity, we are all beautiful!

BBW: What’s your most treasured childhood possession that you still have?
Emme: Pictures of my childhood years.

BBW: When was the last time you had a good belly laugh, and what caused you to laugh?
Emme: At a gabfest with my girlfriends over wine and good conversation.

BBW: Where to you want to be on December 31, 2000 at 11:59 PM?
Emme: In my honey’s arms.

This article was originally published in a 1999 issue of the print magazine.

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