A size 24 woman who struggled to find clothes she loved to wear has launched her own plus-sized clothing line where her customers are the models.
Jo Frost says she used to struggle to find clothes that made her feel “fun, feminine and sexy.”
So the 34-year-old took matters into her own hands, and opened her own shop, Topsy Curvy, in her hometown of Ashton-under-Lyne, Greater Manchester in 2013, before moving the business exclusively online three years later.
And as an antidote to brands using models that place “unrealistic” beauty ideals on women, she gets her customers, rather than professionals, to show off her stock.
Adding that, in April 2019, she designed her very first custom garment – a T-shirt with the defiant caption ‘fat b***h’ emblazoned on the front – she said: “As soon as I got fat, the option to wear the clothes I love was taken away.
“I don’t care about what other people say or think – it was being denied the option to wear what I wanted that upset me.
“Thinner people have always been allowed to parade how proud they are, with catchphrases like ‘nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’”
She continued: “Well, you can be fat and proud too, and I wanted to make a T-shirt that reflected that.”
Growing up, Jo was a size 12 – but that changed when she landed a job at a bakery, aged 16, and took leftover treats home with her after every shift.
By the time she turned 18, she had reached 21 stone – a weight she has stayed at ever since.
She said: “My dad Stan always said it was the free steak slices that did it.
“In all honesty, he’s right. At the end of every shift, we were given the option to take any leftover pasties home – and I absolutely did every time.
“By the time I was 18, I was a size 24, and have been ever since.”
She continued: “Luckily I’ve always tried my best to be accepting of myself.”
After leaving college in 2004, Jo swapped her weekend job for a full-time customer services role at a delivery company.
In the years that followed, she felt increasingly uncomfortable – mostly because she was unable to find any clothes to suit her style on the high street.
“If I’d been able to go shopping and fit into clothes I liked, I think my early 20s would have been completely different,” she said.
“I felt like society was telling me to cover up and wear baggy tops.
“I never wore clothes like that when I was slimmer and I refused to when I was bigger, too.”
She continued: “But the only options for people like me back then were plus-size shops like Evans or Bonmarche which, to be quite frank, I found frumpy.
“When I was a teenager, I was always the person that people came to for fashion advice, and I loved helping my mates pick out outfits.
“I lost that in my early 20s, because I couldn’t go to the same shops as my pals.”
And Jo’s size did not go unnoticed when she was out and about.
Recalling one particular shopping trip in 2011, she said: “I was standing in line, waiting to pay for something, when a man in his gym instructor uniform quite obviously started to take a photo of me.
“I’m not a fat person who lets people get away with saying or doing things like that.”
She continued: “I’m of the opinion that if you let people get away with it, they do it again and again.
“So, I took the phone from him, asked what the hell he was doing and got him a disciplinary from the gym he worked for.
“He actually asked to take me out for dinner as an apology. I told him where to shove it.”
By 2013, Jo was utterly fed up with not being able to find fashionable clothes to fit her frame.
So, with some financial help from her retired council worker parents Stan, 63, and Frances, 58, she leased a shop for £600 a month and officially opened Topsy Curvy.
After stocking the shelves with clothes from the likes of reality star Gemma Collins’ range, and AX Paris, whose garments go up to a size 32, she made the unique decision to model the items herself, rather than hire professionals.
“It was quite a novel idea at the time. I would take photos of myself and post them on Facebook,” she said.
“Customers could see what the clothes look like on a plus-sized body – just like theirs.
“Sure, I could have used a slimmer model and sold 25 times as much, but how many of those buyers are going to return them? How many are going to sit at home feeling awful about themselves because they’re not models?”
She continued: “My customers are busy women, like single mums, who don’t have time to put on a full face of make-up and spend an hour on their hair.”
And Jo was clearly on to a winner as, by the end of 2013, Topsy Curvy had an impressive 10,000 Facebook fans.
Soon, it was not just her modelling – her customers began to get involved, too.
“People would come in and try on clothes, and one day I thought, ‘Hold on a second,’ and asked if I could take a photo to put online,” she explained.
“Nine out of 10 times they would say yes. It’s a real boost for them and it’s great for our customers to see what the clothes look like on a real person.”
In 2016, after three successful years of trading, Jo’s shop lease was up, and she made the decision to take her business online, with the help of friend and former customer Natalie Forshaw, 40 – her second in command.
“At that point, we had 60,000 followers online and I decided the best way to move forward was to give up the shop,” she added.
“The costs of bricks and mortar can be off the scale, so it seemed like the right step.”
Thankfully, Jo’s business instincts were completely right, and by the start of 2019, Topsy Curvy had built up a 200,000 strong online following.
Then, that April, she realised a lifelong dream of designing her own clothes, using a vinyl printer to create her sassy slogan tops.
Priced at £15, they flew off the shelves, selling 30 a day for two straight months.
Now, Jo has branched out into other types of clothing and spends hours printing t-shirts, hoodies and caps – even bringing her dad on board to help out two days a week.
At the moment, 60 per cent of the 700 garments she stocks are exclusive to her, but she hopes to one day reach 100 per cent.
Currently, the company is bringing in around £70,000 a year, but she hopes that it will continue to grow.
She added: “We’re not making huge profits right now, but that’s never what Topsy Curvy has been about.”
Although she is happy to be offering a place for plus-sized women to find fashionable outfits, she is keen to stress that she sees Topsy Curvy as more than a “platform for plugging clothes.”
She concluded: “A big element of the online stuff is talking about clothes. I’ll rate stuff from different clothes shops and let my followers know if it’s any good.
“But it’s also a safe place for men and women to talk openly about their weight. We only have one rule – no diet talk.”
She continued: “We’ve all grown up in a world where fat people are invisible. It’s so hard to imagine what it’s like unless you’re marginalised, but for a second, imagine you never saw anyone like you represented in a clothes catalogue or on the web?
“Things are slowly changing, but we have a long way to go.”