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Working with established bloggers in the plus-size scene paid off right away. "When we debuted the Ava & Viv launch, it went viral in like, 60 seconds," Garner tells Racked. "I definitely wasn’t expecting that. It was very surreal. But it speaks to the power of our brands and the power of us endorsing something, and it having to do with how fashion is produced and what we want to see."
Ava & Viv is a departure from what the retailer has offered its plus-size customers in the past. "As we looked at our plus offerings and the industry overall, we realized there was a white space that only Target could fill," Target spokesperson Kate Decker says. The retailer made sure to dedicate floor space to the collection as well as offering it online, no doubt due to criticism over the fact that previous designer collaborations had been relegated to the web—that is, if plus sizes were produced at all.
From a financial perspective, Target's decision to allocate resources to the plus-size industry makes sense: reports have proven time and again that there's a lot of potential in the plus market. The NPD Group released a study last year outlining $17.5 billion in industry sales from May 2013 to April 2014. (In the same period, The NPD Group concluded that women’s total apparel sales reached $116.4 billion, and men’s apparel sales added up to $60.8 billion.)
In the past, Target tried to reach the plus-size market with company stalwarts like Merona and Mossimo Supply Co., in-house lines that produce clothes in both straight and plus sizes. But with Ava & Viv, Target's design team focused specifically on plus-size construction. "Designing everything in-house lets us have a team that focuses specifically on fit, which allows us to offer a collection that not only looks great, but also fits well," Decker explains.
The new approach generated a lot of initial interest, but reviews of the line have been pretty flat so far. The Detroit Free Press called it "difficult to pull off" and an NYC-based blogger wrote that most of the collection still looked like products she could find elsewhere. When Glamour asked its readers what they thought, the comments were overwhelmingly negative.
Target's competitors don't have dedicated plus-size lines, but they aren't ignoring the market either. JCPenney just introduced a lookbook specifically for its plus-size customers (dubbed JCP Woman in stores) and offers plus-size options in its stable of brands, including St. John's Bay, Liz Claiborne, a.n.a, and, most recently, Bisou Bisou.
The merchandising approach is vastly different, too. When I checked out Ava & Viv in my local Target, it was five racks of clothes underneath a bright red "Women's Plus" sign, tucked away between the maternity section and the fitting rooms. At JCPenney, the JCP Woman area was so well integrated into the rest of women's apparel that straight-size women were wandering into the section without realizing that it was dedicated to plus-size product.
"When creating our plus-size collections, our design teams give careful consideration to cut, color, and prints, to ensure that we offer styles that flatter curvy figures and deliver strong fashion statements for every occasion," JCPenney spokesperson Christina Voss told Racked over email.
Construction is, in part, why smaller brands haven’t gone after the plus-size market yet. Aimee Cheshire, the founder of online-only plus-size retailer Hey Gorgeous, regularly hunts down straight-size designers and pitches them on making plus-size clothing for her customers.
"The general response is: ‘We just don’t have the capacity to. We love the market, we want to be in it, but our factories don’t make those sizes, we don’t have the manpower,’" Cheshire says. "When you think about a lot of the cool designers, it’s not like they’re rolling around in profit. They’re still trying to get by, and for them, to just drop everything they’re doing and start catering to a size range for which they have no patterns made for, no technical design skills, no fit models—it’s a lot of an investment for your average fashion line to get into."
Hey Gorgeous stocks plus-size clothing from brands like BB Dakota, James Jeans, and Jessica Simpson, as well as Robin Lawley’s eponymous swimsuit line, and the company plans on doing more celebrity collaborations in the future. The retailer is still young (it just relaunched last year), and Cheshire welcomes the attention that Target has brought to the market. "Having big-box retailers playing in the plus-size market definitely opens up the space and gives that validity that says to everyone else that this is a real thing that we should all address," she explains. "Before Target or the H&M thing, it was never really a market that people thought was real."
Different age demographics also present a problem. Plus-size lines are getting a lot of attention with super trendy offerings, but not every woman (straight or plus size) wants to stock her closet with crop tops and jumpsuits. Garner says it’s another reason why more brands might be hesitant to dip into plus size.
"You have the new-school girl: she wants to be trendy and have beautiful classics and really just express herself through fashion and she’s not letting her size dictate that," Garner tells Racked. "Then you also have the old-school shopper who's still not completely comfortable with herself, and may want to go for more flattering styles. You get stuck between, ‘Who do I cater to?’ It’s a balance because you don’t want to alienate either shopper. Both girls should have clothes that they want, because in straight-size fashion you have that."
In recent years, there have been significant strides forward. Lane Bryant regularly partners with well-recognized fashion designers for plus-size collaborations, and Melissa McCarthy has unveiled plans to design her own line of sportswear. Eloquii closed on a $6 million round of funding last December to finance product expansion and increased marketing efforts. Plus-size models like Robin Lawley and Ashley Graham are regularly featured in mainstream fashion magazines (as well as Sports Illustrated).
Modcloth, another brand recognized for making headway in the plus-size market, started offering larger sizes to its customers three years ago. Although the company designates a tab on the homepage to plus-size product, it strives for full integration of all sizes into every section of the site. "The way we look at Modcloth is that it’s not plus," Nicole Hasse, Modcloth’s senior director of merchandising, tells Racked. "It’s extended sizes. And I think there’s a very big difference there, because it’s about her being able to participate in the same style, no matter what." Currently, Modcloth carries 35% of the site’s products in all sizes.
However, within the plus-size community there's a noticeable lack of non-fast fashion options. While more and more commercial brands (Target, H&M, Rue21, Charlotte Russe) are offering plus-size products, there hasn’t been much news coming out of the contemporary and luxury retail spaces. "There's a lot of fast fashion in plus size—a lot," Garner says. "I feel like there’s that middle ground that’s missing. Kate Spade might make a dress for $400 and we can’t go out and buy that."
Rachel Richardson, a plus-size blogger and fit model, feels the same way. "I think that [Ava & Viv] does help, but it’s almost like it’s expected of brands like Target and Forever 21 to have those offerings," Richardson tells Racked. "With the fast fashion brands, it’s easier for them to turn around and adopt a trend. It’s quicker and it’s cheaper; there’s less risk involved for them to do some of the plus-size lines."
Michael Kors is one of the few designer brands that offers a plus-size offshoot of its contemporary line, Michael Michael Kors. If this is the first time you’re hearing about it, that's not surprising. Nicolette Mason told the New Yorker last fall that she has a hard time getting samples to feature from the brand because it doesn't want the line publicized. On Michael Kors’s site, there are currently nine items offered in plus sizes, all modeled on straight-size women.
While Target’s investment in the Ava & Viv line does signify progress, the retail industry has a long way to go. "I think it makes a difference in bringing more validity to the market," Cheshire says. "But I don’t see the Guccis in the world running out and making their items in a size 20 or 22 more readily available."