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As a fat person who has lived in New York for eight years surrounded by beautiful, skinny people, I still cannot believe the inherent terror that I feel when entering a suburban mall. Every time I step foot into a bustling shopping center, I am instantly flooded with memories of being a fat teenager, worried that my friends would want to spend hours in an American Eagle and I would just have to helplessly hang back looking at jewelry, hoping they wouldn’t want me to just try an XL, which was still obviously not going to fit.
But in 2006, when I went to the Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg, Illinois and saw Torrid’s flaming heart (its since-retired logo), I was overcome with joy and excitement. The store was like a wonderland for a fat teenager with her fat friends. Gone were the middle-aged stylings of a Lane Bryant (which, obviously, has gotten better), the questionable quality of a Deb, the separate and less expansive plus-size corners in the back of many a well-meaning chain store, replaced with punk, emo, and fashion-forward clothing that filled the whole place. Everything fit! The dressing room was no longer a dreaded adventure; I made four or five trips back with more and more clothes, never struggling to pull things over my hips or down my back.
A lot of plus-size women have similar “first time at Torrid” experiences. Blogger Amanda Allison Valdez, who was recently featured in Torrid’s “Bestie Holiday Ever” campaign, noticed the store while shopping with her mom and instantly got excited. “I remember combing through all the racks of clothing with such amazement and happiness,” she recalls over email. “I couldn’t believe a whole store had clothes I could try and buy in the mall.” She bought a black skirt “with a gray, black, and pink chiffon overlay” and wore it constantly.
Torrid opened in 2001, a Hot Topic Inc. store. Around the time I was shopping there, an 18-year-old Ashley Graham was modeling for the store. By 2008, the brand made about $151 million during the fiscal year. As plus-size options have expanded, the store remains a staple of plus-size clothing best lists and blogs. And as the average women’s size continues to increase, more people look for a store like Torrid to give them fashion-forward clothing. The brand frequently reaches out to influencers and bloggers to model their clothes on social media (like Amanda), and plus-size actresses occasionally partner with Torrid, too; in 2015, Rebel Wilson launched a Torrid collection, and Adrienne C. Moore, from Orange is the New Black, is in the 2016 #InMyJeans campaign. The National Retail Federation estimates that the company made $410 million in 2015.
Torrid’s signature style has evolved over time. When it first opened it was, for lack of a more perfect word, very Hot Topic-y. Jackie Deskovich, a 27-year-old adjunct professor who regularly shops at Torrid, joked that the aesthetic used to be “goth Barbie,” full of corsets that she found maybe a little too risqué when she was 14 and 15. If you want a blunter description of Torrid’s style, consider this Bustle rant: “Torrid was brilliant for those hybridized emo/punk days that consisted of listening to a lot of post-2000 Green Day and Papa Roach and wearing a lot of red and black striped everything.”
The store has since smoothed over some of its more alternative corners, but kept the lace. A 2012 press release announcing major changes at the store read “Introducing the New Torrid” and boasted a fall collection with “looks ranging from casual chic to sexy dresses… characterized by lace details, pattern play and color impact.” The store unveiled a new ad campaign, “I Am Torrid,” which it hoped would “serve as an aspirational message to voluptuous women about their inherent beauty and sexuality.”
Even as the clothing has grown with its customers, fan culture is still a huge part of its business. Some of the recent fan-focused collections include clothing inspired by Once Upon a Time, Empire, Outlander, and Rogue One. The pop culture campaigns rangs from feeling a little costume-y, like this Rebel Alliance Dress from Rogue One, to a little more subtle, like this plaid cape for the Outlander collection. Jasmine Duarte, who does brand marketing and PR for Torrid, says that the Outlander collection did very well. Jackie described the store’s style evolution succinctly: “Now, it’s like ‘oh I’m a big nerd I love Doctor Who,’ as opposed to ‘I listen to Marilyn Manson and I hate my life.’”
Beyond the fan-oriented selection, Torrid’s clothing is on trend, body-conscious, and full of figure-flattering basics. It has items you can wear to work or out at night. Amanda says her favorite items to buy from Torrid are wardrobe essentials: the push-up plunge bra and the cropped premium leggings. Torrid’s senior VP of design, Liz Munoz, feels that the Torrid woman is just like every other woman shopping today. “I think this industry often gets too caught up in treating a plus-size customer as if she has all these special needs,” she says in an email. “You know what I want to wear? What everyone else is wearing. I want to wear what’s current and fashionable and I want to look as best as I can in it.”
One of Munoz’s favorite things about Torrid clothing is the fit. “Our fit techs and designers fit every garment on a plus-size fit model, making sure that the construction is durable so that our customer feels the best version of herself.” Torrid’s senior vice president and general merchandising manager Kate Horton explained over email that every item at Torrid is tested and worn by a team of women, sizes 10-28, to ensure a good fit. Only after every tester approves is the item approved for production.
Munoz believes that the designers at Torrid work really hard to make sure the clothing looks great. “We know our customer doesn’t have as many options as straight-sized customers. If we get it wrong, she has nothing to wear.”
It’s clear from talking to Torrid employees how much they value their customers. “We’re all about our girl,” Duarte proclaims. “In conversations [at work] every day we talk about ‘What does our girl want?’ ‘What does she need?’ ‘What are we not doing for her?’ ‘How can we make things better for her?’” Munoz says the one thing she hoped that shoppers know about Torrid is “how passionate we are about what we do.”
This passion is partly from responsibility — as Munoz says, some women wouldn’t have anything to wear if not for Torrid — and partly from an understanding of what an emotional experience shopping can be for plus-size women. Duarte has heard testimonials from customers who have been brought to tears because they’ve tried on a pair of Torrid jeans for the first time and they’ve fit perfectly. “It’s kind of both sides of the emotional spectrum, where you feel sad that there’s this woman that for so long felt that she was settling for less,” she says. “But it ends on a happy note, because she goes into a fitting room in a store where she’s not being judged, where she’s completely being accepted, and she puts on something that makes her feel like the best version of herself.”
Another example of Torrid’s inclusive, judgment-free nature is its unique sizing chart, which runs from 00 to 6. As Munoz explains, “[i]t’s essentially a more precise version of sizing small through extra large straight sizes would have, only we numbered it.” So 1 is 1X, which on a standard size chart is a 14-16; 2 is 2X, which is sizes 18-20, and so on. It might seem a little confusing at first, but once shoppers know if they’re size 2 or 3, it’s kind of revolutionary. Gone are the stigmas associated with fitting yourself into size charts, measuring yourself against other woman, against your goal size. It’s not coddling — the jeans and several items in the store are listed in standard sizes, from 10 to 30 — but it does allow customers to think of fit differently, to value their comfort above the connotations of being a certain size.
While Torrid was one of the first stores to value plus-size clothing for young people, today there are a few more options. There’s ASOS Curve and Eloquii, and brands like Forever 21 have really expanded their plus-size selections. Reminiscing about Torrid now, after I’ve interned at a fashion magazine, after I’ve become more aware of where I can shop, I started to wonder: Would I have shopped at Torrid if it wasn’t one of the only options?
If I could’ve chosen any of the clothes I wanted to in high school, I’d have perhaps been more modest, less adventurous, and more classic than Torrid at the time. This obviously isn’t Torrid’s fault; it’s just one store. But it was just so much more difficult to cultivate a style as a plus-size woman in the early 2000s. When I ask Jackie about forming her look, she says that fashion, when she really started to be conscious of it, was always about what was available. “I never got into fashion as a theoretical thing,” she explains. “It was always ‘I’m gonna look at these stores that have my sizes and see what I like and that became my style moreso than feeling like I had a personal style and then going to look for it.” And even though she shops at Torrid now, she jokes, “They’ve still got some dumb-ass graphic tees.”
On the other side of things, there were women who found exactly the style they wanted at Torrid and were heartbroken by the rebrand, writing blogs like “Gone Is The Flaming Heart And With It Torrid's Soul” and “Torrid Has Rebranded to Be Just Another Plus Size Store That Sucks.” The first reads: “Torrid represented the hope that we were visible long before blogs and selfies.” And it later continues: “Plus-Size & Alternative is just too small a niche - but Plus-Size & Fashionable, that's where the money lies.” How devastating it must’ve been to find a clothing store just for you, that exactly matched the way you wanted to look, the way you saw yourself looking in your head, in a time when there was nothing else, and to have it taken away.
Now things are a lot better in terms of options and in terms of visibility. There are so many amazing bloggers who model sexy, daring, and wild looks for young and not-so-young people to look at and form their own style from. Take Amanda or her friend Jessie Garcia, who regularly update their Instagrams with stunning pictures of their unique style. Look at Nicolette Mason, who used to write Marie Claire’s stellar “Big Girl in a Skinny World” column. And there’s Lindy West, who wore a phenomenal wedding dress and wrote about her special day under the spectacular headline “My wedding was perfect – and I was fat as hell the whole time.” Plus, there’s always Tumblr, with bloggers every day modeling their plus-size looks. Today, we have these kind of women — loud, proud, and fucking gorgeous — easily available, reminding us to take everything we want out of life and out of fashion. When I was a little bit younger, we only had Torrid to remind us.
When Amanda thinks about that skirt that she bought at Torrid when she was 19, she says, “ It represented much more than a piece of clothing. It represented inclusiveness. It opened the door to discovering my personal style and self worth.” Torrid was and is there for many plus-size teens, still figuring it out. And that’s pretty important.