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There’s no shortage of companies whose mission is to send a personalized box to your doorstep to fill whatever gaping hole capitalism has convinced you exists in your life. Name your consumerism fancy, and I promise there is a box for you: snacks of varying degrees of healthy, makeup, toys and treats for your doggo, or resources to help you figure out how to be a witch, if that strikes your fancy. With the right keywords, you can find the subscription box to fill a void that could easily be filled by a slightly more thoughtful trip to a store.
Monthly subscription boxes have become one of those weird parts of retail that are just everywhere now, including my own mailbox. (I’m an Ipsy subscriber, if you must know.) But unlike the organic snacks and cheap makeup samples of other boxes, there is an actual gaping hole in retail that this business model could help address: the extreme lack of plus-size women’s fashion.
This is where Dia & Co. comes in. The founders want to give plus-size women — long ignored by highbrow and fast fashion alike — a curated personal experience of stylish clothing and accessories that are actually made for sizes 14 and up.
“Whether you’ve been a [plus-size] women for 30 years or you’ve been a women in this category for 10 years or for five years, the experience hasn’t changed,” co-founder Nadia Boujarwah, a plus-size woman, tells me. “Shopping still sucks.”
There are still a fairly limited amount of plus-size retailers – Lane Bryant, Torrid, Target — but few others have stepped up to claim the dollars of plus-size women.
“Enough already. We can’t keep talking about the same stats, and not have people actually change the way they’re thinking about serving this woman in a fundamental way,” Boujarwah says. “We can individually silently suffer forever, or we could actually build a solution for this. That was the genesis of Dia.”
The deal is rather straightforward. For $20 a month, you get five items delivered, with selections based on your answers to an intense style quiz. You get five days with the clothing. After that, you can return them for free, or the monthly fee can go toward the the cost of purchasing the items.
Since nearly 70 percent of American women wear a size 14 and above, Dia & Co. might have hit the jackpot.
When I meet Boujarwah at the brand’s new offices in Soho, she’s wearing a leather pencil skirt with laser-precision cutouts and a navy button-up with fashionably placed wear-and-tear. She looks the part of someone building a fashion empire. Despite having the precise accessories to complete her look (perfectly coordinated chunky turquoise necklace, standard-issue New Yorker black ankle boots), Boujarwah says she never expected to be in fashion.
She grew up in Kuwait and moved to the States at 18 to attend the University of Pennsylvania. “In high school, they would have us do all these visualization exercises where they would say, ‘Visualize where you want your career to be in 25 years,’” Bourjarwah tells me over coffee. “And the only thing I could visualize was what I wanted to be wearing. The thing I wanted to be wearing was a badass suit.”
Soon after graduation, she found herself working on Wall Street, wearing an okay suit. But six years ago, when she met Lydia Gilbert (a straight-size woman who would become her co-founder) at Harvard Business School, Boujarwah realized her formative fashion experiences — “my inability to wear the prom dress that I wanted” or “that badass suit I had in my head on Wall Street” — weren’t at all unique. In spring 2013, they started to quantify these experiences with a paper about how women’s bodies had become valued and devalued in America.
After grad school, Gilbert and Bourjarwah didn’t quite have a business plan yet, so they took separate jobs. Gilbert, who’s originally from Chicago and worked for the Clinton Global Initiative and in the nonprofit world before Harvard, went west to Google. Bourjawah started working for a jewelry company. But they knew that their customer existed and there was a need to fill. They knew they needed to come back to plus-size fashion.
Initially, they weren’t sure how to adequately serve her. They eventually settled on the idea of replicating a personal shopping experience at home. There wasn’t enough capital for a formal inventory, so Gilbert and Boujarwah laced up their sneakers and went out personally to shop for those boxes. (The company was initially funded using their savings.) The women knew their customers were experiencing friction in the shopping experience (fit and size, location, availability), and they were willing to take on all of those issues. Gilbert, who wears army green skinny jeans and a cozy gray cardigan when I meet her, says she didn’t quite grasp the particular struggles facing plus-size women until she shopped for them herself. She estimates that they spoke with every customer for the first 1,000 or so boxes.
“We literally spent eight hours a day shopping for hundreds of customers before we stopped personally shopping for people,” Boujarwah adds.
They shipped their first boxes to six customers in July 2014. Three of them are still customers. Customer No. 2 turned into an employee. They estimate that customers keep at least one piece per box, and they’ve worked with over a million women in all 50 states.
Dia & Co. delivers plus-size clothing right to women's homes, but it also wants to deliver support directly to existing brands looking to expand to plus-sizes. Gilbert and Bourjarwah want to change fashion from the top down. Typically, plus-size brands stop at 24, but the offerings at Dia go up to size 32. The founders say every garment in their inventory should be available to all of their customers; otherwise, they end up duplicating the same problems in mainstream fashion.
To help fill in the gaps, Dia announced Move Fashion Forward, a campaign that offers practical support for brands to expand their size offerings. Expanding patterns takes time and effort. If the brand isn’t up for the 30th size revision to make the garments perfect, why bother? “You actually have to care enough to get it right,” Boujarwah says. “If you’re only in it for the growth opportunity, you tend to fall short.”
So Dia’s proposal is to put in all the groundwork. After all, it’s already designing its own clothing and patterns. It launched its first exclusive brand in November 2016, and has since developed eight plus-size brands. So why not extend that expertise to already-existing brands that their customers are eager to buy from? In fact, the company found that 80 percent of women would be likely to purchase an item from their favorite designer if that designer began to offer plus-size clothing.
“Our offer to designers is we’ll do all the work,” Boujarwah says. “We have the teams, we have the tech, we have the expertise, we have the customers. If we work together and you’re willing to truly, truly, truly be invested in creating something beautiful for these women, we’d love to partner with you.” The company plans to announce its first partnerships in the coming months.
While having Boujarwah and Gilbert personally shopping for customers was great for morale and data collection, making the 34th Street loop in Manhattan (Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor, etc.) also helped the co-founders make friends with associates in plus-size departments. Margaret Hudson, 28, was working in the plus-size section of Lord & Taylor when she met Boujarwah, who kept coming in for piles of clothing.
Hudson grew up plus-size in a small Connecticut town, but didn’t really knew what it meant to be a plus-size person. She describes her shopping experiences growing up as torturous: “We’ll buy an XXL and hopefully that will fit until… we’re not sure when.” But working retail helped her get through college. Afterward, she transferred to the New York location of Lord & Taylor because she loved New York, but she was “immediately typecast” for the plus-size department. She threw herself into the department, working with vendors to really know the product and women to learn how high-end garments fit on plus-size bodies.
She soon met Boujarwah, who would purchase mountains of clothing from Lord & Taylor. When Boujarwah explained Dia & Co., Hudson was blown away by the idea of a company focusing solely on plus-size women.
Eventually, Hudson left retail for a “garbage” marketing job that gave her some economic stability, but she still wasn’t fulfilled. Eventually, Boujarwah approached her to work for Dia, so Hudson worked at her terrible marketing job during the week and weekends at Dia in May 2016. Her 12-hour Saturdays were “my day to do something I was really passionate about.
“Even just the conversations we had about Dia and the world we were building... finally felt like home,” she says, tearing up as she describes her first months with the company. “At Dia, I felt like I could have these conversations where I [realized], ‘Oh, I matter? This is amazing!’”
She came on full-time in November 2016.
Hudson curated a recent box sent to Racked for this story. The shipment included Morgan & Walker’s Lindsey skinny jean, Fashion to Figure’s Christelle wrap dress, Molly & Isadora’s Mayla A-line skirt, Dex Plus’s Mickey blouse, and a gold Barre necklace. (Including accessories is critical to the co-founders’ guiding philosophy of attending to the whole woman.) The box comes with suggestions about how to pair the blouse with the skirt or jeans and how a red lip could really elevate the whole look. Once the customer gives feedback (and possibly returns some items), Dia’s stylists use the data points to better customize the next month’s box.
Dia & Co. tracks what kind of clothing a customer likes or what body parts they’d like to show off or hide, duplicating that original, boots-on-the-ground shopping experience. Each new customer takes an involved style quiz where they select looks they’re drawn to, give size basics, select body parts they like to show off or hide, choose colors and patterns they want to avoid, and specify how much they want to spend on a typical garment. Customers also rank different types of each type of clothing on a love, like, or dislike scale. For example, under skirts, customers rate work, pencil, midi, daytime casual, maxi, and A-line. (These rankings can be edited later.)
After the tech side of Dia wrangles this information, there are stylists who coordinate the boxes, buyers who work with brands and wholesalers, and production teams that develop original designs. It's a start-up, but not a part of the gig economy — the company provides real jobs to its employees and real solutions to its customers.
As the company has grown, so has its presence outside of New York. Elle Monus was a manager at a law firm in Dallas and a part-time fashion blogger when she became customer No. 2 for Dia & Co. About a year in, Monus became a brand ambassador, before joining the company full-time as a the director of remote styling. (Dia no longer has a formal brand-ambassador program, but has worked with a network of more than 500 “bloggers and influencers” in the last two years, a spokeswoman told Racked.)
Growing up in a small eastern Texas town, Monus loved fashion but didn’t think it held a future for her. “There have been some days of crying in dressing rooms, so actually getting to try on clothes at home takes the anxiety out of it for me,” Monus says. Now, half of her closet is made up of Dia clothes.
Because they serve women in all 50 states and roughly three-quarters of the country’s ZIP codes, it feels natural to have stylists based in more places than just Manhattan. Having stylists from diverse locales keeps Dia & Co. from being limited to a New York aesthetic — and keeps prices attainable.
“Having stylists here in Dallas, we get to bring a little, depending on who you ask, bring a Midwestern or Southern flair to the whole process,” Monus says. “We get to see women who aren’t in that very dense, urban lifestyle where fashion may be different. We give women a place to truly be themselves.”
Plus-size women should be given the clothing options offered to straight-size women.
Both founders say they want to move past just runway representation to something women can actually put on their bodies. It’s great to see more than zero plus-size models walking the catwalks, Boujarwah says, but it’s not enough. “We need more of that, but we actually just need clothes that women can wear.”