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The CurvyCon Takes the Plus-Size Experience Offline

Founders CeCe Olisa and Chastity Garner Valentine talk plus-size shopping and the future of the industry.

The founders of theCURVYcon
The founders of The CurvyCon.

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Today marks the start of the celebration of plus-size fashion known as The CurvyCon, an event that brings together plus-size bloggers, celebrities, shoppers, and clothing brands for two days of shopping, panel discussions, parties, and more. Now on its third iteration, this year marks the first time the event will be held during NYFW, and the first time the event will host an NYFW runway show. We took a few minutes to catch up with co-creators and style influencers Chastity Garner Valentine and CeCe Olisa by phone to get the low-down on this year’s events, the brands doing it right, how the industry has changed since the convention first launched, and what they hope to see change over the next three years.

I was hoping that first you could explain why you started The CurvyCon, how long ago that was, and describe what the plus-size fashion landscape was like at the time.

Chastity Garner Valentine: June 2015 was when we had our first event, but we came up with the idea in January or March of 2014. We wanted to be able to bring plus-size shopping, celebrities, brands, and plus-size style into a convention for a day or two, so we could all be in person together and really have an in-person community.

CeCe Olisa: One of the things that we observed at the time was that for plus-size girls, the entire plus-size experience happened online. No matter where you live, there’s not that many plus-size stores that you can go to. If you go shopping with your girlfriends they have so many stores to choose from, but you’ll have have one, maybe two, plus-size stores. And then are they even in your age or style range? Probably not.

At the same time, the body-positive movement was also happening online. There were so many hashtags and Instagram accounts and Twitter feeds that were celebrating these things. But in a lot of ways, it still feels very isolating if you’re the only plus-size girl in your friend group, or the only girl who feels like body positivity is speaking to her.

So for us, that in-person event, making sure that even for just a weekend that women who identified that way, that had that online connection, could have their perfect utopia of a bunch of plus-size designers in one room — asking e-commerce brands to bring sized racks of clothes that can be tried on in a dressing room, creating the dream mall for a girl who wears above a size 12 — that’s what was important to us.

How has the plus-size shopping landscape changed in that time, and how has the community grown or changed? How is that affecting how you guys are running the event?

Olisa: From year one, we could tell that the desire was there from the community because the tickets sold out. We told our audience, “Hey, we’re going to do this thing, buy tickets, pay $300 to come.” People bought those tickets on blind faith in our mission.

But finding the brands that would invest in an event like this and answer the call of bringing their clothes to an event in-person, as opposed to just depending on their e-commerce, that has changed over time. By year three, we have outgrown our venue because we have so many great sponsors that have signed on that are seeing the thirst from the consumer. The fact that we are able to work with Macy’s and Target and Eloquii and Lane Bryant — that’s huge for us. And it’s not something we were experiencing year one.

So over the past year, we’ve started to see... I don’t think “explode” is the right word, but we’ve seen some new options crop up in the plus-size market. Also, we’ve seen some straight-size brands that seem like they’re almost starting to get it. Is that something that you guys have noticed, too?

Olisa: I’ll say that options are definitely growing. One of the panels we introduced last year, and we’re bringing it back this year with a lot of different brands, is called “Dear Retailer.” It’s an open, warm conversation between the audience that comes to The CurvyCon and the CEOs and decision-makers at major retailers that serve the community. That conversation is always fascinating to me because in some ways, they are the gatekeepers for what the plus-size community members have to buy. Brands are definitely doing better than before, but I think there’s still a lot of room for them to grow.

Someone asked us the other day about using the word “plus-size,” and I was saying, “I don’t really care about the word ‘plus-size,’ I more so care about it not being needed.” Like, if every brand carried every size, then we wouldn’t have to specify plus-size or not. Now it’s just a functionality for us to figure out who’s serving us. For me, it’s not about taking away the word; it’s about serving everyone so that the word is irrelevant.

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With some of these brands starting to use curvy models, do your feel like it’s genuine, that they really want to serve the community, or do you feel like they’re trying to capitalize on the money behind the plus community?

Garner Valentine: I’m going to say it’s probably a combination of both. I mean, you have some brands we work with, like our event sponsor, Dia & Co., who really care about the customer. You can see it in the models they use, the diverse body types they use. But then also, from a very basic business standpoint, a lot of straight-size retailers need to expand. How do you reach more people, how are you able to increase your sales, especially when the majority of women are plus-size, but you’re only serving maybe 30 percent of the market? Who are you going to sell to?

Honestly, I hate to say, we need both because we do need more options. In 2005, there were, like, five options, and now there are, like, 35. We’re still not even close to what is offered to the straight-size customer, but we’re getting closer every year, you know?

Olisa: I’ve always felt like, even if it is a money thing, please capitalize on me. If you don’t carry plus-sizes, you’re basically saying, “I don’t want your money. I’m not interested in money from people who look like you.” And that’s a hard pill to swallow.

I think the thing that can be offensive is when brands don’t use the right fit model. If the fit is off, it looks like they haven’t really invested in that. I understand that the market for plus-size is complicated, more so than designing for straight sizes, but from my pockets to your account: I don’t mind paying for it, but make sure you make the investment to do it right.

That’s why we love working with brands like Dia & Co., because they work to curate things for the plus-size fashionista that are going to fit her well. I’ve discovered jeans that I adore through Dia & Co. And jeans for plus-size girls are really hard to find, you know? So it’s those brands that can invest in not just getting the plus-size dollars, but also making sure that the plus-size girl has the best experience when she gets dressed in the morning.

I’m sure that we’re going to see a lot of them at The CurvyCon. But could you guys mention a few of the brands that you think are doing it right, right now?

Garner Valentine: I want to say that Eloquii is doing an amazing job getting the trends out there quickly. For plus-sizes, a lot of times they can be one or two seasons behind, not three or four [seasons] like 10 years ago. And now you see it on a celebrity and then it pops up, like, two or three weeks later, which is crazy. It’s amazing to see that we’ve come this far because we were literally getting trends three and four seasons behind. Rachel Roy, too — her plus line is very similar to her straight-size line. I would say about 80 percent of what she’s offering in straight sizes is also offered for plus-size.

Olisa: I agree. I think we all know of a few great names in fashion that when their plus lines come out, it’s like, “What is this?!” It’s frustrating. Rachel Roy does a great job of keeping a through-line between everything.

I also think ModCloth is doing a great job. I’m fascinated by their sizing campaign. They’re trying to figure out how to do what we’re asking for: have one brand that serves all sizes. They’re doing a really good job with that.

So for the next two days, what are you most excited about?

Olisa: This actually speaks to your question about the brands that are doing it well. Last Fashion Week, in February, Dia & Co. launched their “Fashion Forward” campaign. They took out a fat ad in the New York Times challenging the mainstream designers to wake up and to pay attention. And now they are going to be launching some new collections with brands that they haven’t announced yet, and designers they haven’t announced yet, at our runway show at The CurvyCon.

The fact that we have a runway show for the first time coming to New York Fashion Week is a huge win for us. They planted a seed asking designers to step it up, and on the runway we’re going to see what that looks like. So I’m really excited about that.

And when we’re having this conversation before the next The CurvyCon, what kind of changes do you want to see, or hope to see, over the next year within the industry and the community?

Olisa: When it comes to plus-size fashion, I want more of what we have and better. I’m looking forward to brands taking risks when it comes to the garments they make for the plus-size girl. I’m looking forward to more inclusivity. I’m looking forward to seeing not only different sizes, but different body types represented in fashion. And when it comes to The CurvyCon in three years... We’ve outgrown our space, so we are moving to a larger venue in 2018. We’ve sold out the convention three years in a row at 500 tickets. But next year, we’ll be able to have 1,500 tickets on sale. We’re looking forward to selling out to three times the amount of people.

Garner Valentine: I think from the shopping angle, as you are out there — just don’t get discouraged. We’re definitely out here working. Every year it gets better. And we’re working toward it getting better next year, too.