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Size is an element of what we wear that’s both deeply emotional and, when you think about it, pretty damn dull. The origins of our current, often dysfunctional system can be traced back to a commercial standards report issued in the mid-’50s, which set standardized sizing at a time of increasing mass production in the apparel industry.
While the numerical system the agency came up with didn’t last long, in part because of the shifting size and shape of the average American woman, one element of it has persisted: plus, which then designated an above-average hip measurement, has since transformed and flourished into an entire category unto itself.
In the US clothing industry, sizes 14 and above are typically considered “plus size,” though not everyone who falls into that range identifies or agrees with the term. To some, it’s an outdated and othering way to describe the majority of American women; to others, it’s a useful signpost toward clothes that will actually fit. Today, some brands are making it a moot point entirely, doing away with divisions and adopting inclusive sizing that can span sizes 0 to 32 (and eventually beyond, if the pioneering startup Universal Standard has anything to say about it).
It’s clear that fashion has made strides in the past few years, with more and more brands, subscription box services, and retailers entering the fray beyond a size 12, but it’s also clear that there’s a long way to go, particularly for sizes 22 and above. We wanted to know just how far we’ve come, exactly — how many luxury brands have made the leap, how much selection plus-size shoppers are seeing at major retailers, what kinds of prices they’re seeing — and get data to back it up.
Here’s a full breakdown of what we found; you’ll find a full explanation of our sourcing at the bottom of the piece.
Who Is Doing the Shopping — and Where?
Plunkett Research estimates that 68 percent of American women wear a size 14 or above, up slightly from the frequently cited 67 percent figure it found in 2012.
How much is this average American woman spending on her wardrobe? According to the most recent figures available from market research firm NPD, US sales of women’s plus-size apparel reached $21.4 billion in 2016. The category is also growing substantially faster than the overall US apparel market, at a rate of 6 percent versus 3 percent year over year.
That’s just in terms of sales, though; when it comes to the selection she finds at major stores, numbers still haven’t improved much. The retail analytics firm Edited looked at 25 of the largest multi-brand retailers (think Shopbop, Macy’s, Net-a-Porter, etc.), which together carry more than 15,500 brands, and found that just 2.3 percent of their women’s apparel assortment is plus-size.
This figure is so abysmal in part because there is almost no selection in the luxury market — for that, high-end shoppers beyond a size 12 generally have to seek out the startup 11 Honoré, which works with designers like Christian Siriano and Milly to carry sizes above those stocked in most department stores, or else be wealthy and in-the-know enough to order directly from the brand. (Prabal Gurung, for one, has said he’s offered sizes up to 22 for private clients since 2009, but no major retailer has bought beyond a 14.)
Of the 300 or so brands that showed at New York Fashion Week last season, our analysis found that only 32 offer up to at least a size 16, and 14 produce sizes 22 or above, mostly through partnerships with plus-size retailers or subscription services, and often only in select pieces. Plus size makes up just 0.1% of the luxury market.
For online retailers that carry both plus and straight sizes, the figures are only somewhat better: The data analytics company StyleSage found that overall, 16 percent of their assortment is plus, up slightly from 15 percent in 2017. The biggest shares were found in the value (Target, J.C. Penney) and mid-tier (Macy’s, Dillard’s) categories, with 24 percent and 21 percent, respectively, while premium (8 percent) and fast fashion (6 percent) lagged woefully behind.
It’s something of a vicious cycle, because plus-size apparel currently sells through at lower rates compared to straight-size apparel: 6.6 percent of new plus-size product in 2017 sold through online versus 10.7 percent of new straight-size product.
Katie Smith, the retail analysis and insights director at Edited, attributes this to the still-lacking trend component in plus sizes.
“Retailers are buying deeper on more simple lines for the plus-size market,” she says. “They need to inject more fashion to inspire consumers and increase sell-through.”
There are some plans to improve: Target is expanding its plus-size options in around 300 stores this year, up from 150. Nordstrom also recently announced that it is extending its size offerings for 100 brands across 30 stores in 2018, and will stock the new sizes (ranging from 00 to 18) alongside core merchandise in stores, rather than putting sizes above a 14 in its traditional designated Encore department. Overall, however, the retailer stocks up to a size 28, and the smallest selection remains that of sizes 20-plus.
Here’s a look at the sizes of women’s clothing currently available on Nordstrom’s website:
In Market Force’s annual online survey of more than 10,000 North American consumers, Nordstrom ranked as consumers’ favorite retailer for the sixth consecutive year. Lane Bryant, which carries sizes 14 to 28, came in second, scoring 7 percentage points higher than last year in customer satisfaction.
How Much Does It Really Cost?
Often when talking to brands, we’ll hear about how hard it is to expand into plus sizes: They need new fits, new fabrics, new models, new pricing strategies to account for the extra fabric costs …
What’s rarely discussed is how much that all actually costs — so, naturally, we wanted to find that out too. Christine Hunsicker, founder of the subscription clothing service Gwynnie Bee, which carries sizes 0 to 32, has estimated the capital required to get into larger sizes to be around $500,000 all in. She told WWD:
Basically, it’s like running a second line. There are very few technical pattern-makers who have deep experience in plus because there haven’t been many jobs in it. If you’re a brand that relies on department stores for distribution, it’s very hard to bring up a plus line because department stores are loath to take risks if they don’t know the customer base is there. And there are so few places to go so it’s kind of like this reinforcing loop.
Of course, this figure will vary based on a number of factors, including how many styles the brand produces in plus (just one? A whole line?), what type of clothing it makes (stretchy activewear? Tailored cocktail dresses?), and how it manufactures its products. The vertically integrated denim brand Warp + Weft, for instance, has the flexibility to deliver the same product across a full size range (00 to 24) because it owns its own mill and manufacturing facilities.
Many of the significant costs are incurred in the research and development stage, however, and in this, brands that have entered other categories, like kids’ or petites’, say the resources involved are pretty similar. Warp + Weft started with men’s and women’s (including regular, petite, and plus fits) and is launching kids’ clothing in the fall, and founder Sarah Ahmed says, “The fit process, the science of it is very similar. You do intense market research, tons of fit testing, and then you make live adjustments on the body, and you keep prototyping.”
The elevated basics brand AYR launched its Onelove skinny jean in size 14 to 22 last fall and is working on a more comprehensive plus selection for future collections. As co-founder and CEO Maggie Winter put it, “The investment to create a new product is the same whether that product is going to be for 10 people or 10 million people.”
Some of the biggest costs that go into the pre-production stage of expanding into a new size range include hiring a fit model (or multiple fit models) at around $150 to $400 per hour; going through multiple rounds of samples, which can cost anywhere from two to five times an item’s production cost; paying a technical designer to create a new pattern (either freelance or full time at an average salary of $62,053 per year, according to Glassdoor); and investing in new dress forms, which can cost anywhere from $349 for a budget bust form to $3,545.46 for a top-of-the-line full-body form designed from 3D scans of real women’s bodies, such as this size 2X Alvanon fiberglass form used by Chromat.
Some better-funded brands, like Eloquii, might even send technical designers to factories in order to train and educate the manufacturers on fit and construction, particularly if they want to throw the old plus-size rulebook of generous fits and stretchy fabrics out the window, as Eloquii did when it relaunched in 2014. “When we set up our factory network and supplier base, we weren’t looking for apparel factories that had done plus before,” says CEO Mariah Chase. “We wanted to train and educate the factories in our fit and the way that we thought about the construction… So it required more investment at the outset. None of the rules that apply to this customer are things that we were even interested in hearing.”
And what of the fabric cost?
The fashion design consulting firm Stateless provided this size-by-size breakdown of the costs that go into a women’s basic cotton V-neck T-shirt made from fabric that is 57 inches wide. To price all sizes equally, a brand would take the average price of the high and low ends of the sizing spectrum — $61.50 — which would then be marked up to $141.50 at retail.
Of course, economies of scale can bring fabric costs for mass brands down significantly, so these differences are felt most acutely by smaller labels, as well as those that use expensive, high-quality fabrics.
Kristen Gaskins, the president and CMO of the plus-size stalwart Ashley Stewart, points out, “If you’re going to make a T-shirt for a junior person, and you’re going to make a T-shirt for somebody who’s an extended size, of course the fabric consumption is going to cost you, but it’s not a prohibitive factor to me — we’re talking pennies.”
The brand carries sizes 12 through 36 online, up from 26 a few years ago; she says, “We made a decision early on in the brand that if we were going to go to extended sizes, we were going to make sure that our vendors did not charge us for the extra size, because I never want to charge somebody $5 more because they’re a bigger size.”
ASOS has likewise committed to keeping pricing uniform across its various ranges, including curve, tall, and petite, going so far as to include a statement about it on its corporate responsibility page. Says design director Vanessa Spence, “We do everything we can to help our customer find their fit, offering ASOS brands in more than 30 sizes, and we’re committed to providing all sizes at the same price.”
Even for labels that deal in pricey textiles, charging customers the same price regardless of size can be a conscious choice. “In the bridal world, it’s pretty standard to charge a surcharge for larger sizes, but just from a customer experience perspective, that always felt so weird to me,” says Molly Kang, founder and CEO of the direct-to-consumer wedding dress startup Floravere, which recently launched styles up to size 24. “Like, ‘Hey, we can make it in your size, but we’re going to charge you more because the price is different.’
“I get it from a business side, because it takes more fabric and it takes more development, but it just felt weird to me, and it felt like those the distinctions that we were trying to eliminate. … We wanted it to truly feel inclusive, and part of that is price. We made the decision early on to not put a surcharge depending on your size, so we’ll just take that margin from our side.”
And What About the Brands?
Finally, we wanted to take a look at how plus-size customers have responded to brands that do make them a priority: how much it’s bringing in for companies that are already in the space, the opportunities the market still presents, and how much money is being left on the table.
Loft launched plus sizes in February, and already its parent company, Ascena Retail Group, is pointing to it as a bright spot on its balance sheet. The category “significantly outperformed initial expectations,” said Gary Muto, president and CEO of Ascena Brands, on a recent investor call, adding that it plans to roll out the collection in 50 stores this fall.
For eShakti, a “mass customization” online retailer that offers made-to-measure clothing as well as sizes 0 to 36W, sizes 14 and up account for 52 percent of the company’s sales.
Warp + Weft’s Ahmed says sales of the brand’s women’s jeans are split about 60-40 between sizes 14 and up and under size 14. It does its biggest business between sizes 10 and 18, she says, and the brand expects sales volume to grow around 69 percent this year. Jeans — and bottoms in general — are among the hardest pieces to fit, so when a brand gets them right, word is liable to spread. AYR sold out of its Onelove jean in its first season, and has added size 24 for the reorder. Eloquii, meanwhile, says it has sold nearly 100,000 pairs of its best-selling Kady pant, which retails for between $79.90 and $99.90 and comes in three fits to accommodate different body types.
Tadashi Shoji, a red-carpet favorite that designs evening wear up to a size 24Q (the brand uses “Queen” sizing to identify its curvier range), says that about 15 percent of the brand’s business is plus-size, with most of that coming from e-commerce.
While Dillard’s and a few other stores carry the Queen line, says Shoji, “We have had a few department stores try plus size on and off over the years and there wasn’t a strong response. Based on our experience, there seems to be a psychology about purchasing plus-size: The customer thinks she will lose weight; in turn, she won’t buy her correct size and won’t ever wear the dress. More often than not, instead of purchasing a special occasion dress, she chooses to wear a fluid black pant and dress it up with a special occasion top.”
The discrepancy between what’s available — and what shoppers are buying — online versus in store was a frequent theme that emerged. Among brands that sell through both channels, all said that their most popular sizes tend to skew higher online than in stores.
Across the 89 stores Ashley Stewart operates across the country, its best-selling size is 18, but online, the upper end of the size range tends to overperform. A few years ago, the brand noticed it was overselling its size 26 online and decided to test up to size 32 in certain styles. That was successful, so it expanded to size 34 and 36 in 2017, and now plans to broaden its offerings in those sizes for the fall.
“If you think about the customer who’s on that end of the spectrum, she doesn’t have a lot of choices in stores,” says Gaskins. “She’s very savvy — she’s social-savvy, she’s e-commerce-savvy, she knows where she has to go to get her clothing — so we’re more than happy to accommodate her on that size, because she is a very loyal customer.”
She also has very limited options if she ever wants to go into a store to try something on: Lane Bryant sister brand Catherines, which carries up to a size 36, has just over 350 locations nationwide, but that number is dwindling as consumer spending habits move online, and the brand caters to an older, less trend-conscious customer. The same tends to be true of other traditional plus-size boutiques.
Not that there isn’t money being invested in the space — it’s just going primarily toward e-commerce. Eloquii’s Chase says the level of awareness and interest in the market from venture capital firms has skyrocketed since the company first raised money in 2013. It’s raised $21 million in funding to date, while the European plus retailer Navabi and subscription service Dia & Co., which serves sizes 14 to 32, have cleared $34.6 million and $20 million, respectively.
Well-funded subscription services are generally pushing the envelope in terms of inclusive sizing: Stitch Fix, which went public last year and is valued at around $2 billion, launched plus sizes with 75 brands last year and has since more than doubled that number; Dia & Co. now works with hundreds. Gwynnie Bee launched with sizes 10 to 32 and has since extended down to a 0 to encourage brands to carry a full range; as of January, the company had shipped more than 4 million boxes, and it’s believed to have raised more than $100 million.
There’s still a lot of work to do — across price points, aesthetics, and channels of distribution — and among just about everyone we spoke to, there was a consensus that this is only the beginning.
A note on sourcing: To help parse reality from marketing-speak, we tapped the expertise of more than a dozen retail analytics firms, brands, retailers, modeling agencies, and subscription services. Edited provided a look at plus-size inventory, sell-through rates, and pricing among multi-brand US retailers. StyleSage homed in on retailers that carry a full size range, measuring the share of each category across various price points. State Management shed a light on the curve modeling business, which is now more active than ever.
We also spoke with a wide range of brands and retailers, from startups that are expanding to the plus market for the first time to industry veterans: Warp + Weft, Sela Fit, AYR, Floravere, ASOS, eShakti, Torrid, Tadashi Shoji, Ashley Stewart, Eloquii, Dia & Co., and Stitch Fix.
Editors: Alanna Okun, Julia Rubin, Meredith Haggerty