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Imagine a clothing store where size is irrelevant, where terms like “straight size” and “plus size” don’t matter much because all physiques are represented. Collections don’t stop at size 12, 24, or even 32. Whatever a customer’s build, she can buy something that fits.
While that might sound like a radical concept that could become reality at a distant point in the future, it’s already happening. SmartGlamour, an independent New York City retailer, offers custom clothing for women of any size.
“Every design is available in XXS to 15X and beyond,” the website boasts. “Any and every item can be customized to fit any and every body.”
Most Americans, of course, don’t wear custom-made clothing, and the average retailer offers limited to no options in the plus-size category. But that’s changing. The year 2018 alone has seen several retailers — from cool-girl brands like Reformation to big-box stores like Walmart — extend the sizes they offer, to varying degrees of success and public reception. And when Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty launched in May, the collection included plus-size lingerie along with undergarments in straight sizes.
After years of ignoring customers bigger than a size 12 (while the average American woman falls between a size 16 to 18), the industry is not just recognizing that shoppers of all sizes exist but actively courting them.
Inclusion, however, is more than just selling clothes in larger sizes, say members of the plus-size community. It’s offering quality clothing to these shoppers in the array of styles and price points offered to their straight-size counterparts. It’s showcasing women of all shapes and sizes as models. And it’s addressing how the rise of fast fashion deters corporate retailers from taking SmartGlamour’s approach and offering clothing to anyone, regardless of size.
Independent brands are leading inclusion efforts
For decades, Lane Bryant stood out as the rare retailer that specialized in plus-size clothing. In fact, in Tim Gunn’s powerful 2016 essay about the fashion industry’s failure to serve women who wear size 14 and up, the Project Runway star name-checked the company as his “go-to retailer” when styling clients who belong to this demographic.
But he also pointed out how startups like Eloquii and ModCloth are reaching this market and succeeding. While Eloquii exclusively sells clothes to women size 14 to 28, ModCloth started 16 years ago as a straight-size retailer. It began offering extended sizes in 2013, and a customer survey it conducted a year later revealed that just 28 percent of respondents felt fashion embraces plus-size women. Yet the plus demographic (21 percent) is likelier than straight-size women (15 percent) to spend at least $150 monthly on clothing, shoes, and accessories, the report found.
Four years later, ModCloth is still taking cues from consumers about how to better serve plus-size shoppers, according to Nicole Haase, vice president of merchandising. She says customer feedback drives ModCloth, now owned by Walmart, as a brand.
“We’re not perfect,” she admits, “but we’re striving toward that.”
In 2014, ModCloth doubled its plus offerings and now sells clothing up to 4X, roughly a size 26 or 28. When it released the results of its customer survey, it identified plus as its fastest-growing market. But Haase says the company still faces challenges in its efforts toward inclusion. For one thing, it sells attire from the ModCloth brand as well as partner brands that may not share its vision.
The main challenge is “getting our branded partners on board to adopting our philosophy of offering the same product in a full size range up to size 24,” she says. “While there has been a positive movement toward ‘inclusive sizes,’ extending a range to a 16 is not good enough.”
Haase says that other retailers may hesitate to produce clothes in a wide range of sizes due to the additional manufacturing costs involved. But opting not to make clothing in extended sizes because it costs more ignores that the plus market constitutes a reported $21 billion portion of the fashion sector. Additionally, 10 percent of all retail transactions are related to sales of plus-size garments.
The fashion industry mostly hesitates to be more size-inclusive because it places a premium on skinny bodies, argues Jess Mederos, a fashion and wardrobe stylist who has worked for Barneys New York, Lord & Taylor, and Glamour magazine.
“More than half of the women in this country can’t fit into most of the clothing,” she says. While the cost of upsizing is a factor, Mederos thinks fashion’s marginalization of plus shoppers comes down to image.
“I think a lot of brands don’t want to be associated with people who fall outside of the straight sizes, between 0 and 10,” she says. “That whole situation makes me upset because I think it’s what we’ve been fed for so long. The fashion industry cares very much about image, and the image of a perfect woman has been for the past 50 years — size 2 to 4 and tall.”
SmartGlamour founder Mallorie Dunn aims to shatter that ideal. A graduate of the Fashion Institute of Technology and the Pratt Institute, she says she once felt disillusioned about how the fashion industry makes consumers feel.
“I worked in fashion design and came away from that feeling uninspired and not super pumped about fashion,” she recalls. “I found out what I wanted to do in fashion by looking at how fashion leaves people out and makes people feel badly about themselves and tries to sell them the solution. I love fashion, but I don’t think it needs to be structured in that way.”
In 2014, Dunn started SmartGlamour to try to fix what she views as fashion’s shortcomings. That entails offering the same clothing for the same price, regardless of size, and ensuring that everyone has equal access to her apparel.
“Our clothes are for every shape, size, weight, ethnicity, identity, and ability,” she explains.
At first, the brand made clothes up to a size 6X, but it eventually expanded to a size 15X and beyond since SmartGlamour sells custom-made clothing. She says mass retailers have inched slightly closer to inclusion, but she doubts they will ever embrace what she calls “radical inclusion.”
“Big companies have finally started putting the smallest of plus-size people in their advertisements, but if we’re looking for radical inclusion, we’re never going to find it,” she says. “Ninety-seven percent of clothing is not made here [in the US]. It costs pennies to produce. I think every giant brand in the world can do what I’m doing, but no one’s going to be interested in offering that.”
She wants retailers to expand their sizes and for size charts to be revolutionized. Brands need to rethink what constitutes a medium when the average American woman is plus-size and a medium is typically a size 6 or 8. She says companies need to present more realistic images of plus-size models as well. Too often, the plus models that straight-size brands feature are hourglass, sexy, and “airbrushed to death,” she says. “That’s still a box. It’s still unattainable for tons of people.”
Corporate retailers are now attempting to catch up
Mass retailers may not have perfected their approach to producing plus-size clothes, but they are now more likely to offer them. In February, Walmart launched its new plus line, Terra & Sky. The brand offers clothing from size 14 to 30W in bottoms and 0X to 4X in tops and dresses. Three other Walmart brands — Time and Tru (sportswear), Athletic Works (active), and No Boundaries (juniors) — go up to XXXL.
Deanah Baker, Walmart’s senior vice president of apparel, says the company developed Terra & Sky specifically after listening to what its customers wanted in a plus-size brand. Primarily, they wanted stylish yet comfortable clothes for affordable prices. Offering versatile clothing in extended sizes was Walmart’s major goal.
This year, Target also debuted a line with a wide range of sizes. Its new denim brand Universal Thread ranges from a size 00 to a 26W. The line is its most inclusive to date, although just last year, the retailer rolled out A New Day, which also features extended sizes. The successful launch of the latter last fall prompted Target to launch Universal Thread, according to spokesperson Jessica Carlson.
Carlson says that Target’s design team is working with its new brands to better serve patrons, no matter their size. Customers largely direct the company’s decisions, and Target refines its offerings based on patrons’ preferences, she adds.
Fashion blogger Alysse Dalessandro says the movement of corporations recognizing plus shoppers has been ongoing for the past several years. What stands out to her, she says, is the higher-end brands now serving the plus market.
“People are realizing there are dollars here,” she says. “They were told we’re undesirable customers, but that customer represents 67 percent of the female population.”
She says it’s important, though, that brands take time to acquaint themselves with the plus community rather than just look at these customers as potential dollar signs. She adds that if brands want to be truly inclusive, they need to study the consumers most overlooked by the fashion industry. All too often, that’s women size 24 and up, she says.
The online behemoth Amazon may be setting its sights on the plus-size market as well. In March 2017, it posted a job opening for a senior brand manager of plus-size fashion. In December, the news site Quartz argued that Amazon was uniquely positioned to dominate plus retail since its apparel sales are growing and it already owns more than 40 percent of the domestic e-commerce market. Quartz also pointed out that Amazon, a standout for the fit of its clothing, could easily address the logistics of making apparel in extended sizes. The e-commerce giant offers plus sizes in everyday apparel from retailers like Michael Kors, Calvin Klein, Rachel Pally, and Torrid.
Torrid offers clothes from sizes 10 to 30. To the brand, inclusion means “size doesn’t matter,” according to vice president of marketing Lisa Stanley. Fit, on the other hand, does.
Last year, the brand held its first New York Fashion Week runway show, to mixed reviews. In recent months, several retailers have also launched plus collections that appeal to millennials and teens. Reformation, Mara Hoffman, and Cynthia Rowley have all dropped plus-size collections this year, while the new startup CoEdition will focus exclusively on women sizes 10 to 26.
Alexandra Castro, a plus-size model featured by SmartGlamour, is cautiously optimistic about the surge of plus collections.
“I really hope it’s not a trend because plus-size people aren’t going anywhere,” she says.
One can’t predict exactly what the industry will do, according to Stanley. “But we believe inclusiveness is here to stay,” she says.
It may be, but that doesn’t mean brands should expect praise just for expanding their sizes. In March, Reformation garnered loads of positive press when it introduced plus sizes with a breezy “sorry it took us so long” to explain its previous lack of inclusion. But some members of the plus community criticized Ref because Ali Tate Cutler, the curve model it teamed up with on the line, had made fat-shaming comments in the past. (Curve models are typically on the high end of straight sizes or the low end of plus and sometimes called “in-betweeners.”) In 2016, Cutler reportedly wrote on Facebook:
Sorry but I don’t care about people’s health who are fat. ... While some people are genetically obese and are vegetarian, and eating relatively low carbon foot print foods, most obese people are not. I do care about the excessive amounts of carbon, nitrous oxide, and methane gases it takes to produce a large person; the amount of animals that have been killed; the amount of exploitation that is going on to create fat. ... Being obese is simply bad for the environment …
Although Cutler later apologized for her comments, members of the plus community scolded Ref for partnering with the model two years after she made them.
Others also expressed their concerns about the collaboration, which goes to show that brands that extend to plus must do their homework about the community or risk being called out for a lack of due diligence.
Oh wow, the model who said "I don’t care about people’s health who are fat" now has a plus size line. Way to go, @reformationx. Real cool. (her comments: https://t.co/uDFSbqgwPG cc @readytostare) https://t.co/gop4enV9Ji— Sarah Conley | Rascal Honey (@imsarahconley) March 26, 2018
Dalessandro says she’s no fan of callout culture but felt that she had to speak out about Cutler because the model’s comments were so offensive. While she hopes Cutler continues to make a living, she says that Reformation was unwise to partner up with such a controversial model for its first plus collection.
“This is your first time entering the plus-size sphere,” Dalessandro says of Reformation. “That’s not someone you want to do it with. There are so many other people who are proud to be plus size and haven’t made fatphobic comments.”
When “inclusive” sizing means making smaller clothes
As straight-size retailers introduce plus collections, some retailers that started out as plus are branching out in both directions by adding both larger and smaller sizes. In 2015, Universal Standard launched with clothes that ranged from size 10 to 28. It recently announced, however, that it was broadening its options to include sizes 6 to 32. The company soon plans to serve women sizes 0 to 40, a greater range than nearly any other retailer on the market.
“Our goal is whether you’re a size 2 or 32, you should be able to go into any store or any website to buy what you want,” says Polina Veksler, Universal Standard’s CEO and co-founder.
Alexandra Waldman, the company’s other co-founder and chief creative officer, wants customers to be able to see clothes on models of all body types. It would eliminate the need for shoppers to do the mental gymnastics of imagining what a piece of clothing on a stick-thin model would look like on their frame. And like Dunn, she thinks the clothing industry needs to recalibrate what constitutes a small, medium, or large. Given the build of the average American woman, Universal Standard considers a size 18 to 20 to be medium, while a size 6 to 8 would be a 2XS and a size 22 to 24 would be large.
“Ultimately, the goal is to have size irrelevance,” Waldman says. Size “should not come into the conversation when you’re trying to make a decision about how to dress yourself.”
Although Waldman believes the time has come to stop segregating clothes by size, she and Veksler acknowledge that some plus shoppers have pushed back on the idea of plus brands offering clothing to straight-size customers. Veksler says they’ve asked, “Why do you keep going to smaller sizes? I want this for myself, and I don’t want to share.”
But she says the line between straight and plus needs to be erased.
“If we’re going to change how the apparel industry works, and we want straight sizes to include all-size women, we can’t insulate ourselves and stay plus-size.”
Dalessandro calls Universal Standard’s move a “noble cause” but says it’s unrealistic.
“Until I can go into every store in every mall and look on the racks and see my size next to the smaller sizes, it doesn’t make sense,” she says. “That’s not what’s happening. One online brand cannot revolutionize the fashion industry.”
Similar to Universal Standard, the clothing subscription service Gwynnie Bee started off just serving plus-size women but is now expanding to serve customers in straight sizes. The brand announced in January that it would begin offering items from size 0 to 8, only adding clothes in straight sizes that are also available in sizes 10 to 32. Moreover, its models will stay the same build as they were, allowing the company to continue reinforcing more inclusive images of beauty.
“We’re really excited about the opportunity and the process of inclusion,” says Jessica Dvorett, vice president of merchandising. “The response has been really positive. There’s tremendous excitement that you can serve all women and meet the perspective of the majority front and center.”
Castro, the SmartGlamour model, contends that an array of sizes and styles are just part of what makes up inclusion. She knows firsthand how marginalizing it is to walk into a store and not be able to wear anything, she says, but inclusion should also be defined by a variety of business practices.
“Inclusion is about being more ethical and not outsourcing to sweatshops,” she says. “It’s employers being more inclusive by hiring more women, women of color. It’s stores not stopping at a certain size. I would go into a store and it would stop at a size 8, so it’s gotten better over time.”
But Castro cautions retailers not to pat themselves on the back simply for stocking larger sizes.
“I’m very happy businesses are carrying bigger sizes,” she says. “But it’s also not groundbreaking.”