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Activewear Brands Are Ignoring Plus-Size Women

Lululemon, Ivy Park, and the new Serena Williams line mostly lack options for women above size 14.

Universal Standard’s Game activewear collection.
Universal Standard launched its Game activewear collection, which goes up to size 32, in January.
Photo: Universal Standard

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Imagine losing 80 pounds only to be fat-shamed while shopping for workout clothes. That’s what a shopper said happened to her last year when she walked into a Utah Lululemon.

Do we even have anything in her size?” she heard a staffer whisper to another, snickering, after she entered.

I have to share the WORST experience ever here. I live in Vegas, so we are lucky to have 2 retail stores and 1 outlet...

Posted by Heather Albert on Monday, January 16, 2017

The woman, who relayed her experience on Facebook, describes herself as a size 10/12, putting her on the verge of plus size. She said Lululemon did have clothes that fit her. But for shoppers who fall squarely into the plus category, finding activewear can be a challenge. Many retailers lack fitness apparel for women above a size 12, and that’s largely due to stereotypes about the plus demographic and image-conscious brands equating physical fitness with skinniness.

A study of 56 plus women found that 37 percent wear men’s workout gear to exercise because they lack options from women’s brands. Some shoppers have even written online petitions to companies like Lululemon in hopes of getting them to realize that plus women enjoy fitness, too. A 2013 Huffington Post investigation into Lululemon found that in addition to offering no clothing for plus women, the retailer exiled its size 10 and 12 clothes to the corners of the showroom and often failed to restock them. That year, the company’s then-CEO, Chip Wilson, faced a backlash after saying Lululemon leggings just “don’t work for certain women’s bodies.”

Plus model Patricia Birch, who wears a size 3X, wants retailers to be more inclusive, which she defines as offering clothing “for every single body,” no matter its shape or size.

“There’s no shame being my size,” she said. “There is stigma with ‘plus size’ as a term. I don’t like the stigma. It’s about the attitudes people have about bodies that are larger.”

A Lululemon store
Lululemon has been criticized for not offering plus-size yoga pants.
Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The bad publicity hasn’t led to much change at Lululemon. A look at its website suggests that most of its leggings generally don’t go beyond a size 12, though some size 14 options were listed as “sold out online.” But more worrisome is that Lululemon is hardly the only trendy activewear brand that hasn’t embraced size inclusion. Most of the clothes available from Beyoncé’s Ivy Park don’t go beyond a size 12-14, with some scant offerings of size 16 gear. And Serena Williams’s new clothing line, a mix of casual and activewear, does not go beyond a size 14.

However, as retailers face the reality that roughly 67 percent of American women are plus size, a demographic that represents a $21 billion segment of the fashion industry, they’re increasingly peddling activewear to these customers. The quality of these clothes varies, though, and the plus community still contends with the misperception that larger shoppers shun physical activity.

In March 2017, Nike kicked off its first plus-size activewear line, despite pushback from internet trolls angry that the sports retailer had simply acknowledged the existence of this heavily neglected market. That same month, Amazon listed a job position for a senior brand manager of plus fashion. The e-commerce giant now offers plus activewear from Fruit of the Loom’s Fit for Me line, Just My Size, ShoSho, and more.

Big box retailers like Target are also partaking in the plus-size activewear trend. Last fall, Target launched its JoyLab brand, which sells fitness gear up to size 4X. And department stores like JCPenney, Nordstrom, Macy’s, and Kohl’s sell plus activewear as well.

Expect to see more companies, including smaller retailers, selling sportswear for the plus-size demographic. Shape offers activewear for women up to size 3X. In spring 2017, Fabletics also began offering plus sportswear up to size 3X — to mixed reviews. (Some reviewers criticized the fit.) This past March, Cynthia Rowley debuted plus swimwear, which goes up to size 3X. And in May Dia&Co launched an activewear collection for women sizes 14-32 featuring hundreds of styles from different brands, including the debut of EleVen by Venus Williams in plus sizes.

Next up is a nine-piece swimwear collaboration with fashion blogger Katie Sturino and Brazilian designer Bruna Malucelli that will launch at CoEdition.com on July 18. The retailer sells apparel for women sizes 10 and up.

There’s also plus retailer Torrid, which in 2015 launched activewear for women sizes 10 to 30.

“We ... have had tremendous response [to the activewear line],” Lisa Stanley, vice president of marketing, told Racked. “We pride ourselves on developing designs using the latest technology for support and comfort.”

But not all activewear, be it plus- or straight-size, is created equally. In January, Universal Standard launched its five-piece Game activewear collection; cofounders Polina Veksler and Alexandra Waldman said that too few retailers offered high-quality activewear in an inclusive range of sizes. In particular, they thought much of the plus activewear they encountered included loosely fitted clothes and cotton leggings not designed for high-performance workouts.

“We want it to have longevity,” Waldman said of the activewear line. “If you’re a bigger girl, you do have certain areas of friction. We don’t want to wear leggings that will wear out between the thighs or around the bra area. We want to make women feel confident. We want to make sure the fabric was really functional.”

Universal Standard’s naked armor bodysuit
Universal Standard’s best-selling naked armor bodysuit is available in sizes 6-32.
Photo: Universal Standard

A garment called the Naked Armor Bodysuit is the most popular in the activewear line, according to Waldman. Made from a sweat-wicking and antimicrobial combination of nylon and lycra, the suit is ideal for activities like yoga and pilates and comes in sizes 6-32.

The notion that plus-size women don’t workout upsets Waldman, who says that it’s high time for fashion brands to start thinking about ways to create beautiful clothes for women of all sizes.

“That’s a very common misconception, that if you have a bigger body, you’re not using it actively, because if you were, you wouldn’t be big,” she said. “It’s the same as the ridiculous idea that women with bigger bodies aren’t interested in fashion. It’s absolute nonsense. It’s completely wrong and foolish.”