One of the more cringe-worthy moments in the 2006 movie, The Devil Wears Prada, about the struggles of aspiring-journalist Andy Sachs, played by Anne Hathaway, working for Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), editor of fictional Runway magazine, happens in the office cafeteria.
Andy observes to art director Nigel, played by the amazing Stanley Tucci, that all the other girls at the magazine don’t eat anything. He says, “Not since two became the new four and zero became the new two.” Andy answers that she is a size six, to which he quips, “Which is the new fourteen.”
Shame on the fat-shaming industry
That in a nutshell is all anyone needs to know about how the fashion industry views its plus-size customers: She simply doesn’t fit. The average American woman wears between a size 16-18, according to research from assistant professor Deborah Christel, at Washington State University’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles. She has made it her mission to wake the industry up to its inherent fat biases by teaching a class to expose “weight discrimination as a social justice issue.”
Tim Gunn, long-time chair of fashion design at Parsons The New School of Design, who went on to Liz Claiborne as chief creative officer and then gained famed as mentor on Project Runway, took the industry to task back in 2016 in a Washington Postop-ed. “Designers refuse to make clothes to fit American women. It’s a disgrace,” he wrote.
Demand for all-inclusive sizing
The industry has been slow to learn the lesson, but finally it is taking Gunn’s message to heart. Nordstrom is now expanding its plus-size selections to include 100 brands and integrating them in with its core size range, rather than segregating it into a separate “Woman’s” department, where the shopper is reminded that she doesn’t belong where the real fashion is.
The company, however, said it will still maintain a separate plus-size department for convenience, but its “size-inclusive” initiative will give size 14 shoppers access to the same styles as her size 2 shopping companion. “In our opinion, petite and plus sizes shouldn’t be considered special categories. They’re just sizes,” a company statement said. Now Nordstrom shoppers can select from extended size offerings from inclusive brands like Topshop, Rag & Bone, Theory and J. Crew’s Madewell on the same rack.
Specialty fashion retailer Express is also broadening its range of sizes from 00 to 18, but only in 130 stores out of its total base of 600 full-priced and factory stores. “What we hear constantly from consumers is the lack of fashion styles in the sizes they need. We are excited to make this first step in the journey toward a more inclusive shopping experience,” the company said in a statement.
And none too soon, with women’s fashion retail sales on a steady decline since 2012. From its zenith of $41.8 billion, it has dropped 5.6% to $39.4 billion in 2017, according to the Census Dept. Monthly Retail Trade Survey.
By contrast, the women’s plus size fashion market is on a roll: up 38% from two years ago, reports Katie Smith, retail analysis & insights director at EDITED, which provides real-time data analytics to the fashion industry. “The plus size market is the fastest-growing segment in the U.S., but it still accounts for 1.6% of the market, which is baffling when you consider 67% of women in the U.S. wear a size 14 or larger,” she says.
Women know how they want to dress; they don’t need designers to tell them
It is sad that the fashion industry had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the revolutionary idea of size inclusiveness. But the overwhelming majority of women–plus size women–are demanding it. This is a kind of disruption that the industry can actually respond to proactively, if it only is willing to embrace the new image of the modern woman.
“For too long, the industry has been entirely blinded to the fact that a consumer can be plus size and passionate about high-quality clothing and have the money to shop for it,” Smith says. “Social media has helped fuel discussion around inclusivity, acceptance and is challenging old stereotypes. The Gen Y and Z consumers are far more open-minded and inclusive than any other consumer before them. And their impact on luxury, advertising and beauty has been, and will continue to be, enormous. The increased body-positivity these consumers are creating is finally hooking the fashion industry.”
The fashion industry is now in the unfamiliar, and for many the uncomfortable position of following rather than leading the consumer. “No longer is the fashion industry able to push its agenda onto consumers, instead consumers are pulling the industry forward.”
Plus puts new demands on designers
Besides the fact that plus-size women don’t look like the women many fashion designers want to dress, designing plus-sized clothing requires greater expertise and awareness of how to dress the real woman’s body, not designers’ favorite 6-foot-tall, size-00 model.
“This is a design failure and not a customer issue,” Gunn wrote in his 2016 op-ed. “There is no reason larger women can’t look just as fabulous as all other women. The key is the harmonious balance of silhouette, proportion and fit, regardless of size or shape.”
Speaking to the design challenges, and opportunities, of dressing the plus-size woman, Kim Camarella-Khanbeigi, founder of Kiyonna and an early pioneer in plus-size fashion, says, “The fit is science,” she says. “You can’t just grade up and expect the style to flatter and fit the same.” She started Kiyonna in 1996 to serve the specialty retail market and moved online in 1999. Today her brand is carried by 250 stores nationwide, as well as being available on its own website, Amazon and Zappos. Kiyonna also operates a flagship store called the Upstairs Boutique in Anaheim.
“What’s ready for disruption is the stereotypes about the curvy customer. Styled right and wearing something that fits, she exudes attractiveness,” Camarella-Khanbeigi says, as she notes the business opportunity to dress the curvy woman is great and growing. “There is a beautiful, curvy customer counting on it.”
The look of luxury in plus size
To date, luxury brands and retailers have been the most resistant to embracing the plus-size woman. Smith reports EDITED data shows that only about 0.1% of the luxury and premium market is plus sized. “What luxury brands don’t seem to pay attention to is that plus-size shoppers are already their customers, be it of their beauty, perfume, footwear, accessories or leather goods lines, rather than apparel,” Smith says.
While it is true that affluent women are less likely than lower-income women to be plus sized, it is safe to assume that at least 25-33% or more of the nation’s affluent women don’t fit into the luxury industry’s standard 0-12 size range. The latest available data from the CDC on women’s obesity levels by income confirms this, with its finding that over one-fourth of the highest-income women (specifically women with household incomes 350% above poverty level) are classified as obese (BMI of 30 or higher) and that isn’t even counting women who are simply overweight.
Gucci for one has paid attention and offers an increasing range of styles in large and XL sizes. It will also help Nordstrom fill its racks as it broadens its plus-size offerings. Smith advises the rest of the luxury industry to wake up. The plus-size luxury fashion market is growing and these women have the means and desires to dress as fashionably as her size 0 counterpart.
“Plus-size celebrities and influencers now have very visible global platforms for voicing their frustrations with an industry that can’t dress them. With social attitudes towards inclusivity shifting rapidly, luxury brands don’t want to lag in this opportunity,” Smith declares.