Imagine a woman, with a sense of style and money to spend, who can't find a clothing store. She's with friends, but she's locked out, unable to buy anything that she feels is sexy or fun or lovely — whether it's to wear to a club, the gym or a job interview — from any of the shops they pass.
Now realize that there are millions of such women — 42% of American teenagers alone, according to data from Euromonitor. But they're of all ages and sport pocketbooks collectively bulging with $46.4 billion to spend on apparel each year, per Coresight Research.
It's a retail desert kept barren by the disregard for major market opportunity. Two-thirds of U.S. women consider themselves to be a special size defined as plus, petite, junior or tall, according to NPD Group's Consumer Tracking Service. One-third of female consumers identify as plus-size, the same study notes. NPD has also found that U.S. teens who purchased in the junior size category dropped from 81% in 2012 to 73% in 2015, while teens who purchased plus-size clothing was at 34%, compared to 19% in 2012.
"So many women cannot purchase fashion because it's not available to them," Shawn Grain Carter, professor of fashion business management at The Fashion Institute of Technology, told Retail Dive in an interview. "It's another reason why you will see aspirational customers reach for handbags and shoes from haute couture houses because they're easier to purchase."
The king is dead, long live the queen
The relegation of sizes like plus and petite to specialty retailers — for years notably sparse at mainstream retailers and conspicuously absent at couture brands — springs from clothing manufacturing's history, according to Carter. Royal courts dictated fashion based on the preferences of the king, and the nobility had garments made to order (a tradition that continues in luxury fashion). The riff-raff made their own clothes, with the lesser fabrics available to them. Nobody needed "sizing."
That changed with industrialization and the military's need for mass-produced apparel for men (easier to this day because men's apparel isn't as complex as women's). But the industry never forged any standards, so apparel companies interpret size on their own. The culture around fashion changed, too, and the rise of streetwear, including from luxe labels, demonstrates how much now flows from the bottom up rather than top down, Carter said.
As a result, beauty standards in America have mostly evolved. Beyonce and Taylor Swift, as different as they are, are both accepted as talented, strong and beautiful women, and fashion education has kept up, Carter says. But the lack of size standards and prevailing notions of aesthetics continue to shut out women who aren't within even the industry's loosely established ranges. And many brands, especially in couture, still hesitate to align with a diversity of body types.
"Fashion is only fashion when the masses buy it. If it's not bought by anyone, then it's not fashion, it's art."
Shawn Grain Carter
Professor of Fashion Business Management at The Fashion Institute of Technology
"They want to preserve this idea that 'I'm a designer of this particular brand and I design for this particular woman, and this muse will be in a very defined, narrow, sometimes ethnic-centric view of what female beauty is,'" she said. "But it's the 21st century now, and you have women all over the world — from Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. It's not the point of view of New York, London, Paris and Milan any more. Fashion is only fashion when the masses buy it. If it's not bought by anyone, then it's not fashion, it's art."
While social media can be problematic because many of its influencers continue to perpetuate an impossible-to-achieve and even unhealthy ideal of female beauty, it's also helped consumers express demand for stylish apparel that actually fits them, Carter also said.
They're leaving their mark on the industry, according to Marie Driscoll, managing director of Luxury and Fashion at global retail think tank Coresight Research, who said that, slowly but surely, that does include luxury. "Plus sizing is more like old thinking is what we've learned from people," she told Retail Dive in an interview. "They're not in the closet, they want fashion and they don't want to have to look like Victoria's Secret angels. It's a really healthy point of view, and there's a lot of unmet demand from women that are not size 0 to 12, from ages of 15 to 65 — from all women. Younger millennials and Gen Z have given voice to this, but it ripples throughout the entire female population."
That is propelling new direct-to-consumer brands, and, in some cases, the consumers, by necessity, have become the designers.
The new market
This consumer in the past several decades hasn't been completely ignored. Specialist retailers like the Ascena Group's Lane Bryant and Catherines have catered to her for years, and some mass merchants like Walmart and department stores have long offered plus labels. (Ascena Group did not respond to emailed questions by press time).
But plus-size merchandising in stores has mostly been shunted into dark corners or special orders. "Always located upstairs, next to maternity," Keisha Holmes, who worked as a buyer for Frederick's of Hollywood and Forever 21 before founding her own label, Curvy Sense, in 2016, told Retail Dive in an interview. "That's not where she wants to shop. Online shopping's made life so much easier."
Worse, marketing for plus-size clothing tends to suggest that those shoppers want to hide their bodies or have an unsophisticated outlook, experts say.
"The language in which the consumer is spoken to tends to be very 'Sears catalog 1989' — that happy girl, a customer who looks nothing like the fashionable women in the high-glossy magazines because she's just not been respected in that way," said Alexandra Waldman, founder and chief creative officer of Universal Standard, which since its 2015 debut has been at the forefront of inclusive sizing. "Creating the new normal — which is what we feel that we are doing — is thoughtful, mindful design that allows [the apparel] to be coveted. Especially for women in double-digit sizing, it's been relegated to the good-enough pile — 'that's good enough, they'll buy that.'"
"I want the same thing that this tiny little model has, this young, vibrant, trendy girl, but then when you got to plus, it's a complete disconnect with who she was."
Founder of Curvy Sense
Holmes agrees. "They couldn't grasp that she was the same girl — they wanted to make her more conservative," she said of some of the vendors she worked with as a buyer. "I want the same thing that this tiny little model has, this young, vibrant, trendy girl, but then when you got to plus, it's a complete disconnect with who she was. We come in a vast range — we don't want to be left out of whatever it is that a straight-size girl should have."
The market to serve that woman is growing, but remains largely segregated, notes Michael Felice, principal in the consumer and retail practice of global strategy and management consulting firm A.T. Kearney. "I see 'plus size' as gaining in adoption but not integration," he told Retail Dive in an email (emphasis his). "There are still separate 'plus size' models, designers, stores, services, etc., even in the startup world, which is more likely to classify users in clusters by purchasing behavior than by size demographics."
In that sense, the market is behind, he warned. "Today's consumer wants brands that define beauty by individualism and confidence not by size or weight," he said. "Millennial and Gen Z shoppers want to feel a connection to a brand, and this is hard to do when the models wearing the clothing only represent a small segment of the buying group."
Or, as Holmes said, "If you're not in the plus business, you're not in business."
Increasingly, retailers selling apparel agree with them, too, according to research from Jane Hali & Associates, which finds that Nordstrom, Target and others have taken firm steps to expand their sizes and bring both the apparel and the marketing into stores.
"The figures from Ascena [reflecting falling sales] show that the plus size customer does not want to be separated at brick and mortar," CEO Jane Hali told Retail Dive in an email. "Target is very definite about plus size being inclusive, with plus size mannequins next to regular size mannequins. Target has one plus-size line separated, Ava & Viv, otherwise plus is part of the merchandising statements."
Even J. Crew, which took flak for years for reserving its attention for skinny customers, has turned to Universal Standard as it tries to recover its voice in American fashion.
"When they came to us, the reason we said 'yes' to J. Crew was because it's a household name and a wonderful way to indicate the change that's happening," Waldman told Retail Dive in an interview. "If we could help J. Crew say 'We are on the right side of this,' that's a great way to anchor the message. We want to change the way people shop and what they think of as beauty and what they think of as normal. We are the new normal, and through brands like J. Crew we can proliferate that message."
In the past, brands like J. Crew would cite the expense and headaches in manufacture and design as reasons for their limited sizing options, and, Waldman says, those production challenges are real. "There is no infrastructure for a truly size-inclusive brand in the way we do it, from 00 to 40," she said. "Our first forays into this were hilarious and somewhat tragic because manufacturers hadn't seen it before. We'd get emails saying 'We think you made a mistake.' Does it cost more money? Yes it does. The costs are recouped, though, when you talk about return rate, when you talk about loyalty."
An assortment with more sizes impacts inventory costs and stock-outs, constrains floor space, and adds to complexity in SKUs, manufacturing instruments and logistics, so, for some retailers, the way to provide more sizing and better fit is through customization, according to Felice. "Retailers will struggle to pass off these costs to consumers, and therefore may opt to try to create an 'endless aisle' ... where women can design clothes digitally and have them sent to the home, [making] the shopping experience more of a fashion consultation," he said. "Brick and mortar retailers will face challenges to make the plus sized integration profitable."
That may be why online brands are spearheading the shift, but they face the same obstacles. Universal Standard, Curvy Sense (which is expanding beyond plus) and online brand Showpo (which recently expanded into plus) all say they have had to employ more models, human and otherwise, use more fabric for some items without charging more, grade patterns as sizes go up or down the scale and find factories that understand their needs.
"We try and incorporate as many sizes as possible — and not just sizes but shapes," Showpo founder and CEO Jane Lu told Retail Dive in an interview. "We have in-house technicians who do all of the grading and measuring. We're a fast-fashion company so we're all about the micro trends, and we had to find a supplier that would work with us."
'The time for plus-size clothing is over'
Despite the complexities, mounting evidence that size inclusivity is no mere fad suggests that offering only a narrow size range is becoming indefensible. The good news is that at the end of the difficult path are sales and profits, some experts say.
"Inclusive sizing is becoming less of a trend and more of a necessity across all product types," Kayla Marci, market analyst at retail and fashion technology firm Edited, told Retail Dive in an email. "67% of American women are a size 14 and are voicing their need for fashionable products regardless of size. This is a need that brands can no longer afford to ignore."
Women don't want to have to resort to plus size brands to find their size, but they encounter limits to what non-plus brands are offering, especially in lingerie, Edited found. "This signifies an opportunity for retailers to venture into wider size ranges without creating diffusion lines," she noted, adding that marketing is also pushing away from Victoria's Secret's skinny-sexy approach. "Non-plus brands already offering extended size ranges include Savage X Fenty, Aerie, Jockey and Third Love."
"I think that ignoring 70% of American women is unacceptable and arbitrary."
Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Universal Standard
Those options must be genuine and available, or brands will be punished, Felice says. "Today's transparency-focused consumer is quick to identify lack of authenticity, so retailers must ensure they avoid a label of 'fake inclusion,'" he said. "And they should embrace different views, races, gender identifications, styles [and] social connections along with sizes."
Such messages are getting out, and mainstream (or "straight" in fashion parlance) brands and retailers aren't the only ones embracing inclusive sizing — some plus brands, like Curvy Sense, are too. That could be a further challenge not just for legacy stores like Ascena's plus banners, but also newer ones, like Eloquii, (rescued in 2014 as an e-retailer by staffers after The Limited shuttered it and now owned by Walmart) that have emerged as alternatives.
Coresight's Driscoll doesn't see the opportunity for those specialists dwindling, as long as they realize that their customer is interested in high-quality fashion. "We're just seeing it grow, and it's going to grow faster because this has been an unmet need, and for women 40-plus it's been unmet for a long time," she said. "They will be loyal customers. If you do any kind of shopping you know that so much of retail is not sold at full price. Well, [plus] is an opportunity to sell at full price."
But Waldman believes that the day has come for designers and retailers to work for all women. "I feel very strongly that the time for plus-size clothing is over — that's an imperative," she said. "I think that the writing is on the wall. I think that ignoring 70% of American women is unacceptable and arbitrary. Any brand that decides it's going to be for a set of women and not for another set of women of a certain size is like a musician selling only CDs. The idea is to allow all women to participate in the joy of dressing themselves."