The Problem With Plus Size

If extraterrestrial beings touched down in an average American city, walked down an average American street, then popped into an average American store, they'd probably think the only people who actually shop are diminutive. Because, when it comes to numbers, there's a huge discrepancy: The average American woman wears a size 14 — and the majority of women are considered overweight — but you'd be hard-pressed to find any brand that caters to anyone who wears above a 12. In plain business terms (which the fashion industry ultimately operates on), the numbers don't add up. But, the answer to why this happens is a bit more complicated than mere prejudice.
It's undeniable that the fashion industry is plus-size-averse. There's the passive discrimination of framing most dialogue around straight sizes only, and then there's the very active, very hurtful discrimination and animosity against women who don't fit into a sample size. Beyond that, there's also a frustrating production barrier that prevents plus-size clothing from being made in the first place. For any trade, it's totally counterintuitive that an industry could so obviously not cater to the largest demographic out there — but that's exactly how the plus-size world is.
And, the first step toward change is acknowledging the problem. So, we took a deep dive into the specific problems with plus. We invited key players within the industry to speak candidly about why the system is broken, the challenges the plus-size community faces, and why the whole fashion industry needs a change of perspective.
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Illustrated by Lauren Rolwing.
Manufacturing Plus-Size Clothes Is More Difficult, Period
When a certain style of garment is priced differently for larger sizes than it is smaller sizes, it feels like institutionalized discrimination. After all, on average, there are studies that support the fact that overweight women earn less and have a higher unemployment rate. So, to have to pay more for the same kind of clothes feels like a double penalty. However, when it comes to clothing construction, it seems every little deviation from a size zero complicates things.

Designer Trudy Hanson, who owns a line of patterns and will be starting her own plus-size label soon, notes that plus-size clothing does cost more: "People don’t believe that there’s a good reason for plus-size garments being big. A lot of them think — and, in fairness, half the time this is true — that there’s a fat tax." But, after working 30 years in the industry making clothing for both straight and plus customers, she says the differences in the amount of work that goes into each are significant.

"When you're designing for straight sizes, you're basically designing for rectangles, and that's easy," says Hanson. "You don't really have to contend with the fact that you're taking a two-dimensional item, like fabric, and putting it on a three-dimension thing, like a human body. If you think about a hanger in a store, it just displays the item like a rectangle. Plus sizes are not like that at all. If you make a flat front and back for plus sizes, you get a shirt that has horrible dragging lines around the armpits. On top of that, garment production is a really expensive business, so minimizing any waste is hugely important. There's just more stuff going on, like darts, seams, and shaping, not to mention more fabric, and each extra part costs more money to produce."
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Illustrated by Lauren Rolwing.
How much more money? Hanson mentions that for a mass retailer like Gap or Zara, it can be as little as 5% more, but that's still a huge amount of resources to risk when the numbers don't seem to support it. For independent designers like herself (who might not have the know-how or experience to understand plus-size fits), a misstep in planning can ruin careers.

Even for upscale contemporary brands, that risk is a major deterrent against extending this range despite the fact that brands know there's windfall potential for whoever first figures out how to do high-end plus-size designs well. We spoke to one anonymous insider at a popular contemporary label — who we'll call N — who said that even moving beyond a size 8 was risky. "When you’re cutting 600 units, it’s a huge amount of money to go into plus, because, oftentimes, plus-size pieces require double the amount of fabric. And, then you do that across the board with all your styles? Additionally, you'd need a separate design team, a separate sales team, even separate production factories, because the kind of work they'd be doing is different… That amount isn't negligible. You can’t just absorb it into the total. It’s a loss that you have to account for with higher prices at the very least."

The solution would be to either raise the prices across the board so smaller sizes generate more profit and larger sizes less, or to charge differently according to the amount of work and raw materials that went into each size. But, when you take a look at the actual sales data for the sizes that are the most profitable, you can see why designers and brands are unfortunately hesitant to carry out either.
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Illustrated by Lauren Rolwing.
The Catch-22 Of Extending Into Plus Sizes
It's hard to say what prompted the other, but it's undeniable that both are true: What the plus-size market has to sell is pretty unappealing to anyone who cares about fashion (which means that plus-size women aren't really buying the trendy, seasonal items), and low sell-through rates on plus-size pieces lead designers and brands to believe there's no reason to extend into plus.

Says N, "Outliers are the least bought, with the median being 2 to 4. We already see a pretty low sell-through of our largest sizes at a 12, so there's little reason for us to believe that we'll be selling lots of sizes beyond that."

But, a large part of that hesitation has to do with the quality of the options available. Liz Black, Refinery29 contributor and blogger at P.S. It's Fashion, explains the dismal landscape: "There are plenty of cheap basics, super-revealing club wear, and matronly, shapeless dresses, but there’s a lack of high-quality trend-focused designs. Plus fashion seems to be at least a year behind straight-size fashion, so I have to wait significantly longer to even find a hint of last year’s trends. I have to work twice as hard to find half the options that a smaller woman has. If I want, say, the latest distressed boyfriend jeans, I’m going to have to do a lot of research on the Internet to see what online stores carry a similar style, see if other bloggers who have a similar shape to me may have worn those styles and how it fits them, and then ultimately order two to three sizes of the exact same style to see how they fit."
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Illustrated by Lauren Rolwing.
The dearth of in-store plus-size options seems especially cruel, particularly considering that the differences in body shape and size in a plus-size range are much more pronounced than in straight sizes. In other words, it's exceptionally difficult for plus-size women to judge how an article of clothing will fit without trying it on first. Says Black, "I'd love to be able to not feel limited to only online shopping. I am in the smaller side of plus — a size 14/16 — so I can only imagine it gets even more difficult and frustrating. The larger the size you wear, the fewer choices you have, even in specialty stores."

The lack of on-trend, new designs is a product of retailers trying to hedge their bets with what worked in the past. Hanson explains that those bizarre add-ons — excessive rhinestones, unflattering sublimation prints, juvenile graphics — are stamped on wares because buyers are demanding them from designers. "They say — because they're risk-averse — 'Last season, you did this really great celebrity range, and it had sparkles on it.' And, the head of your department will look at you, and you'll have to do it. I've heard manufacturers and retailers basically say, 'They can take what we give them and be grateful because there’s not a whole lot out there.' And, there isn’t — they’re right. So, we're given stuff that looks like crap, and it costs a lot more. It’s made from horrible fabrics like polyester — I mean, so many polyesters die every year. Fat girls sweat. Everyone sweats, but we fat girls sweat more."

However, that doesn't mean fashionable plus clothes can't be done. Brands like ASOS Curve provide on-trend, affordable styles that — surprise! — also make a profit. Says Curve buyer Natasha Smith, "It's one of the top-performing departments at ASOS with continual growth and is an essential part of our business." In fact, it's doing so well, it's hoping to expand. "We've now looked into stocking external plus-size brands and increased our jewelry sizes as well."
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Illustrated by Lauren Rolwing.
Plus Size's Perception Issue
For many brands to make the leap into plus size, gathering the data to prove that it'll be financially worth it, and finding the talent and expertise to make sure the wares actually fit a plus-size woman, are two obvious challenges. But, they can be overcome. The more ingrained, insidious hurdle is the negative associations that industry insiders have with plus sizes. Says N, "I hate this word, and especially in this context, but for many people in our industry, fashion is aspirational. Plus-size clothing is seen as the opposite of aspirational. It’s such a f*cked-up thing to say, but we don’t begin our design process thinking about the mass market. You tinker with a collection because that’s how you’re going to hit your sales numbers, but that’s not what you’re thinking about when you’re really looking at a storyboard. You’re thinking about that glamorous woman in Paris — not the average woman in Minnesota."

Hanson agrees: "I’ve heard so many people say, 'Ew, I don’t want to dress fat girls.' And, they don't because — I get it — it's hard! But, it's also because [of] an image thing. It’s the kind of thing that makes me want to b*tch-slap people."

And, that kind of messed-up prejudice trickles right down to the consumer and his/her shopping experience. Says Hanson, "I’ve always loved fashion. Fashion has never loved me. And, that’s okay. I’m a big girl, I’m over it, but I find it very difficult to imagine one day where I go into a lovely department store and say, 'Where are the plus sizes?' and not have an assistant look me up and down like I’m a bad smell, and say, 'They’re over in a corner by the bathroom.'"

And, when the designers are not the ones managing business, there's an especially pronounced distaste for designing larger sizes. Says N, "One of the enduring tensions in fashion that makes it such an interesting industry to work in is that sometimes it's not just about the return on investment or profitability. Because, on some level, it’s still an art. I work with designers, and they’re artists in the sense that they want to create beautiful things for classically beautiful people. They sketch naked bodies all the time. So many designers are obsessed with the female and male forms as they're depicted in Greek mythology. It's this perfect, balanced body with breasts and long limbs and an hourglass shape. It’s a sad truth that fashion is a very shallow, visual industry. Most people who work in the industry want to look good in clothes, and if the clothes they're seeing only look good on skinny sizes, that's what motivates them to focus on being skinny."

An important area worth mentioning is the world of plus-size modeling. It's one of the few arenas where major leaps and bounds in plus acceptance seem to be happening. (IMG's recent addition of plus models to its high-profile roster was a highlight.) Models like Robyn Lawley, Ashley Graham, and Marquita Pring are becoming household names. And, unlike straight sample sizes, plus sizes offer a larger range. For ASOS Curve, its plus models run the gamut: "We pick our ASOS Curve models based on how they reflect our dominant customer, and for the Curve range, that is for women's sizes U.S. 14 to 24." Though there are similar challenges and battles that all models face that involve having the "right" sort of body (flat stomach, thin limbs, a statuesque build), there's a sea change happening with body-diversity acceptance for models that's deeply encouraging. The dream scenario? When one day the segregation between straight and plus will end, but that involves a whole slew of institutional and infrastructural changes concerning how clothes are produced, marketed, and promoted.
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Illustrated by Lauren Rolwing.
The Future Of Plus Size Requires A Fundamental Change
It's obvious that turning the plus-size industry into the ultra-profitable, ultra-attractive business it deserves to be involves a little more than creating a few extra garments. There needs to be a total shift in the fashion industry's reliance on sample sizes, an efficiency that's also become a crutch for discrimination. To do so would mean that models would come in all shapes and sizes; clothes would come in customizable, meant-to-be-tailored forms; the turnover of trends and collections would diminish sharply; and the cost of clothing would rise significantly, which would result in all of us owning far fewer things. Big stuff, we know. But, when we think about the outcome — an industry where clothes are designed for humans and not just hangers, and all people feel included and accepted into an arena where everyone participates (unless you're a nudist, in which case, godspeed) — we can easily see that it's a movement people should work to make happen. Says Hanson, "Once one or two big retailers give in, you'll see others going, 'Oh my God, the fat girl’s got money to spend. I’m going to do it, too.' That’s just how it works."

N believes that a necessary first step is to have more fashion-forward celebrities with a style sense that feels aspirational. "For established, high-end designers to really want to design for plus-size bodies, we would have to have so many more celebrities that look like Kim Kardashian or Kate Upton. Honestly, I don’t think they're good representatives of full-figured either since their proportions are very Barbie-esque in a way that you don't see much of in the real world, but they're a start. We would need more people like that who are famous not just for being actresses, but also for being stylish — who actually look good, and not just because a magazine needs to fill a plus-size quota."

Of course, rising prices bar another demographic from participating in fashion, but ASOS Curve is proof that affordability and plus sizing can coexist when it comes to mass retailers. Says Natasha, "Just because it's a plus-size fit, it doesn't mean that it can't be fashion-forward and on trend. Fashion and style are from your heart no matter what size you wear, and the best feeling is knowing that we dress women in something that makes them feel great about themselves."

And, that's what it's all about at the end, isn't it?