In the nearly 80 years since American retailer Lane Bryant began advertising its “Misses Plus Size” line, the line that coined the term “plus size,” advancements in the plus-size fashion industry have been few and far between. One fashion season shows a record high number of curve models featured — during spring ‘20 Fashion Month, 86 models were plus-size, according to The Fashion Spot’s diversity report — only for the next to result in a dramatic plunge, with just 46 curve models cast for fall. Even more alarming, despite the average apparel size for a woman in the UK being 16 a majority of brands don’t design clothing over that. When they do, the options are often limited at best.
Given the minimal effort that most commercial brands allot for the plus-size community as it is, pandemic-induced budget cuts, profit plunges, and government-mandated store closures, in a lot of ways, could only make the situation worse. Arguably the most damaging blow to the plus-size community thus far in the pandemic was the news of Ascena Retail Group — the company that owns and operates Lane Bryant, as well as two other plus-size retailers Catherines and Cacique — filing for bankruptcy. According to the Washington Post, all 264 Catherines stores will be closing permanently; most Lane Bryant stores will do the same. In Canada, Reitmans Limited, the parent company of beloved plus-size brand Addition Elle, recently announced that it would be permanently closing down all 77 of the brand’s brick-and-mortar stores, as well as its e-commerce site.
“It is devastating that stores like Lane Bryant, Catherines, Cacique, and smaller independent plus-size retailers are closing down due to COVID-19,” says Chelsea Kronengold, the Communications Manager at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). “We’ve seen store closures across all industries, but the fact that the parent company, Ascena Retail Group, chose to close the plus-size stores based on their ‘lack of profitability, sales trend, occupancy, costs, and other macro factors’ sends the message to people in higher weight bodies that they are less valuable than customers who shop at straight-size Ascena stores.”
“If you didn’t rethink everything during this time, you haven’t done your job."
Patrick Herning, CEO of 11 Honoré
While the financial fallout that’s resulted from the pandemic has been damaging, it has also forced a lot of individuals and companies to pause, take a look in the mirror, and re-examine their priorities. “If you didn’t rethink everything during this time, you haven’t done your job,” says Patrick Herning, the CEO of 11 Honoré, a plus-size retailer that carries brands like Brandon Maxwell and Cushnie, as well as its own line.
But will anything change as a result? Will COVID-19 be the catalyst that finally makes fashion's size-exclusivity problem a thing of the past? Or will it simply amplify the already-existing issues?
“Using the financial ramifications associated with COVID-19 as an excuse to no longer offer larger sizes is missing out on a vast customer base,” Kronengold says. And she’s not wrong. When money is as tight as it is right now, brands can’t afford to ignore 67% of the population who wear a size 14 and above. According to Statista, the plus-size apparel market as of 2019 was estimated to be worth $9.8 (£7.5) billion. Companies need to find a way to make sales again, and what better place to start than with a population of women who’ve been begging for ways to spend their money for decades? “Plus-size shoppers want to buy beautiful clothes, just like people in straight sizes; however, the options are in short supply,” Kronengold says.
She goes on to explain that while the pandemic has had a negative impact on most peoples’ mental health, it’s been especially damaging for the plus-size community. “Something that has been harmful for our community, specifically for folks in higher weight bodies, are the jokes and comments about gaining the ‘COVID 19,’” she says. According to her, health and wellness sites claiming that obesity is a risk factor for the coronavirus without examining how weight stigma, bias, and discrimination also play a role has further contributed to that. While not as damaging, having the few places that carry plus-size clothing close certainly doesn’t help the matter.
Another common argument that designers make when asked why they’ve yet to increase their size range is that it’s too difficult of a transition to make. With layoffs and furloughs happening across the board, this argument could become even more prevalent. According to Annika Chaloff, the founder of plus-size apparel brand Hey Mavens, “Doing anything outside the norm, even if it is the correct thing to do, can be challenging.” Especially when, as she points out, at many design schools, students are still taught to drape on size 6 dress forms and draft on a size 6 sloper, which is “the basic pattern that all patterns are drafted off of.” All to say: most up-and-coming designers aren’t being taught how to design for a curvy body, which makes finding an experienced pattern-maker or designer hard for brands who want to extend their sizes. But while she can understand a fraction of the hesitation, Chaloff is quick to remind me that “it is not that hard.” She says, “Buy a larger dress form to drape on, get a plus-size fit model, carefully and thoughtfully grade your patterns, and you're on your way.”
“Buy a larger dress form to drape on, get a plus-size fit model, carefully and thoughtfully grade your patterns, and you're on your way. It's not that hard!”
Annika Chaloff, founder of Hey Mavens!
As plus-size chain stores like Catherines and Lane Bryant close down, more independent brands like Hey Mavens and Henning, who design with the community in mind, come to the forefront — and they’re not about to leave their customers to fend for themselves, or make them settle for anything less than top-quality garments. Lauren Chan, who founded the luxury plus-size label Henning in 2019, told Forbes that it pains her to think about independent plus-size businesses folding and budgets for extended sizes at big brands getting cut after how far we’ve come in recent years. “If I think about how many more options plus-size consumers gained in recent years, which led to how much more representation we saw, which led to how much more self-esteem we have, I get extremely emotional,” she told the publication. “Losing that progress and its effect is not something I can live with. So I’m going to do my part to prevent any regression.”
Like Chan, Chaloff feels equally passionate about independent plus-size brands. “We are finally giving credence to the grievances that plus women have been airing for years,” the designer says. “I don't know if we will likely see big brands getting on the plus-size train, but I think smaller brands are scrappier than ever and are able to pivot towards the demands of the consumer much faster, thereby filling a huge gap in the market.”
Given how significantly the fashion industry has been affected by the pandemic, Herning says that it’s important to have conversations about how to move forward: “I am rethinking absolutely everything we do and how we do it. I can only imagine that all designers are asking themselves these questions as well and my hope is, we all emerge more inclusive and supportive of one another on the other side.”
Unfortunately, during testing times such as these, wants and hopes come second to reality. And the reality, according to Chan, is that designing plus-size clothing right takes time, money, and resources that a lot of brands either don’t have right now or are unwilling to use to help a population of shoppers who have long been ignored. “There have been many botched attempts at designing plus sizes,” she says. “It requires a substantial investment to execute it properly, and that’s important because: (1) we as customers deserve for it to be executed properly, and (2) it needs to go well so that corporations can see that plus-size apparel is viable. When we see these botched attempts, it’s really quite harmful for the future of size expansion.”
So while, yes, in an ideal world, the end of plus-size discrimination in the shopping sector could be a COVID success story, unless a company has the necessary resources to design a high-quality, well-fitting, and correctly packaged plus-size collection right now, doing so just to appease customers or make a quick buck won’t help the plus-size community and, as a result, the brand’s longterm success. What we can hope for, though, is that come the end of the pandemic, the deeper conversations about inclusivity and diversity that it sparked will carry on. And maybe, when the fashion industry finds its footing again, real, worthwhile advances will be made for the plus-size community. For now, put your money where your mouth is by supporting the brands that have served the plus-size community all along.