Hardly anything about shopping as a plus-size woman is equitable. Many popular brands don’t produce clothing for the 67% of women in the US who wear a size 16 or above. Those that do often produce watered-down versions of the pieces made in straight sizes (think: a longer hemline, shorter sleeve, a less fitted silhouette) — and hardly ever stock the plus-size iterations in stores. In turn, plus-size shoppers resign themselves to shopping online, where sizing is confusing and pieces often arrive looking drastically different than they did on the (mostly straight-sized) e-comm models.
Welcome to a warped reality where plus-size women, who constitute the majority of the American female shopping population, must make do with scant and often misleading online offerings. "It’s what [society, as well as the fashion industry] trained us to believe [was the only option],” Marie Denee, the founder of plus-size fashion site The Curvy Fashionista, tells Refinery29. In her own experience, shopping was never about what she did or didn’t want, but rather, what was available.
Denee was fed up, and eventually pivoted to a new way to shop that served her needs and wants better. Like so many other plus-size women who desired more choices, she turned to made-to-order websites. Though typically associated with sustainability (as ordered means as needed, after all) or uber-expensive couture garments, made-to-order means something entirely different for plus-size shoppers. According to Denee, the production approach, where each garment is produced to meet a customer’s specifications, allows women like her to make the kinds of stylistic decisions that they’ve long been denied. In the made-to-order space, plus-size shoppers don’t have to take it or leave it. Suddenly faced with an abundance of options, they can decide what hems they want and what sleeve-lengths work best for their bodies. It’s freeing, and it’s also far more practical than placing an order and hoping for the best. When a piece is crafted to your exact measurements, you can pretty much count on it actually fitting when it arrives.
This isn't a new concept. “For plus folks, you say made-to-order, we think of eShakti,” Denee says, referring to the New York- and India-based clothing company that’s been allowing women sizes 2 to 34 to customise their clothing based on size and style since it opened for online business in 2001. (EShakti’s offices are in New York, while fulfillment and operations are based in India.) “Our intention from the beginning has been to make clothes for real women and be as inclusive as possible,” Sudeep Kashyap, the CMO of eShakti, tells Refinery29. Though never positioned specifically toward plus-size women — the company's focus is on all underserved markets, including plus-size, petite, and tall consumers — its impressive size range and dedication to fit made it ripe for popularity on plus-size social media sites and blogs. That, and they provide something that Denee and other plus-size women have always longed for: the ability to choose their own style, rather than make do with what’s available. “We focus on delivering what the customer wants instead of trying to impose our aesthetics or preferences on them,” says Kashyap.
“It gave us the option to add those tweaks to items that we really needed or wanted. It empowered us to create.”
Marie Denee, founder of The Curvy Fashionista
On the website, shoppers can design garments that flout the prevailing belief that being a size 20 automatically means you want a longer hem, a thicker strap, or a flowy silhouette. “It gave us the options to add those tweaks to items that we really needed or wanted,” Denee says. “It empowered us to create.”
Because of that — and the power of word of mouth — the brand has become the official go-to for a cohort of shoppers: “For plus people,” says Denee, “eShakti is where we’ve been going.”
Miranda Schultz, the blogger behind plus-size lifestyle-fashion blog The Plus Life, learned about eShakti from one of her readers. “I struggle with finding the perfect fit, especially for non-stretch garments, and was tired of ordering clothes that didn’t fit well and either living with the poor fit or finding time to have them tailored,” she said. She loved the ease of the custom-order process, as well as the affordable prices. At first worried about whether her pieces would end up correctly fitting her arms — a challenge she’s faced when shopping online — her qualms vanished when her package arrived: “It was perfect!”
Emily Ho, the Louisville, KY-based blogger behind Authentically Emmie, also thought the retailer sounded too good to be true when another plus-size blogger told her about it (the word of mouth factor really is off the hook): “But when you are desperate for options and have a long history of fit issues, you're willing to try almost anything,” she said.” Ho was pleasantly surprised when everything that she ordered arrived looking and fitting exactly as she had hoped it would. The only downside was turnaround time: “In a world where we're all conditioned by Amazon Prime speed and instant gratification, waiting a few weeks felt strange,” she said. Once she considered the time it takes to create something from scratch, as well as the logistics of international shipping, she quickly realized how remarkable the whole process was: “It's all about adjusting expectations.”
Other made-to-order favourites in the plus-size community include indie brands Blaq Velvette, Paint by Shawn Denise, and Demestik. “Most indie designers are made-to-order,” Denee points out. “It is not a mass-produced thing with a tiny company, so when you make your order, they make your pieces, thus making it a made-to-order item.” This makes sense given that indie brands often can’t afford to store large quantities of inventory. It’s more sustainable for them to stay lean, manufacturing a garment only when one is demanded.
It’s a refreshing way to think about inclusivity, which has become a buzzword that can be a cynical marketing ploy. “So many brands claim to be ‘inclusive,’” says Schultz, “but offering custom sizing is [one of] the only ways to be truly inclusive of people with bodies of all shapes and sizes.” Ho agrees, explaining that nearly every brand that claims to be “size-inclusive” actually excludes her size 28 body. “Made-to-order companies without size limits are the only brands that can call themselves size-inclusive — and actually live up to it,” she says.
While these made-to-order brands have been a saving grace for many plus-size women, they’re hardly a long-term solution. Nearly two decades after eShakti began supplying plus-size shoppers with clothing that not only fit their bodies, but appealed to their tastes, many believe it's time to demand more from the fashion industry at large.
“Being able to shop all the same styles as a straight-size person is what plus-size people have been asking for from the start,” P.S. It's Fashion blogger Liz Black says. And they shouldn’t have to customize every detail of a garment to replicate what they’re seeing in the mainstream market. Denee agrees: “All we want is to be able to go [to the mall] and grab something cute.”