Talking about fashion in terms of size – be it plus size or size zero – is difficult. It’s far too easy to forget that, rather than just clothes, we are talking about the women who wear them – women who come in all shapes and sizes.
In his 1988 movie Hairspray, John Waters brilliantly skewered the plus-size fashion of the Sixties with the creation of the Hefty Hideaway, a store catering to women size 12-26 (equivalent to UK 16-30) who “still want the glamour”. And while there have been great developments in the plus-size market (size 18-30; the average UK dress size is 14-16), especially in recent years, some people still think there is a stigma to the very word “plus”. Model Stefania Ferrario and actress and author Ajay Rochester have been campaigning for the industry to “drop the plus” when talking about models and clothing.
Actually, there has been something of a rebrand already, as many modern labels adopt the word “curve” – a less loaded way of identifying their largest offerings. It’s something Ferrario’s agency Models1 does, too. It’s had a “curve” department for four years and sees demand for models who are size 12-18 growing at a “phenomenal rate”. But it’s not simply a case of changing the name to erase a problem. One of the main difficulties that women on the larger end of the spectrum have long faced is a feeling that they are overlooked by brands – and according to data from Kantar Retail market researchers, one in five is now a UK18 or above. Plus-sized clothing has often been a frumpy, shapeless affair, with cheaper fabrics and ugly prints; not encouraging to someone who loves fashion but is resigned to feeling it’s not for them.
Today, though, those customers will find their options are increasingly open. Many high-street brands have embraced their larger customers and concentrated on improving the offering in their largest sizes. But, while some high-street brands do so in their main collections (Gap, for instance, offers up to size 24, as does Marks & Spencer in its Per Una range), the majority of plus-size clothing is created and marketed as a separate entity – like Evans, the Arcadia Group’s plus-size store and one of the best-known brands in the market.
This can be seen as troubling: business analysts Verdict found that 60.9 per cent of plus-size consumers prefer to shop “at core”, rather than from a specific plus-size sub-brand. But some retailers argue that creating larger sizing isn’t as simple as upsizing existing patterns. Instead, they concentrate on improving the sub-brand lines to bring them closer to the core collection and make their customers feel special.
Asos, the e-tailer that has become many young shoppers’ first point of call come pay day, was something of a leader when it launched its own Curve sub-brand in 2009. “We want to make fashion accessible to everyone,” says Carmel O’Connor, junior buyer of Asos Curve. “There weren’t any real concerns when we launched, we simply set out to create amazing style for a massively underserved part of society. It was a huge opportunity and a real no-brainer for the business.” And it’s one that has paid off: what started as a collection of about 20 pieces has now expanded to 1,000 items a season, all designed in-house and fitted on a size 20 model, with 30 new styles launching every week. “We really like to push the boundaries with our range and we’ve found that our customer is excited by product that was never previously on offer [in their size],” says O’Connor.
No doubt. That demand is also behind Studio 8, a new collection from British brand Phase Eight, which this month launched with sizes 16 to 24. “It was apparent that many plus-size customers find shopping for their shape and size frustrating and demoralising, particularly when clothing hasn’t been fitted or designed with their shape in mind,” says Eleanor Freret, a buyer for Studio 8, which was born out of customer frustration over lack of Phase Eight designs in size 16. And Studio 8 also uses a range of live models (rather than mannequins) to fit its collections to, ensuring that varying body shapes, as well as sizes, are catered for.
The high street may have got better at meeting the demands of larger women, but there has been a noticeable indifference among premium “straight size” brands, which are notoriously controlling of the image they project. However, even that seems poised to change, now that Net-a-porter.com is increasing its stock of larger sizes from the Cruise 2016 season by 75 per cent. “We want to ensure that we are delivering the best edit in luxury fashion to all women, regardless of their size, and the demand is certainly there for more product in larger sizes,” says Sarah Rutson, vice-president of global buying. Currently, there are plenty of options for an XXL (UK18) shopper, but only one item in a XXXL (UK 20). However, while the site can only stock what the brands create, Rutson says there’s better news in the pipeline.
“Brands are realising the opportunity that exists by offering larger sizes,” she says. “We’re working closely with designers to expand their size ranges. We’ve had increasingly strong sell-through of larger sizes, so it’s a clear-cut business decision, too.” And if Net-a-Porter is only talking about going up to size 20, this incremental expansion is still an improvement.
Demand for this sort of clothing is nothing new but, as the internet increases the influence of the everywoman, it is now at a volume that cannot be ignored. “We believe in the power of bloggers as influencers for the younger generation,” says Lynne Webber, managing director at Marina Rinaldi (which launched in 1980 as Max Mara’s plus-size brand). For autumn, she’s launching Persona, a more contemporary label for young women who Webber believes want to “express their own individual style without giving up on the desire to follow trends”.
Navabi is another e-tailer that understands larger women’s wardrobe needs: launched in 2009, the site now offers over 100 plus-size contemporary brands, as well as its own in-house label for autumn/winter. “A lot of brands think that these customers’ tastes are different. But fashion is a language and that doesn’t change when you’re a bigger size,” says Zahir Zehnadi, co-founder of the site. And that’s a sentiment which brands catering for all budgets would do well to appreciate.
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