Fashion's invisible woman
She has money. She has taste. What she doesn't have are stylish options.
The average American woman is size 14. Why is the fashion industry still pretending she doesn't exist?
By Emili Vesilind
March 1, 2009
When it comes to shopping, the average American man has it made. At 189.8 pounds and a size 44 regular jacket, he can wear Abercrombie & Fitch, American Apparel or Armani. Department stores, mall retailers and designer boutiques all cater to his physique -- even when it's saddled with love handles, a sagging chest or a moderate paunch. In menswear, shlubby is accommodated.
But the average U.S. woman, who's 162.9 pounds and wears a size 14, is treated like an anomaly by apparel brands and retailers -- who seem to assume that no one over size 10 follows fashion's capricious trends.
Fashion-forward boutiques such as Maxfield and Fred Segal rarely stock anything over a size 10, and in designer shops, sizes beyond 6 or 8 are often hidden like contraband in the "back." Department stores typically offer tiny sections with only 20 or so brands that fit sizes 14 and up -- compared with the 900-plus brands they carry in their regular women's wear departments.
That leaves style-loving full-figured women with a clutch of plus-size chains including Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug, Avenue and Torrid. Or big-box stores such as Target, Kohl's and Wal-Mart, the No. 1 seller of plus-size apparel in the country -- though most of its selection consists of basic, often matronly items. Beyond this, plus-size clothing is largely relegated to the Internet, where customers who already have a complicated relationship with clothes are unable to see, touch or try on merchandise.
It often seems that it's easier to find and buy stylish clothes for Chihuahuas than for roughly half the country's female population.
Americans are getting larger, and 62% of females are already categorized as overweight. But the relationship between the fashion industry and fuller-figure women is at a standoff, marked by suspicion, prejudice and low expectations on both sides. The fear of fat is so ingrained in designers and retailers that even among those who've successfully tapped the market, talking plus-size often feels taboo. The fraught relationship between fashion and plus-size is far from new, but seems particularly confounding in a time when retailers are pulling out all the stops to bring in business. Carrying a range of sizes that includes the average female would seem like a good place to start.
"Plus-size has been a challenge for the industry for decades," said Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst for the research firm NPD Group. "When I interview plus-size women, there's really nothing [in the market] that the consumer says they like. Because of this, women in this demographic have learned to make fashion not a priority." The longing for style is strong, but the hopes of finding it are low, and shopping is less fun than frustrating.
The message board at Welcome to FigureMagazine.com! - FigureMagazine.com, the online incarnation of Figure, a magazine for full-figured women, reads like a laundry list of ways that brands and retailers aren't connecting with the demographic.
"Are all big girls supposed to dress like Midwestern farm wives?" asks one reader. "We have money -- why don't they want to sell to us?"
Another adds, "I don't want any more polyester, hip-hop gear, frumpy jeans and themed capris! I want the designers not to assume that I am a frumpy 55-year-old, middle-management employee. . . . Is anyone listening to us?"
It's a which-came-first scenario, Cohen said. Because plus-size women have been ignored for years, they've stopped actively looking for shopping opportunities. But when retailers bring savvy style to the plus-size game (as Gap Inc. did with its short-lived concept, Forth & Towne, which carried fashion-forward clothing for career women in sizes 2 to 20), they often shutter their efforts before they have a chance to bloom.
"Retailers don't have the patience to allow it to evolve," he added. "This is a market that's been underserved for 50 years. Customers are saying, 'For 50 years, you've ignored me and now you expect me to react to it instantaneously?' No."
It's true that the development phase of a plus-size collection is costly, because fitting bigger bodies is more complicated than simply making smaller sizes larger. When bodies get larger (especially over a size 18), they take on a different proportion -- there's generally more girth in the middle -- and the ratio between hip and waist changes.
But the payoff for sustaining a successful collection is worth the investment, said Rachel Pally, perhaps the only designer who sells a contemporary collection in trendy boutiques and a plus-size line -- Rachel Pally White Label -- in department stores. Pally's full-figured collection is one of the top-selling vendors for Nordstrom.
"Fashion-forward plus-size women have no options," she said. "They're so thirsty for the product." Why others don't jump on the bandwagon, she added, is a mystery. "It's like, 'Hello? Don't you guys want to make money?' "
Many retailers aren't even game to discuss "plus." When contacted for this story, nearly every major retailer -- including Nordstrom, Macy's, H&M, even Wal-Mart -- declined to give interviews on the subject or didn't respond to requests. It's an odd silence, considering how ripe the market is. With hardly any high-end resources at their disposal, full-figured women still spent $18.6 billion on apparel in stores and online from December 2007 to November 2008, according to NPD Group.
That's only around 20% of the $109.7 billion spent in the regular-size ranges, but bricks-and-mortar plus-size retailers comprise far less than 20% of the total women's apparel retail industry -- and high-end options in the category are extremely rare, so purchase prices are substantially lower.
At the crux of the inequity, according to some plus-size designers, models and retailers, is prejudice toward women the industry doesn't find particularly glamorous or sexy. Like fifth-grade girls who secretly live in fear of being ostracized from the cool clique, they don't want to be caught talking to the fat girl.
Full-figured supermodel Emme sells her own plus-size collection, me by Emme, on QVC, and will be debuting Emme Style, an online clearinghouse for plus-size fashion resources, this year under the same name. Top fashion magazine editors and designers, she said, are guilty of perpetuating the idea that full-figured women and fashion don't mix.
"It really does come from very few edicts from a few people," she said. "You have to ask yourself why they are [defending] against this. Seriously, there are issues there."
'A lot of resistance'
Fear of the full-figured runs through every cog of the industry once you leave the realm of retailers and brands that are exclusively plus-size. "My sales team was adamantly opposed to me doing a plus-size line," said Pally, because they feared it would cause her signature line to lose cachet.
"There was a lot of resistance, but I did it anyway. I used to say my brand was for everyone, but it really wasn't." She's not concerned, she said, with "the few . . . who are offended that I'm accommodating women who make up the majority of the population."
Designers whose bread and butter rests on their ability to create an aura of cool exclusivity (basically, the bulk of designers seen on the runway, save brands with lifestyle extensions, such as Michael Kors and Calvin Klein) worry that sallying into the market will dilute their brand's mystique and, ultimately, their sales. Prada designer Miuccia Prada may have had these concerns in mind when she stated that she would not sell clothes over a size 10.
And it's on these loftiest of perches that the hypocrisy of the fashion industry seems most glaring. Some of the world's most lauded designers and fashion critics are -- or have at one time been -- too broad in the beam to fit a leg into the designs they create and coo over.
Still, compassion is in short supply. When Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, who spent most of his adult life battling a serious weight problem, created a capsule collection for H&M in 2004, the newly svelte designer was incensed that the retailer manufactured the collection in larger sizes. "What I designed was fashion for slender and slim people," he said. And in an interview in the March issue of Harper's Bazaar, he sniffed, "The body has to be impeccable . . . if it's not, buy small sizes and less food." Issues, indeed.
While it was heartening to see that Vogue's influential editor Anna Wintour styled plus-size British chanteuse Adele for this year's Grammy Awards, we probably won't be seeing the singer on the cover of the magazine any time soon ("Most of the Vogue girls are so thin, tremendously thin, because Miss Anna don't like fat people," Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley told Oprah Winfrey in 2005.)
Whitney Thompson, the only plus-size winner of "America's Next Top Model, " said: "I just want to see a size 6 model once on a runway." A perfectly proportioned 5 foot 10 inches tall who wears a size 10 or 12, depending on the garment, she's the first plus-size model to win Tyra Banks' TV modeling competition, though growing up in Florida, she considered herself to be on the slender side. "I'm not a plus-size person, I'm a plus-size model," noted the 21-year-old. "On the street, I'm skinny. At castings, I'm a cow."
What? No 4s?
But it doesn't take a casting call to make plus-size women feel like cultural lepers. They just have to cruise into any of L.A.'s trendiest boutiques, which create the illusion that this is a town of size 0s and 2s. Fraser Ross, owner of the Kitson boutiques, said he wishes more trendy brands would manufacture 12s and 14s -- but he adds that he doesn't have the square footage to carry true plus-sizes.
"Stores feel they don't want to give in to women with more flesh," Emme said. "There's this idea of slovenliness and all those stereotypes and myths that have been embraced since the '50s. It's ridiculous."
Certainly, there are enough retailers out there to ensure that plus-size women won't be walking around naked any time soon. But resources for fuller-figured women looking to follow trends (and even dabble in the avant-garde) are close to nil. The perception in the industry, said Cohen and Pally, is that full-figured women have less disposable income, and are less concerned with current styles.
This may or may not be another Catch-22. Did the demographic give up on fashion before fashion gave up on the demographic? Or was it the other way around?
Jaye Hersh, owner of the L.A. boutique Intuition on West Pico Boulevard, discovered that the fashion-conscious plus-size customer -- who has money to spend -- is one of the most underserved markets around when she started stocking designer jeans in sizes 32 to 38, and upping her inventory of one-size-fits-all merchandise.
What started as a slow trickle of customers has ballooned into a voracious new client base. " 'Enthusiastic' is an understatement," she said of the reception. The business has helped buoy Hersh's company, while other boutiques in L.A. have shuttered en masse this past year.
Similar tales of success would no doubt blossom should more companies decide to start thinking big.
Emme, who was once called a "fatty" by a photographer who refused to shoot her (she was 5 foot 11 inches tall and a size 10), said responsiveness to the average woman can't come quickly enough. "The market has to change -- fashion can't be just for the exclusive few," she said. "We're responsible for ourselves. They're responsible for clothing us."
Fashion's invisible woman - Los Angeles Times
Not sure quite where to put this.
"Creepy, like when Tom Cruise laughs." - Bloodhound Gang
"They can take our ignorance when they pry it from our cold dead minds." - Stephen Colbert
Im ashamed to say what I did for a klondike bar...
What fat ass is making Wal-Mart the #1 plus size plus size clothing store. The article left out stores like Macy's, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue..and a plethora of other stores that carry plus size fashions.
I Bleed Purple-Baltimore and Proud!
The fact that a size 14 is even considered a "plus size" is the root of the problem.
Why do people say "Grow some balls"? Balls are weak and sensitive! If you really wanna get tough, grow a vagina! Those things take a pounding! -Betty White
Eh... unless they're tall, or otherwise have long arms. My husband is pretty much relegated to department stores or Big and Tall shops and they don't seem to carry any modern fitted tops with long arms and torsos.When it comes to shopping, the average American man has it made. At 189.8 pounds and a size 44 regular jacket, he can wear Abercrombie & Fitch, American Apparel or Armani. Department stores, mall retailers and designer boutiques all cater to his physique -- even when it's saddled with love handles, a sagging chest or a moderate paunch. In menswear, shlubby is accommodated.
An American 14, though, which is a British 18 by most accounts. Here a 14 is generally considered the very beginning of the plus sizes, and I think it's reasonable. I barely need a 14 now, and I'm nowhere near what I consider slim or in my best shape, not to mention five months pregnant. I'd have to consider it a plus size, if just.The fact that a size 14 is even considered a "plus size" is the root of the problem.
Last edited by Tati; March 15th, 2009 at 08:20 PM.
If you reveal your secrets to the wind you should not blame the wind for revealing them to the trees.
- Kahlil Gibran
Menswear is truly weird. Unlike with women's sizes, if a guy is short and becomes a fatass, he can find stuff easily. But do you know how hard it is to find pants in a 34-36 length if the waist size isn't at least the same? And in most Big and Tall stores, the waist sizes start at like 44-46. Talk about a needle in a haystack. But it's become enough of a pain in the ass that it got my husband off his.
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"I don't have pet peeves. I have major psychotic fucking hatreds, okay". ~George Carlin
There are fashions for large women. Most high end stores have quite a bit, and you can get some deals sorting through the sale racks. There is also Torrid, Lane Bryant, and whole host of specialty stores. Old Navy is a good place to shop for those sizes as well.
Seems like these people just aren't opening their eyes, or have some sort of entitlement issues.
Walmart is probably the largest dealer because of their oh so stylish tweety bird shirts. They also have loads of stores in more rural places, particularly in the south, where there tend to be larger folk.
By trying we can easily learn to endure adversity -- another man's I mean. -Mark Twain
i love torrids. but i still think there is atleast less plus size style clothes then the other. i think there should be more style kind of then ones that are plain ugly.
I don't think it's asking too much to be able to walk into any store that sells clothing and find something that 1) fits and 2) doesn't make me look or feel like a 2nd class citizen.
If clothing makers can go the extra distance to ensure our toddlers have their own line of hooker wear, I don't see why they can't extend themselves to cloth the average woman.
I can't believe a 14 is considered "full figure"!
"Everyone is tired of seeing the Kardashians “taking” things: Miami, New York, divorce papers, men’s dignity, big black penises. Just stop." -Stefanie Williams
being 6'2" and having long legs is a pain in the ass for me.. finding pants that fit are near impossible. if you have a wide waist, they assume you have this ginirmous circus ass so you're left with half a foot of material in the seat
I am from the American CIA and I have a radio in my head. I am going to kill you.
the reason Walmart is #1, is because the plus sized clothes are affordable, compared to say, Lane Bryant. That doesnt mean they have nicer clothes, its just crappier clothes that people can afford.
Well, the whore apples sure didn't fall far from the whore tree. Sylkyn
What about Fashion Bug Plus...
I Bleed Purple-Baltimore and Proud!
don't like them but again i rather spend more money on lane Bryant's jeans then walmarts cause they last longer
the article has a point that there is very little high end product for plus size women.
there are lots of low to moderate brands that are stylish....but few true designer brands do large sizes. Even most contemporary lines, like Theory or Tahari don't make anything bigger than a size 12.
It's an untapped market. You'd think someone would realize it.
All of God's children are not beautiful. Most of God's children are, in fact, barely presentable.
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