Retail

Tapping The Power In The Plus-Size Apparel Market

The average American woman’s size doesn’t much resemble the average size of a runway model — a fact well-known to any woman who ever stood in a dressing room trying on jeans and wondering what space alien they were cut for.

The average female shopper in the U.S. is wearing a size 14 or 16 — 35 percent to 60 percent of women depending on whose figures you like — but most mainstream retailers do not carry clothes above a size 14.

And it’s not just the number on the label. It’s also the cut of the clothing — most clothes are designed differently when the sizes go up. Women’s fashion is instead modeled around a “perfect” (hour-glass) size 4 and are sized up and down accordingly.

“I don’t see enough brands that are really breaking boundaries for plus-size fashion, that are actually designing for plus-size bodies, or for a diversity of shapes,” Kat Eves, a Los Angeles-based stylist who works exclusively with plus-size men and women, told The Wall Street Journal. “It’s always mirroring straight size trends. Who’s the Chanel of plus?”

Today’s fashion standards are often criticized. Tim Gunn made news last year with his editorial bemoaning of the state of plus-sized women’s fashion, and the industry logic that perpetuates scarcity.

The fashion industry’s line of reasoning: Plus-sized women spend less on clothes because they’re less interested in fashion.

A fact that people like Tim Gunn and Brian Beitler, chief marketing officer of Lane Bryant, says is true on paper, but overlooks the reality of plus-size women’s fashion. The choices are bad, and the consumer lacks good options to buy.

“I’ve spoken to many designers and merchandisers about this. The overwhelming response is, ‘I’m not interested in her.’ Why? ‘I don’t want her wearing my clothes.’ Why? ‘She won’t look the way that I want her to look.’ They say the plus-size woman is complicated, different and difficult, that no two size 16s are alike. Some haven’t bothered to hide their contempt,” Gunn wrote last year.

As a strategy for apparel, the problem — aside from being exclusionary — is also kind of foolish. Even if one prefers to design for the microcosm of human females who are 6 ft. tall and weigh 97 pounds, the reality of the marketplace is that size 14’s and 16’s greatly outnumber size 0’s and 2’s. Refusing to design or sell for those consumers is essentially telling the bulk of the female population that their money is no good.

In the world of digital reinvention — particularly in apparel retail — big brands that knowingly leave money on the table run the risk of encountering a thirsty startup or two who have no such compunction about making money.

And, according to some estimates, a lot of money is out there to be made: plus-size clothing is a $21 billion industry.

“We’re seeing small, independent brands be much more successful in this market than larger brands and retailers,” says Marshal Cohen, a retail industry analyst with NPD Group. “The small, new, innovative players are generally beating out the big behemoths that are sort of stuck in the old way of doing fashion retail.”

Some brands have become household names: ModCloth stands out for its extensive selection of plus-size women’s fashion and its frequent use of plus-size models.

The fastest-growing startup in the class is Eloquii, which started out as the plus-size label of The Limited.

But The Limited didn’t want it. As of 2013, the suddenly struggling mall brand decided to cut ties to invest money into more profitable channels. But a few employees kept the brand alive by finding investors to purchase Eloquii as a standalone company. It relaunched in 2014 as an independent plus-size fashion eTailer.

“[Staff] really saw an opportunity for plus-size fashion rather than just taking The Limited stuff and sizing it up,” Eloquii CEO Mariah Chase noted.

Eloquii has doubled its sales every year for the last three, reaching $80 million in 2017.

The Limited has since gone bankrupt.

Because as designer Ashley Tipton noted on the eve of her private clothing line, the idea that the fashion industry can or even should made money doesn’t makes sense in the 21st century, when customers have a much greater ability to tailor their look.

“I was focused on how the pieces move and how they’d work for different body types. I wanted to be able to accommodate everyone, and I wanted everyone to be comfortable. Beauty and fashion is not pain!” She said.

Yet there is peril for the plus-size fashion retailer: Fashion to Figure filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in late November and was in the process of liquidating when it was purchased for $1.4 million by New York & Company.

It is interesting to note that New York & Company, upon that buyout, immediately announced plans to reframe and relaunch Fashion to Figure in early February through an online site and select plus-size stores. As it turn out, $1.4 million is a small investment to make for a chance to snap up a piece of a $21 billion industry.

“We are excited to expand into the plus business with the acquisition of Fashion to Figure’s intellectual property, as we believe that the business the Kaplans built has true brand potential and has a brand platform that is compatible with New York & Company,” said Gregory Scott, CEO, New York & Company, which operates 459 stores. “We believe Fashion to Figure has strong name recognition with the plus-size consumer and a very loyal consumer base, with a database of approximately 500,000 customers, that we believe we can effectively leverage to grow the brand, particularly online, to drive profitable future growth. We see an opportunity to enter into an underserved and growing segment of the women’s apparel market.”

The world is probably not at great risk of ceasing and desisting their designs for the perfectly petite. Karl Lagerfeld famously (if perhaps apocryphally) noted that the closer a model’s resemblance to a clothes hanger the better.

But for some designers and brands, the market for the perfectly petite looks pretty saturated, while the greater body of plus-size consumers are just waiting for someone to give them something to spend on.

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