En español | While the newly energized women’s movement has put the spotlight on a lot of serious issues lately (#MeToo, the gender pay gap) there’s one you may not have noticed: the right to dress stylishly and affordably, no matter what your size.
Until recently, few fashion retailers wanted to admit they had an older customer, or an ample one — which is surprising given that the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education reports that the average American woman now wears between a Misses size 16 and 18.
Women over the age of 50 have been hit with a double whammy when it came to clothes shopping. Not only did designers ignore them because of their age, but often because of their size, too. A 2017 research report from IBISWorld noted that "Women between the ages of 46 and 64 have the highest concentration of plus-size women and the most purchasing power of any other age group," making them a group that marketers should covet.
There were exceptions — notably Lane Bryant and Talbots on the affordable end of the spectrum, and Eileen Fisher and Marina Rinaldi at the higher end. But stylish pickings for curvy women were slim, to say the least.
But all that is changing, and we may have some younger women to thank for it.
A new standard of beauty
Julie Gilhart, former fashion director of Barneys New York, suggests that outspoken, body-positive influencers, such as plus-size models Ashley Graham (who has appeared on the covers of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit issue and Vogue) and Candice Huffine (who graced the cover of Elle) have played a big part in expanding fashion choices for women size 14 and up. The high profile of certain curvaceous celebrities such as Kim Kardashian and Oprah Winfrey may have helped indirectly, too.
Gilhart, a consultant for 11 Honoré, a luxury fashion website for women who wear sizes 14-20 that launched in 2017, is seeing an industry shift to embrace this change, which she prefers to call "inclusive sizing" instead of "plus-size," a term some women find pejorative. "We are living in an era when people have a voice," she says. Asked why designers are more receptive to designing for larger sizes now, after so many years of resistance, she notes, "There’s a different standard of beauty. It’s not about weight or size. It’s about confidence."
Sasha Iglehart, former deputy fashion director of Glamour, has covered the plus-size industry for years. But it was in 2016, when the magazine partnered with retailer Lane Bryant to produce a capsule collaboration of affordable, fashionable plus-size clothes (Glamour X Lane Bryant), that she really began to champion the idea of helping women of all sizes to dress stylishly: "Not only is this the moment for great fashion for all women, but it’s a lucrative opportunity for the fashion industry. To not address size-inclusivity today just doesn’t make sense."
The 14-and-up customer wants fashion
Focusing on this woman has surprised Gilhart: "She is so confident! She doesn’t want second-best. She wants to wear the same designers and styles as everyone else." According to Laura Jacobs, chief marketing officer and senior vice president of Loft, when the company upped its size range online (from 0-18 to 0-26) in February, it sold out in two weeks. “Our design team is really passionate about Plus,” Jacobs acknowledges. "We were already offering Petites, Tall, Maternity. It was a natural extension that bubbled up from our customers. They want the same offerings as the rest — flowy, comfortable, feminine styles."
Jodi Arnold, vice president of design and creative director of Eloquii, says its clientele is eager for of-the-moment trends, such as jumpsuits and off-the-shoulder styles. The biggest challenge, she said, is pricing. "Larger sizes require more fabric and construction details to get the fit right, but you don’t want to pass that cost along to the customer." Earlier this year, Draper James, the contemporary clothing brand founded by Reese Witherspoon, reached out to Eloquii for help in launching Plus in an ongoing collaboration. “It’s all about women supporting women,” says Arnold.
Stores are behind the curve (but getting there)
Many department stores stock the same tried-and-true brands that have long served the plus-size customer — usually online only — but some are requesting certain designers who typically offer sizes 0-10 to expand to 12 and 14. Incremental change is good, but in Iglehart’s opinion, Nordstrom is the one major retailer that "is really walking the walk" by asking vendors to extend sizing up to 16,18 and above — and showcasing these sizes alongside standard sizes instead of segregating them into a separate department. According to Women’s Wear Daily, Nordstrom "has ramped up its extended sizing offering to 30 stores and online, with 100 brands involved in the initiative."
New ways to shop online
Online clothing rental sites are expanding options, too. Rent the Runway, which focuses on clothing for special occasions, and GwynnieBee, whose niche is more about everyday dressing, now stock inventory in sizes up to 22. Dia&Co offers a hand-picked style box that caters exclusively to plus-size women. And Stitch Fix, the online personal styling service, created a "curvy style council" that advised on the 2017 launch of a Plus collection to a waiting list of 75,000 women. Since its inception, Stitch Fix has worked with 15 brands to create first-ever collections for plus-size women, including a new offering from Karl Lagerfeld Paris.
Clare Benzian, the director of Plus for Stitch Fix Women, says the desire for beautiful clothes isn't constrained by one's size. "Personalization has to be the new normal in retail, and that means putting the client at the center of everything you do and making great style and fit accessible to women of all sizes."