A GOOD fit is everything, cheap sexy clothes stylists often counsel, but in assessing its market America’s fashion business appears to have mislaid the measuring tape. A frequently-cited study done a few years ago by Plunkett Research, a market-research firm, found that 67% of American women were “plus-size”, meaning size 14 or larger. That figure will not have changed much, but in 2016, only 18% of clothing sold was plus-size, according to NPD Group, another research firm.
Designers and retailers have long thought of the plus-size segment as high-risk. Predicting what these customers will buy can be difficult, as they tend to be more cautious about styles. Making larger clothes is more expensive; higher costs for fabric cannot always be passed on to consumers. In turn, plus-size women shopped less because the industry was not serving them well. “We have money but nowhere to spend it,” says Kristine Thompson, who runs a blog called Trendy Curvy and has nearly 150,000 followers on Instagram, a social-media site.
At last, that is changing. Fast-fashion brands, including Forever 21 and a fashion line sold in partnership with Target, a giant retailer, have expanded their plus-size collections. Lane Bryant, a plus-size retailer, and Prabal Garung, a designer, have done the same. In March Nike extended its “X-sized” sportswear range.
Revenue in the plus-size category increased by 14% between 2013 and 2016, compared with growth of 7% for all apparel. Takings were $21.3bn last year. Social media has played an important role in changing attitudes in the fashion business, says Madeline Jones, editor and co-founder of PLUS Model Magazine.
Nonetheless, designer brands still hold back (Walmart sells the most plus-size apparel). Some brands, such as Michael Kors, do sell plus-size ranges but do not advertise them or display them on websites. For those that are willing to take a chance, several internet startups that deliver personally styled outfits to individuals, including plus-size women, offer data to “straight-size” designers. Gwynnie Bee, Stitch Fix and Dia & Co, for example, share information with designers on preferred styles and fits. Tracy Reese, a designer known for creating Michelle Obama’s dress for the Democratic National Convention in 2012, is one brand that recently enlisted Gwynnie Bee’s help to create a new plus-size collection. Gwynnie Bee prompted the label to create bigger patterns and more appealing designs.
Not all plus-size shoppers are convinced. Laura Fuentes, a hairstylist from Abilene, Texas, says that many upmarket department stores still keep their plus-size clothing sections poorly organised, badly stocked and dimly lit, if they stock larger clothes at all. Yet such complaints should be taken with a pinch of salt, says Ms Thompson. “We’re nowhere near where we should be but we’ve made progress,” she says.