Too often, if a retailer sells plus size clothing, they appear to disregard it by regulating it to a corner of their store or a separate online tab. Traditionally, clothing brands have received criticism for not only their limited selection of plus size clothing, but also for the form obscuring appearance of the plus size clothing they do offer. Many women and men struggle in the face of society's narrow standards of beauty. However, in response to changing beauty ideals and the body positive movement, many brands are expanding their size ranges and embracing more diverse bodies in their advertising.
In some ways, finding plus sizes is now easier than ever. Major retailers like Target, Asos, and Misguided have plus sized sections, and other brands like Universal Standard have clothing in sizes from 00-40. However, progress does not occur overnight and implementing a wider variety of sizes is turning out to be a challenge for several apparel companies, especially in the face of economic downturns.
This is evidenced by how many retailers cut their size ranges during the pandemic. On August 30, 2021, Old Navy launched a body positivity initiative, Bodyquality, that brought sizes 0-30 into all stores. However, in less than a year, they scaled back sizing due to falling sales and a large unsold inventory of small and large sizes. While the brand still provides the entire range of sizes online, they closed this program in 75 of their more than 1,100 U.S. stores. The same year, Loft reduced its largest size from 26 to 18, and M.M. Lafleur announced plans to pull back on plus sized styles. Many retailers explained their decision to cut larger sizes first because, the truth is, providing a larger breadth of sizes involves extra costs and procedures, such as finding specialized designers, hiring additional fit models, and staffing for advertising.
A brand’s struggle to offer size inclusivity may scare away some large retailers, but a business case exists to cater to larger bodies for emerging niche brands. Good American and Universal Standards serve as examples of successful inclusive companies. Small brands like C'est D and Coyan also do well with extended sizes, and starting a brand with supporting structures for a plus line is easier from the start than adding one retroactively.
The plus sized market is growing at a 5.9% rate and is anticipated to reach 696.71 million in 2028. Despite this, it remains a largely underserved market.
Nowadays, the average size of a woman is 16 according to the CDC; but still, some stores only offer up to a size 14. In the men’s department, sizes don’t often exceed a 38 waist in store, but the average waist for men is 40. Tall and big customers often struggle to find clothing in their sizes too. Many of these shoppers buy fewer clothes in the first place because of difficult experiences with shopping, but startup fashion designers can find success by creating clothing designs that serve the significant segment of plus sized shoppers. Here’s how:
1. Prepare with a Strong Business Model
Old Navy, despite its challenges, made essential progressive steps in implementing extended sizes, such as:
- Rearranging store layouts
- Purchasing plus sized mannequins
- Featuring plus size models in marketing materials
- Working with manufacturers capable of extended sizes
Their misstep was failing to account for potential leftover inventory. It’s difficult to do size forecasting.
One advantage small brands have over large retailers is that they can do small batch manufacturing, which makes it easier to reorder sizes that do well. These brands can also sell exclusively larger sizes if the expenses of large sizes are too much for a beginning business.
2. Create Desirable and Diverse Clothing Designs and Styles
Unfortunately, many companies fail in this regard. Plus size fashion bloggers have noted that many stores have recurring design elements available mainly in plus size clothing. They perceive these styles as indicating to them and others that society only wants people of their size to wear in certain styles. These design elements include the recurrence of quarter length sleeves, elastic shirts, handkerchief and shark hemlines, and boxy tops. A robust and impassioned comment section tends to echo these types of posts, full of free customer trend research on how much this market segment hates loud and big patterns, clothes too neon or too dark, and cold shoulders.
By now it should be obvious that good fit and design are crucial for plus size shoppers. Like anyone else they want to feel comfortable and confident in what they wear and part of that includes offering them styles that everyone else is wearing. Do market research on these shoppers, and learn what other plus size focused brands do well or poorly.
Also, take care to focus on fit. This means using a larger sample model – a sample model sized 2 or 4 won’t work on sizes 10 or above. Furthermore, research pattern making specifically for plus sized bodies, and use a plus sized dress models for draping and fitting.
High quality fabric is also crucial as it affects fit and feel. While affordable fast fashion retailers have led the way on making clothing accessible, there is plenty of room for more luxury plus sized clothing.
3. Avoid Insensitive Marketing and Messaging
Messaging can be a difficult tightrope to walk when advertising plus size. The words “plus size”, “curvey”, and “extended sizes” illustrate the taboo and contempt for fatter bodies, and despite the euphemism, plus size has become a highly charged, nebulous label with a lot of debate when it comes to messaging.
Some assert that brands advertising sizes higher than 12 or 14 as plus others the customers who fit these sizes, while some feel that this category is helpful for those specifically seeking a brand with their sizes.
Ultimately, though, a lot of it falls back to authenticity. How hard will your brand work to build trust with shoppers of all sizes?
A top way to build this trust is strong representation. How many plus sized models and clothing designs will you feature? Will you widely feature them on marketing and your fashion brand’s website? How diverse are the bodies of your “plus sized” models? Are you representing bodies outside the accepted circle of plus sized, such as women with stomachs and double chins? Calvin Klein received heat for advertising their plus sized line with a size 10 model and Zara used two slim models to sell body curve jeans.
Other brands prioritized their plus size shoppers in other ways. For example, Yitty, Lizzo’s activewear brand, offers sizes up to 6x and starts there as well when stores typically start at the smallest size.
Adding Plus Sized Fashion Can Lead to Success
Plus size is a large gap in the U.S. clothing market that needs to be filled. According to Edita data, only 10% of online mass market clothing products are considered plus size despite more than 67% of female online shoppers identifying as size 14 to 34 according to Plunkett Research. Similarly, men also struggle to find extended sizes – there are even fewer resources for men’s larger fits.
The gaps of the market are giving emerging designer brands quick successes. For example, Christian Siriano said, “...Adding plus sizes to my line tripled my business.” Meanwhile, Eloquii – a plus size line started by The Limited – relaunched in 2015 as an independent brand, even as its flagship brand remained shuttered. Since relaunch, Eloquii doubled its sales for three years and reached a value of $80M dollars in 2017. In 2018, Walmart noticed its success and bought it for $100M. Middlemen clothing brands that connect shoppers with larger sizes have also found significant success. For example, underwear subscription service Panty Drop increased its sales by 20% when they expanded their sizes from 3x to 6x.
While there are many considerations to creating a plus sized collection, it has great untapped potential.