The Full-Figured Fashion Evolution

3/17/2015
What a difference a few years can make.

For the longest time, most retailers paid little attention to plus-size apparel. Beyond the few stores devoted entirely to the plus-size market, such as Lane Bryant and Avenue, the offerings for the most part were slim (no pun intended),unfashionable, and typically tucked away in the least-trafficked areas of the stores.

One exception to this rule came from some of the luxury department stores such as Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and Saks, yet the high price of this apparel and — prior to the advent of e-commerce — the relatively small number of stores in only the biggest of U.S. cities made these offerings inaccessible to most. And then, even at these locations, customers did not necessarily receive the same customer service as their slighter counterparts.

But that’s all changing, and it’s no wonder. The plus-size women’s clothing business is large and growing, representing almost $18 billion of the $116 billion women’s apparel business, according to the NPD Group. Today, the average woman wears a size 14 (as opposed to a size 8 in 1985), with more than 64 percent of females considered to be plus-sized in the United States.

As retailers wake up to those demographics — and as technology is democratizing retail, allowing smaller start-ups to take up where so many established retailers have left off, the latter are coming to the realization that they ignore this segment of the marketplace at their own peril.

Hot Topic took note relatively early that a large number of fans of its goth- and music-inspired looks were left out of its size range, and opened its line of Torrid stores for plus-sized teens in 2001, while over the past five years, fast-fashion retailers including H&M, Forever 21, Wet Seal, and Mango have rolled out new plus-size lines, and department stores such as Macy’s and J.C. Penney have enlivened their plus-sized collections. Meanwhile, technology has enabled the launch of a new crop of plus-size etailers such as Eloquii and Kiyonna (which also sells in 100 stores nationwide and has a flagship store called the Upstairs Boutique in Anaheim, Calif.) and  marketplaces such as OneStopPlus.com (which sells more than 10,000 products in as many as 70 sizes) to step onto the stage.

Clearly, the plus-size market has made its way into the limelight — both literally and figuratively. You could point to the launch of the first Full Figured Fashion Show, in 2010, by former plus-size model Gwen DaVoe, as the event that really made retailers step up and take note, but perhaps the most significant sign that plus-size apparel has crossed over into the mainstream was the moment when Eden Miller made history in September 2013 by being the first ever plus-size clothing designer with a show in New York Fashion Week.

Apparel checked in recently with Kiyonna and OneStopPlus to hear what they had do say about the evolution of full-figured apparel, some of the controversy that surrounds it, and the technical challenges of producing flattering and fashionable apparel for the plus-sized consumer.

Apparel: Fashion for the plus-size market used to consist primarily of oversized t-shirts and sweat pants, but today it is a thriving part of the fashion scene, with its own fashion shows and fashion models. What has triggered the shift in the industry, and why do so many companies still avoid producing for this market?

Kim Khanbeigi, president and passionate founder, Kiyonna: I believe e-commerce and social media have both played big roles in this shift. If you think about it, before the Internet, we would wonder about things only to a certain extent. Take your average wedding. Before Pinterest, you came up with ideas yourself or got inspired by what you experienced or saw at someone else’s wedding. Today, we can see what millions of brides are doing and we want to be able to be just as creative. We want what they have, and why not? With the Internet and social media, our concept of what we can have is not only expanded, the ability to get it is a click away. The plus-size consumer has voiced her wants and needs and designers are connecting with her on a more personal level each year.

Nancy LeWinter, editorial director, OneStopPlus.com:  It is much more an evolution than a shift, with women of all sizes and shapes becoming more empowered and wanting trendy fashion that fits both their lives and their lifestyles. While many companies are sizing up, real plus size is a matter of proportion, not just size, and that requires an investment. Michael Kors is just one of many designers entering the market.  

Apparel: The always swirling controversy about plus-size fashion models — that they are really not plus-size — received another jolt recently when Calvin Klein announced its first-ever plus-size model, who is only a size 10. What sort of impact does this have on the industry overall? Do you think this type of controversy prevents some brands from pursuing their own plus-sized lines?

LeWinter: The Calvin Klein model actually made an innocent statement that she was the largest model he had ever used, but no one claimed she was plus sized. I think the ‘controversy’ is that everyone would like to see some size democracy and designers using more realistically sized models.  Models were originally moving mannequins and were meant not to compete with the fashion, but now models have evolved and should more appropriately represent women.

Khanbeigi: There will always be controversy until designers show models that really represent the size range they are selling. It’s not economical for designers to show every size model, but showing one that isn’t on the lowest end of the spectrum is good practice. We see brands attempt to introduce plus sizes and fail simply because of the translation of the garment (either the model is too skinny or they use a plus-size model and don’t style her correctly). At Kiyonna, we love our professional models but we know that there are real women of all sizes and shapes who need to be represented as well. With social media sharing and our own pictures of real women, we achieve this representation.

Apparel: What are some of the unique challenges relative to producing for the plus-size market, and what types of technologies can be useful in helping to overcome them?

Jacquie Lupei, head of design and product development, Kiyonna: A unique challenge in producing for the plus-size market is the successful interpretation of trends that emerge on the runway on size 0 and size 2 models, into figure-flattering, well-fitting styles for plus-sized bodies. The right proportions are critical and with a bigger grade between sizes than in standard-sized clothing (Alpha sizing in particular), it is something that has to be thought out carefully. Testing the fit and proportion of different sizes after the initial grading is important to ensure this. Fabric selection is also a bigger challenge for the plus-sized market. The right amount of stretch is key to delivering a good fit and feel for varied body types.

3D imaging technology offered by apparel software companies has become much more advanced over the past few years. It is so exciting to see what it can do — it’s pretty amazing. This technology can help to ease both of the previously mentioned challenges by creating photorealistic 3D garments on an avatar of any customized size. It uses the flat pattern pieces to “sew” the garment onto the avatar’s body while you watch. The fabric characteristics, such as level of stretch, are plugged into the program for a particular style. This can eliminate the need to cut and sew samples to visually check the graded proportions. This is especially helpful for more complexly constructed styles.

LeWinter: The use of fit models is the real difference in properly sizing for plus size. It is a matter of proportion and curves, so more room in the bust does not necessarily mean longer sleeves. That is why Full Beauty uses several fit models to ensure that petite and tall also have the correct proportions for their shapes and well as their sizes. Appropriate fit models ensure this diversity of proportion is recognized and reflected.

Apparel: Is there a difference in the way the plus-sized consumer shops for apparel online vs. her “regular-size” counterparts?

LeWinter: No, I don’t think so. There will always be ‘occasion’ shopping, but we find that the majority of women shop for inspiration and information, as well as the need for something new to wear. The good news is that websites such as FullBeauty.com allow customers to really have fun with fashion, wearing the latest trends without spending a fortune. We also provide blogs and copy that give information and ideas about what, when and how to wear the best looks.

Khanbeigi: The thing is there is no difference in the way she should have to shop, but unfortunately many times it’s the retailer who dictates this. What I mean by that is many retailers online will show a plus-size garment on a model that isn’t plus, so the plus-size consumer is left wondering how that garment will translate when she puts it on. We all want to easily envision ourselves in what we’re thinking of buying — we want the fantasy of the model with hair and makeup and the right styling. What many retailers don’t understand is that there is no fantasy in getting the wrong size. Ever. That is actually quite a nightmare. At Kiyonna, we try to cover all the bases — a professional plus-size model who fits the garment being shown, amazing styling, hair and makeup, and the icing on the cake: a plethora of real women of all sizes we carry (0x-5x) in the same garment.

Apparel: How do you expect the plus-sized market to evolve in the next one to two years?

Khanbeigi: I think we’re going to see more capsule collections by the right designers in the plus market. I think curvy customers want to be able to choose from a bigger selection of apparel to fit the different aspects of their lives. So, I think the plus-size consumer who is getting married will see more bridal choices, the customer going on vacation will have more swim choices, etc. At Kiyonna, our focus has been making curvy women look and feel beautiful since 1996 so I can only speak for Kiyonna when I say our customers will continue to be happy with more choices and the realism with which we present the collection. And, last but not least, as our society continues to become more socially responsible and community focused, I also believe the Kiyonna customer and U.S. customers at large will gravitate toward brands that are ethically produced (we hope in the USA!).

LeWinter: I think more and more designers will enter the market as they get the response and the revenues from plus size, the strongest single market segment. If designers validate the plus-size market, the market will return the compliment and spending will increase. 

Jordan K. Speer is editor in chief of Apparel. She can be reached at [email protected].
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