These days, Ashley Graham is a mainstream super model. The first plus-size model to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Issue, in 2016, she is described as an ambassador of the “curvy” movement. She has since authored a memoir, “A New Model,” and her image has been the model for a Barbie doll that reflects the “real beauty” standard. Indeed, it’s become the norm to find plus models — Sabina Karlsson, Jordyn Woods come to mind — walking the runways, flaunting their round derrieres and full thighs at the industry’s place to be seen: New York Fashion Week (NYFW).
Today, plus-size models and apparel are represented at a scale that was unheard of until a few years ago. You can see this in print advertising, such as with L’Oreal’s True Match foundation campaign and Jessamyn Stanley’s U by Kotex campaign, which corresponds to the work retailers are doing to grow their plus markets — think J.C. Penney, which partnered with Tracee Ellis Ross on an extended size collection. Meanwhile, inclusive designers Christian Siriano, Michael Kors and others have added plus-size clothes to their collections and have been hugely successful in the celebrity and corporate markets.
According to the most recent figures available from market research firm NPD, U.S. sales of women’s plus-size apparel reached $21.4 billion in 2016. The category is forecast to grow substantially faster than the overall U.S. apparel market, at a rate of 6 percent year over year.
Despite this progress, the apparel market is still behind in feeding the demand that is the growing American plus-size market. “The underserved full-figured and plus size market continues to be one of the retail’s major merchandising mistakes,” says Marshall Cohen, industry advisor, The NDP Group.
This four-part series of articles will look at the opportunities that exist in the plus market. Forecasting the growth of the fashion industry can be tricky, as it’s a fickle industry, where trends change daily; this series of articles will work to uncover specific gaps in this niche ripe for growth and expansion.
Part 1: What’s Underneath
The average bra size in the United States is 38C, according to the June 2018 Bra Sizing Report from market research firm The NDP Group. And according to the New York Times, Women’s Wear Daily, NY Daily News, and prominent bra retailers such as Tomima Edmark of HerRoom, size DD is the new average.
In 2017, U.S. women’s bras sales racked up $7 billion market, with full-figured sizes (38+) a rapidly growing segment, accounting for 43 percent of sales. As a result, a large range of notable brands and retailers including Nordstrom and J.C. Penney have expanded into larger-size lines, offering the HerRoom and Bare Necessities brands, for example, and Hanes has upped its game in the plus-size market as well.
However, it has been the independent brands that have truly been able to take advantage of this unbridled opportunity to service the largely untapped market of the “average woman.” Fortunately, these bra industry leaders are ahead of the curve. Not only are there more new brands specializing in bras for larger cup sizes, but they are creating new and inventive ways to cater to this new average.
“While we can’t share specific sales data, we can share that more than 1.3 million women were on the waitlist for the 24 new sizes we launched in June 2018,” says ThirdLove co-founder Heidi Zak. ThirdLove uses real measurements from real women to create its products.
Frustrated by lousy bras and bad fits, Zak decided to build her own damn bra. She teamed up with experienced bra designer Ra’el Cohen, who created innovative designs based on breast size and shape. Together, they launched ThirdLove’s first bra — and a small revolution — in 2013. “We have witnessed first-hand how women have collectively embraced brands that stand for something, that try to make the world a better place and that focus on inclusivity instead of exclusivity. With 74 sizes, including half-cup sizing, and five naked shades, we are making progress, but we will not feel like we have done our jobs until we offer a bra for every body,” she said. ThirdLove offers a high tech breast-measuring app that can give you an accurate bra sizing from a picture of your breast, essentially revolutionizing the way bras are measured and purchased.
For years, the industry's biggest brands had based the molds of their cups on a single pair of breasts: Dorothy Galligan was a 1970s cabaret singer-turned-bra model who had the most in-demand bust for decades. It turns out, though, that trying to sell a bra online or through an app is a lot more complex than selling a CD. It has, in fact, long been considered impossible. While Zak won't disclose revenue, she says the company ships approximately 50,000 bras a month, and the average customer makes her second purchase within 45 days. Similar to other online direct-to-consumer companies such as razor startup Harry's, which now sells in Target, ThirdLove is using offline retail as a tool for brand exposure. Last year, it began selling in Bloomingdale's, and will soon sell at Nordstrom.
“We’ve seen many brands in our industry and others begin to embrace inclusivity in just the past year, and we anticipate continuing to see the same investment moving forward. However, the brands that inauthentically relied on inclusivity to drive awareness and sales will likely deprioritize this work as their customers catch on. Overall, we are excited to see so much investment in diversity and inclusion efforts across the industry because it was very overdue,” says Zak.Unlike pants or dresses, which can be scaled up using the same template, new bra sizes need to be specially designed and engineered, with special fabric, wires, hooks, straps and more.
Impish Lee launched April 2015, and offers a whopping 27 trillion design options that you can choose from before you buy, with their 25 designs and over 50 fabrics.
“The brands that offer bras for full-busted and plus-size women know the intricacies of bra making and how complex of a garment a bra is. They wouldn't be producing them if they didn't! I think the issue lies in the fact that there are just so many sizes — we offer 90! — and even within those sizes, women come in different shapes as well,” says Noelle Lee Ventresca, CEO of Impish Lee.
“So two women with the same size may not be comfortable in the same bra, which leads to an ongoing strife in trying to create the perfect bra for everyone. It just doesn't exist.” Impish Lee is a customized intimate apparel brand founded on Etsy. Owned and operated by sisters Noelle Lee and Kali Taylor Ventresca, Impish Lee has evolved from a small handmade boutique lingerie line into a fully customizable intimate apparel brand.
The fitting process can be done online in four steps that involve selecting a design and choosing from a list of curated fabrics and finishes. You can essentially design your own bra. “There is opportunity for brands to continue growing their size ranges, because the demand is there. There is also a severe need for more diversity and inclusivity in marketing, and it has always been very apparent to us that as a company, it is our responsibility to continually make movement in this direction,” says Noelle Lee.
Adore Me is another retailer that aims to change the way plus-size women are treated. Sharon Klapka, Adore Me's director of business and brand development, openly disclosed to Business Insider that Adore Me aims to “slay Victoria's Secret,” a retailer known for its thin models and sizing. Victoria’s Secret's parent company, L Brands, holds nearly 61.8 percent of the lingerie market share, according to IBIS World.
But Adore Me has seen exponential growth over the past few years. In 2012, the company brought in $1.1 million. By 2013, that figure was up to $5.6 million, and by 2014, $16.2 million. Inc. named Adore Me its No. 2 retail company and its No. 14 overall company on its Inc. 5000 list, pointing out that Adore Me has grown an impressive 15,606 percent in just three years.
In short, these new inclusive players are on pace to give the traditional brands a run for their money, and are showing just how much opportunity there is for companies ready to create product for women of all shapes and sizes.
Darralynn Hutson is a freelance journalist and blogger at www.stylistssuite.com specializing in diversity in fashion and style.
Editor's Note: The top photo is ThirdLove's Ra'el Cohen.