The average woman in the UK is plus size (UK 16/EU 44), but she is woefully underserved. Forecast to account for 22 percent of the UK clothing market in 2022, the plus-size market is growing at a significantly faster rate than the rest of the fashion market. It is forecast to grow at a pace of 5-6 percent per annum between 2017- 2022, compared to 4-5 percent for womenswear over the same period, according to PwC data.
In other parts of Continental Europe, particularly in Germany, Italy and France, women are also having a difficult time finding clothes that have been made with them in mind.
The plus size market is in flux. Brands are taking small steps forward by putting bigger bodies in the fore. However, they are struggling to catch-up as this consumer becomes increasingly vocal and demanding in how she wants to dress.
In the past, retailers have cited increased expense, difficulties designing and lower sell through rates as excuses for not serving this customer better. However, treating the majority of consumers as an afterthought is a very risky move.
The US is still the clear leader in the plus size sector, but there is a misconception in other markets that the need to cater to a plus size customer is unique to the USA. People are getting bigger everywhere. In the UK and Germany, in particular, the rates of overweight people is now similar to the US. In most of Europe it is also increasing. Brands in the EU are realising this now and moving quickly to get up to speed in developing good plus size product. They are also recognising the need to have specialised skill sets and the right tools to create plus product successfully,” says Alvanon senior consultant and plus size specialist Alice Rodrigues.
As retailers and brands start to make more considered steps into the space, the scope of the challenge is becoming clear — from difficulties in understanding shape and fit-preference to difficulties around pattern grading.
“The more dimension and shape there is in the three-dimensional body you’re fitting on, the more pattern engineering is required to achieve a good fitting garment,” says Rodrigues.
“The balance and shape of plus garments is different to regular sizes; you can’t grade your way into plus; it must be developed independently of regular sizes. Often, the style lines or proportions may need to be changed slightly in translating a regular size garment to plus.”
She emphasises: “Brands entering into, or wanting to up their game in the plus market, ideally needs a dedicated product development and technical team. The skills required to successfully execute plus apparel are different to regular sizes. If their vendor base is unfamiliar with plus product, they need to anticipate and plan for a learning curve at the outset, including vendor on-boarding, blocks and grading.”
European brands should look to the US for inspiration on how better to serve this demographic. With years of experience in the plus size space many successful US brands have learnt how to best serve this key consumer sector.
For retailers opting to move into the space, one of the biggest challenges is how do we fit as many of our customers in the best way possible
For this group of consumers, going to a store can be an incredibly frustrating experience, with 72 percent of the millennial women surveyed at US event theCURVYcon 2019 saying they are unhappy with the products offered by retailers in their size.
Frustrations among this cohort take on many forms, but the most prevalent challenge is fit, with 61 percent of those surveyed saying that this is where they need to improve, while 34 percent said that the volume of items on offer needed to improve.
Alvanon CEO Janice Wang says: “Companies don’t fit on every single size, because we have to industrialise the way that clothing is made. But if retailers don’t have the data sets to make those mathematical algorithms, it’s very difficult for them.”
Similarly, Liz Muñoz, the CEO of plus size brand Torrid, said that when the business decided to go vertical, the most important thing was that it fitted young, sexy and cool. “The CEO before me said if that’s what you believe, go into the fit room and don’t come out until you have nailed fit. I did not come out for three and a half years. I must have fit 40,000 garments. I learned what worked. Every rule as a pattern maker had to be broken.”
As bodies get larger, assumptions about them become increasingly challenging as where fat sits varies by ethnicity and age.
Muñoz said: “We use Alvanon, who have been incredibly helpful in helping us understand that bigger girls are not always hourglass. I remember sitting with Alvanon and hearing that they had measured a lot of Latinas, and they discovered in their measurements that we are not hourglass, which means we put on weight in a lot of different places and this has been a huge influence for us.”
Similarly, Good American co-founder Emma Grede said that when she designed her first collection for the brand, she designed with an hourglass shape in mind and only used two fit models, but she has now evolved her strategy to have 10 fit models - to ensure that fit represents the different ways that fat falls on the body.
For businesses operating in this space, there is a clear opportunity to improve fit in a number of key areas. In the Alvanon survey 56 percent and 51 percent of millennial women say they find it difficult to buy bottoms and jeans, respectively.
Brands also need to help plus size women to understand their own body shape. Some 81 percent of the women’s bodies scanned did not match up with their self-professed body shape.
For retailers who use body shape as a means of helping women understand what will fit and suit them, this should come as a serious wake-up call. There is a tremendous amount of work that can be done in order to help women make better clothing choices while helping to reduce return rates.
While brands need to work on creating strategies that lead to better fitting products, they also need to work on communications strategies that help their customers to understand what their body shape actually looks like.
Designers creating for plus size women should look beyond products that seek to emphasise a largely non-existent hourglass shape. Rather they should recognise and celebrate the diversity of shapes that plus-size women’s bodies actually come in.
Create with individuality in mind
For businesses serving this customer, it’s important to ensure that strategies emphasise the same diversity of interest and taste as the rest of the market.
When asked what retailers could do to improve, one survey respondent simply said: “I just want the same styles as regular sizes.”
Retailers have an opportunity to step up for the average woman, who happens to be a size UK 16 (EU 44) and above, by normalising her experience and making her feel beautiful through the products they make.
When brands aren’t able to fit a garment properly, it has the capacity to harm the confidence and well-being of the women that they’re serving.
Muñoz said that if people are fussing with their garments all day, that is a constant reminder that there is something wrong with them, and “what we don’t say as big girls is: whoever made this is an idiot, they don’t know what they’re doing.” Instead, they blame themselves. “It was so incredibly important for us to figure that out, making that focus on fit, that meant women got to wear clothes that were young and sexy like they should be.”
When asked to define their style in their own words, theCURVYcon 2019 attendees responded with unique definitions, ranging from “minimalist hood goth”, to boho, conservative, cute, casual and trendy; this consumer is crying out for options that speak to their individual preferences.
Similarly, when asked what body parts they chose to emphasise, there was also a diversity of perspectives. Many women said their upper bodies, while others celebrate their bottoms, waists, legs and hips (chart on next page). For retailers and brands, this means that there is no one “right way” to design for this cohort, and strategies around fit will need to be developed alongside a true understanding of your customer’s preferences.
Innovative brands are working towards this, speaking on a panel at theCURVYcon 2019, Good American co-founder Emma Grede said: “We are in a time where we all talk about female empowerment, female choice, body positivity, but are still very dictated to in terms of what a plus size body should be allowed to wear.”
She said that being new to working in plus size meant that she didn’t have any preconceptions of what people might like. “What I found very quickly with Good American, was that the people with experience were the ones saying don’t do the lace-up jeans in a size 24, or do less. But it was the first thing to sell out — it was the customer voting for more daring, more fashion-forward items. The choice has always been made for me - the customer is there, she is voting for what she wants and it’s been an incredible education for us.”
Education becomes key
As the number of plus size consumers is set to continue to grow at twice the rate of the rest of the market, there need to be more designers who are able to design well for this community.
For instance, Wang says, that Alvanon has tried to give universities plus sized fit forms and the universities said they didn’t want them. “What does that say about their commitment to the next generation of plus size designers? If they could just take a plus mannequin to work with, that would least be a start.”
According to Alvanon data, in the last seven years, from 34 fashion schools globally, 963 forms were purchased, of which only 15 were plus size forms, making up only 1.5 percent of academic form sales.
The future of plus size will require more normalisation to prevent the average plus size woman feeling discriminated against when she goes to get dressed.
Dia + Co co-founder Nadia Boujarwah said the next chapter of life for the plus sector will not be to rely on the “courage of individual women”, but for the world to begin to change, so that “it does not require boldness and courage to go and live our lives fully.This is really about addressing sizes and making sure it’s not radical for us to be able to do all of the things we want to do.”
To achieve this, there will need to be systemic change from the industry across many fronts — not just in how we design. It will require businesses to extend how they view plus size from UK size 16/18-26 (EU 44/46-54) through to UK 30 (EU 58) and beyond.
For efforts in plus size to truly succeed, they will require businesses to think beyond product and to bring plus size women into their businesses and marketing across all kinds of roles.
Muñoz says that Torrid needs to work on, “inclusivity for real” which means it is listening to feedback from customers that say it doesn’t have bigger girls in its marketing, that it doesn’t have girls that are shaped like them. “Not everybody is hourglass, some women have a belly,” and businesses need to ensure that women can see: ‘how is this item going to look on me’?”
For Grede, this is already a reality for Good American, which photographs products on every size. This is something that she says has paid huge dividends for the business. “If a size 20 woman is coming onto the site, she doesn’t want to see an item on a size two,” Grede emphasises.
Additionally, retail strategies require that plus size women have associates that look like them and understand their specific needs in-store. Muñoz says that having women who understand the product and your body is “transformational”, explaining how she walked out of a Torrid store, having bought five dresses after 20 years of thinking they didn’t flatter her.
As retailers work to remain relevant through the retail apocalypse, knowing the reality of your customers true shape and preference remains key. Not doing so, means you’re leaving significant amounts of money on the table and risking alienating consumers.
“Every single woman should have the right to feel strong in her own body,” said Wang.
Five key takeaways
- 36 percent of women scanned thought they were hourglass, 0 percent were.
- 81 percent of self-identified body shapes did not match with body scans.
- The plus size consumer has an individual personality and wants to feel catered to. Her tastes are as diverse as regular sized consumers.
- Design educators need to lead by example and learn to design for plus size so they can teach the next generation.
- The majority of women are plus sized; building successful strategies that service them is a significant business opportunity.