Niche markets like adaptive, inclusive, and plus-size design map the trails to be blazed for brands and retailers looking for new valuable areas of opportunity, and Trailblazers 10, organized by Alvanon global consultancy firm, invited a parade of game changers to break it all down for a room full of entrepreneurs, creators, and business brains. As Janice Wang, CEO of Alvanon, said in her introduction, “Every single customer is a niche customer.”
Some numbers provided by Deborah Weinswig, Founder & CEO of Coresight Research: 50 percent of women are size 14 or up. The growth of this sector equates to 3.6 times that of other categories. 12.6 percent of Americans are disabled. This boils down to a 43 billion dollar pool of consumers hungry for clothes that have historically been functional but not fashionable. Zappos, Target, and Hilfiger have shown leadership positions in the previously ignored category of adaptive clothing, but expectation for more variety is at an all-time high.
An end to division
Consumers older than millennials accept that plus size offerings sit separately from regular sized fashion, maybe even on a separate floor, but millennials do not, says Polina Veksler, CEO and co-founder of Universal Standard. They reject this old school curation of the fashion space and its gatekeepers. Veksler credits her own lack of fashion background with her ease of sidestepping industry practices that are no longer relevant, despite how set in stone they seem. She sees no reason why a woman who is size 6 and one who is size 32 can’t buy from the same rack, and recalls finding herself in a factory in Peru and having to Google “grading rules” to figure out what factory workers were talking about. Her conclusion? Traditional grading rules were archaic and made no sense for today. She created her own “micro-grading” system which takes into account body shape, and puts a Medium label on size 16 instead of size 6, because it’s a true reflection of society’s medium. “What makes sense to own is very different from what makes sense to rent” adds Jessica Kahan Dvorett, VP Merchandising at subscription rental service, Gwynnie Bee, who explains that she doesn’t do well with basics because larger customers have been craving the statement pieces, the fashion, that for too long was missing.
Plus-size real estate
Becca McCharen of Chromat, who since its 2010 launch has been an inclusivity forerunner, including all body types, shades, and models spanning the gender spectrum on its NYFW runway, admits that only this spring did they receive their first order for Plus Size––from Nordstrom––with sizes ranging from XL to 3X. She finds pricing to be one of the biggest issues as the Plus customer has become used to buying their clothes from the likes of Forever 21 Curve and Chromat isn’t out to compete with that. She finds the lack of standardization in sizing for the larger market confusing but questions if there should indeed be standardization or should sizing be more niche and related to body typology. Although McCharen’s design staff reflect the inclusivity she demonstrates on the runway, she only recently started sketching her designs on a plus size figure, having worked on the traditional straight up and down croquis figure, and says, “Everything looks different when you’re working with more real estate, prints in particular.”
Simon Collins, ex-Dean of Parsons and founder of WeDesign.org, delivered a provocative, passionate talk that was as much earth-scorching as trailblazing, but it made everyone sit a little straighter in their seats. He voiced unambiguous displeasure at being surrounded by mediocrity, at being bombarded with buzzwords attached to brands that are doing nothing new, and believes if we set out to do something, we should do it brilliantly, or not at all. Storytelling is one of the current buzzwords he rails against but reminds us we’re all telling a story every minute, and he, like everyone, is judging it. We don’t need to wait for change to be made by others because everyone wearing clothes is the fashion industry. As consumer participants, we hold the greatest sway. “Do it,” screams a bold red and black sign on the screen behind his head.
Fashion is dignity
The dignity of fashion has historically been missing for the disabled consumer, and this is being addressed not least by Chaitenya Razdan, Founder & CEO, Care + Wear, who in collaboration with BFA students from Parsons developed a hospital gown which, among other things doesn’t expose the patient’s rear. He sought input from 9 different clinicians, with particular importance placed on the opinion of launderers, acutely aware that as a start-up he must prove to hospitals that his garments are medically superior to what’s on the market. Launched in January, and already in hospitals, the gown is in version 4.0, with a portion of the profits going back into the Innovation in Design in Healthcare program at Parsons. Razdan has also designed a mobility glove with Parsons alum, Lucy Jones, that features a patented zipper feature for easy closure, and a hoodie in collaboration with Oscar de la Renta, with chest and port access for patients of chemotherapy and other treatments.
“Now no one is Googling ‘size-inclusive fashion,’ it’s ‘plus size’. But in five years time no one will even be typing in that. It’ll just be clothing.”
Camila Chiriboga, Creative Strategy and Inclusive Design, for Global Brands Group says that designing adaptive clothing is very different than designing for the traditional market. “Patterns are completely different, and you have to work very closely with the end consumer. You’re no longer designing for an imaginary persona or according to your mood board, with no clue who the eventual wearer is.” Having learned as much from occupational therapists as fashion designers, she calls for all creators to collaborate for solution-building; cross pollination in fashion and technology is the key to the future. Just as wheelchair users no longer expect to be defined by the fact that they use a wheelchair, designers should not be separated into adaptive-clothing designers and other.
The end goal of the inclusivity movement is perhaps best expressed by Jessica Kahan Dvorett: “Now no one is Googling ‘size-inclusive fashion,’ it’s ‘plus size’. But in five years time no one will even be typing in that. It’ll just be clothing.” Adds McCharen, “I’m excited for the day when all this is no longer a press story.”
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.
Images from FashionUnited