News flash: the plus-size shopper is an aspirational shopper, too.
This might not be brand-new information to many of the U.S. women who wear a size 14 — the lowest end of the plus-size spectrum — or larger, but only in the past few years has the fashion industry at large seemed to be taking note. Eager to grab profits with a piece of the plus-size pie, straight-size youth-oriented brands such as H&M and Forever21 have added collections for full-figured shoppers in the past 18 months, and eloquii, owned by The Limited and launched online in late 2011, was built from the ground up to appeal to the modern professional plus-size woman.
In 2012, the $7.5 billion plus-size apparel industry reaped nearly $664 million in profits, and the market grew 2.2 percent from 2007 to 2012, according to market research firm IBISWorld, with $9.7 billion in revenue expected in 2017. Yet although there were 6,019 plus-size apparel stores operating in the United States last year, 62 percent of plus-size women say they have a hard time finding the styles they want, and 56 percent are disappointed with quality, saying plus-size fashions often aren’t executed at the level of straight-size designs, reports NPD, a market research company. What’s more, says NPD, most full-figured women — 79 percent — are looking for apparel in the same trend-forward styles their regular-sized friends are wearing, and more than a third prefer brands that specifically serve the plus-size shopper.
While shapeless mumus, caftans, and black stretchy garments long have been synonymous with "plus-size," lately brands and retailers designing for the full-figured woman have started to catch up to the dizzying breadth of styles and designs commonly offered in straight sizes. Much of this progress is due to advances in fit technology, says Ed Gribbin, the president of fit expert firm Alvanon. While the ASTM standard for the American female form was updated several times from 1942 to 1994, the basic shape — the classic hourglass figure — never changed. Unfortunately, that failed to reflect the true diversity of female forms in the American population, which Alvanon discovered when it began body scanning and documenting actual consumer shapes roughly 10 years ago.
"The data has told us over the years that there is greater body diversity among the plus-size population," Gribbin explains. "With a size 20 or 22 or 24, people carry that body mass in different ways based on ethnicity, diet and lifestyle, and activity level, so some are very prone to projecting body mass in the front of body, and others project in the back. There are also extreme variations of musculatures — some women with very large arms or very large thighs. Others have very small arms and small legs, which don’t match up with their torso measurements."
It’s this body diversity that tends to scare off straight-size brands that are comfortable designing for more predictable variations in body shape. "The problem is that the industry wants to make as few sizes as possible," explains Gribbin. "There’s the rub. They say, 'We’re all for plus sizes, but we’ll just do 1X, 2X, 3X and call it a day.' They want to make sizes as democratic as possible."
Successful brands serving plus sizes don’t offer just one type of top and bottom — they create multiple shape-enhancing silhouettes. "If they balance line planning and their merchandise mix, these retailers can have a democratic product mix that speaks to many plus-size shoppers," adds Gribbin.
Unapologetic, sexy, sassy and delicious
"Beauty is an experience," says Yuliya Raquel, founder of San Francisco-based plus-size brand IGIGI which has been designing exclusively for full-figured women sizes 12 to 32 since 1998 and is known for its flattering dresses and gowns. "It has nothing to do with height, weight, age, skin tone or length of legs."
The size-4 Russian-born designer says that "plus-size" was never in her vocabulary until she went shopping with her size 24 mom and discovered that the only apparel options in larger sizes were "diminishing" rather than enhancing to the full figure. Thus her mission was born and in launching the business, Raquel cast about for a brand name that was "unapologetic, sexy, sassy and delicious." Her co-founder — now husband — suggested IGIGI, which he created simply by adding an "I" in front of the French name Gigi.
In researching online the significance of the word "IGIGI," Raquel discovered that the Igigi were a clan of gods in ancient Mesopotamian mythology, and one of their goddesses, Ishtar, is described in a 1600 B.C. writing as a voluptuous, feminine goddess of beauty: glorious and "queen of women." "The poem described the woman I’m designing for," explains Raquel. "My palms were sweating."
IGIGI, which operates an e-commerce site and wholesales to boutiques around the country, aims to be an aspirational but relatable brand. As such, Raquel prefers to use campaign models whose bodies reflect those of actual customers, but finding qualified professional plus models with genuinely full figures can be challenging in a world where straight-size fashion says a size 8 is plus. "My marketing girls and I are screaming every time the modeling agency sends us stacks of model cards," she explains. "Every girl that we started working with as a size 16 or 18 is a size 12 two years later. They’re being pressured. We want girls who are 16 and up. In all my career, there were maybe four or six models who are a genuine 16 and higher."
IGIGI manufactures locally with six factories in San Francisco, usually producing garments in 300-count runs, and sources most materials domestically, often in Los Angeles, from six or seven suppliers. "We work with great fabric mills with super limited quantities," Raquel says. "You end up getting unique items that you can’t find anywhere else." Gabardine, charmeuse, chiffon and jerseys figure heavily into IGIGI’s offerings. "Jersey can be your best friend or worst enemy," she says, adding that every dress is fully lined for a figure-flattering fit.
The just-in-time brand works on a tight schedule, with 30 days elapsing from the time a design enters its BMS PLM system to the moment the finished garment is offered at retail. The company’s two pattern makers use Gerber Technology tools when creating patterns.
Adamant about fit, Raquel says the brand eschews using fit forms. "We don’t ever fit on dress forms, only on fit models," she explains. "I know everyone does, but we don’t."
Raquel found that what was attractive to customers before the economic downturn lost some momentum during and after the recession. "Eveningwear was the bread and butter, but afterward, it was day wear and work wear," she says. "You have to constantly be in touch with the customer, and listen and learn."
Torrid fans the flames of fashion — and fit
Hot Topic-owned Torrid, a brand aimed at plus-size young women in their teens and 20s wearing sizes 12 to 28, recently undertook its first comprehensive revamp since its launch in 2001. According to IBISWorld, Torrid’s 2012 sales were estimated at roughly $163.7 million, with online sales accounting for 23 percent of company revenue and quickly increasing in recent years. The brand added a mobile website in November 2012 to reach young, tech-savvy shoppers.
"The women’s specialty retail industry has not historically done a great job of designing truly fashion-forward apparel for plus-size women," says Lisa Stanley, vice president of marketing at Hot Topic Inc. "Over the last year, the fashion industry has evolved to portray a more inspirational view of the plus-sized woman. Last year we revamped our merchandising strategy to one that is more fashion-forward, and our marketing to speak to our customer in a more aspirational way. Our customers want real fashion that is flattering to their figures."
Stanley says fit is a "top priority" for Torrid. "Each item is designed and constructed specifically to fit and flatter a voluptuous figure, rather than being a ‘sized up’ version of a fashion piece," she explains. "Once developed, each piece is tried and tested on various plus-size models, ensuring a fit that’s unmatched in the industry."
The fast-fashion brand launches 12 collections each year and updates its stores every two weeks with new apparel, in addition to the core products such as intimates, denim and knits that it carries.
A stroke of "Genius" for Lane Bryant
Established in the early 1900s, plus-size market leader Lane Bryant has tweaked its fit over time. The company, bought by the Ascena Retail Group in 2012 along with the entire Charming Shoppes family of brands for $890 million, worked with Alvanon a few years ago to scan 65,000 customers to determine a truer sense of the body types walking into its retail stores every day.
Although many retailers offering plus-size options simply "grade up" from their straight-size counterparts, the plus-size body has nuances, says Richard Zielinski, Lane Bryant’s director of technical design. And in undertaking the customer study, the company had to throw out predetermined notions and stereotypes about body types, such as the assumption that most black women carry their weight in their posteriors and white women generally do not.
The brand breaks down body types into three categories: its yellow fit addresses straighter figures with the classic "apple" shape, where weight is mostly carried above the waist and arms legs and thighs are closer to straight sizes. The red fit aims at moderately curvy women, or 60 percent of the company’s customer base, with Marilyn Monroe-type proportions, says Zielinski. And the blue fit is for the very curvy figure with a waist-to-hip ratio 12 inches or greater in difference.
In 2011, Lane Bryant launched its patent-pending Tighter Tummy Technology, or T3, in a line of jeans and pants, which feature a built-in mesh control panel made of a nylon and spandex blend to address plus-size women’s trouble spots — not just smoothing the problematic stomach bulge but giving an overall better shape, especially for women who fall into the blue category. The company will next translate that design into skirts, dresses and tops, adds Zielinski.
The Genius fit, which debuted in 2012, was the evolution of T3, says Zielinski. With the latter, "saggy bottoms and baggy knees were the biggest complaints from customers — and no woman wants a saggy bottom," he explains. In response, the company created the Genius fit, which is nearly the same fabrication as T3 but with a higher ratio of spandex in the polyester blend.
Zielinski says his 14-person technical design team fits each product for the moderately curvy figure and then uses "math to get the fit right."
With its fall 2012 launch of the Lane Collection in just 11 select stores and online, the company also is targeting the aspirational plus-size shopper. "We found there was demand from customers for a better to bridge, designer-inspired line," Zielinski says, adding that the collection features more luxurious materials such as lambskin. "With that upgrade to fabrics, we’re doing more in terms of fit and offering a better drape, and sales have been encouraging."
More than encouraging, however, is customer response to Lane Bryant’s activewear offerings, with sales "going through the roof," says Zielinski, a former Under Armour executive. "We’ve taken a twist on 'performance' and offer 'fashion performance.'" While the company sells active apparel from brands such as Reebok and Marika — and regular fashions from brands such as DNKY — it works with each brand partner to tweak its fit to Lane Bryant standards, adds Zielinski.
Runway treatment for the shapely shopper
Full Figured Fashion Week, an annual summer event in New York City since 2009, gives style-savvy plus-size women a place to see small designers creating big fashions for the curvy figure.
In 2012, the show featured 23 brands, including buzz-worthy labels such as Youtheary Khmer, Ashley Nell Tipton, 17 Sundays, Jibri, Curvato, SKWiLBUR, and MYNT 1792 — which was picked up by Nordstrom in fall 2012.
According to IBISWorld, Full Figured Fashion Week offers retailers an opportunity to source in-style fashions for the plus-size market, and much like New York Fashion Week, it potentially could introduce high-end design labels to the plus-size consumer. Moreover, the arrival of fresh, more flattering fashions, the company reports, may also prompt retailers to pursue exclusive labels or designer partnerships, such as singer Adele's rumored plus-size collaboration with Burberry.
Jessica Binns is a DC-based contributing writer and former associate editor of Apparel.