Is there a conspiracy against plus-size ladies in the fashion world? One full-figured blogger and fashion columnist weighs in
I wish I could go back in time to talk to my teenage self. In those days, I was absolutely fascinated by clothing and personal style and would spend hours lingering over the gorgeous spreads in Vogue, learning about designers like Anna Sui, Marc Jacobs, and Karl Lagerfeld. But hovering at around a size 12, I feared I was Too Fat for Fashion. There just didn’t seem to be a place for me in the industry as anything other than an observer. Luckily, I attended high school during the age of LiveJournal, where I dis-covered an online community of fashion-obsessed people who not only shunned the all-white, all-thin, all-blond beauty standard, but were also working to empower the bodies that actually populate our world. That’s when I developed my personal style vocabulary and eventually started my own blog, documenting my sartorial choices.
If only Teenage Me could see me now. She’d gasp at the fact that I’ve created a career in fashion as a result of that blog, NicoletteMason.com. I even pen a column on plus-size fashion in a major women’s magazine (Marie Claire). But despite having all the resources anyone could wish for at my fingertips, I still find it extremely challenging to find on-trend clothing in my size (a solid 16 to 18). Unfortunately, the fashion industry seems to believe that full-figured bodies are not meant to be celebrated, validated, or seen—and certainly not in sophisticated, sexy, well-made clothes. The dearth of cool plus fashion and the lack of plus-size bodies in mainstream magazines is especially perplexing when you consider that more than 67 percent of American women wear some amount of plus clothing. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average U.S. woman is roughly a size 14, yet major designers don’t typically create pieces above a size 12. So if most women in America fall into the plus-size category, why do so many designers cater only to the 33 percent of U.S. women who comprise the 0–12 “straight size” market? And why do a good chunk of the retail outfits that do exist for the plus-size consumer have an unfortunate fondness for cheaply made, ill-fitting muumuus?
“If you look at the way Bebe designs and markets their clothes versus how Lane Bryant does, it looks like they’re dressing completely different generations—but their demographic is almost the same,” says Jen Wilder, who began designing her own label when she couldn’t find stylish pieces in her size. “There’s a disconnect within the fashion industry as to what they think we want. What, once you become fat, you no longer continue to be a woman? You somehow change into this weird blob, and you’re like, ‘I don’t care, just cover this’?” Aimee Cheshire, a former plus-size product developer and owner of the boutique MadisonPlus.com, thinks some labels are stymied by the plus physique. “Designing for straight size, you basically have slight variations of the hourglass shape. There’s a lot more variation in figures for plus, but due to the lack of education, there hasn’t been an opportunity to create designs that fit all sorts of figures. The Lane Bryants and major retailers just want to sell as much as possible, so they’re like, ‘OK, let’s make it boxy so it’ll accommodate the women with the tummy and the women with the hips.’ There’s no designing for specific figures.”
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
But even those who try to tailor their offerings to the plus-size market can botch the job. The Limited made a splash in 2011 when it introduced its plus-size line,eloquii, to the public. The brand hosted a launch party and styled cute looks, but ad-vertising and marketing efforts seemed to stop there. Less than a year and a half after its launch, The Limited announced it was pulling the plug. Customers took to its Facebook page to express their frustration, noting that they scarcely saw any advertising by the brand—many had only learned of eloquii through word of mouth. Shopping website Racked.com even titled its post about the closure “The Limited Shutters the Plus-Sized Line You Didn’t Know About.” Though The Limited has 261 brick-and-mortar retail locations across the country, only a handful in the Midwest dedicated real estate on their racks to eloquii. Unless a customer was closely studying the market or the online plus-size fashion community, how was she supposed to find the brand?
"They say the plus woman doesn't shop. We just haven't been given the chance yet."
Eloquii may have died out because of underpromotion, but it’s apparently not the only brand that suffers from a lack of marketing. Though the Michael Kors line, MICHAEL, is stocked at nearly every big-name department store in the country, Kors has never made a major effort to publicize his larger line. In fact, a June 2013 Wall Street Journal piece on the emergence of plus sizes in mainstream fashion reported that while Michael Kors and Calvin Klein both have plus lines, they declined to provide imagery of any pieces for the article. (Neither line’s public-relations department responded to requests for interviews for this piece.) While I may try to get plus-size imagery from major brands to show in my Marie Claire column, the line of communication between me and their PR agencies tends to come to an abrupt end.
When a brand like eloquii fails, the company can blame the customer and say meager sales didn’t justify continued production—rather than assume responsibility for flaws in the marketing. Because the label attempted once, they’re absolved from ever having to try again, leaving their plus-size customer out in the cold, with no cute toggle coat to keep her warm. The Limited’s media statement about eloquii’s closure doesn’t illuminate much: “After careful consideration, The Limited has made the difficult decision to exit its plus-size brand.… We have not ruled out thepossibility of offering additional sizes to serve this important customer.” (Requests for interviews with The Limited’s media-relations department had not been answered by press time.)
“So many designers will make plus-size lines, but they don’t necessarily pay attention to the details or address plus women properly, so they won’t see high re-turns,” says Cheshire. “Then they’re like, ‘Oh, it didn’t do well,’ so they fold it. This happened with Saks and their collection,and Old Navy…. So many companies have dipped a toe in, but because their [plus clothing] is in the back corner of the top floor, or they don’t find the designers that have a point of view that customers love, it’s set up for failure. Then no one wants to buy, and they say the plus woman doesn’t shop. We just haven’t been given the chance yet.” So why can’t small, upstart plus-size brands step forward and fill the hole in the market? The answer is complicated. While a brand like eloquii, part of a fashion conglomerate like The Limited, has plenty of resources, things are much more challenging for independent plus brands like Jen Wilder’s Cult of California, a collection of activewear and mix-and-match pieces designed and manufactured in Los Angeles. In fact, just weeks after eloquii’s decision to pull its clothing offline, Wilder announced that her primary investor had backed out and that she would not be able to continue production, leaving her already-designed and prototyped swim-wear and fall collections literally on the cutting-room floor.
"Top-tier stylists and photographers also often refuse to work with full-figured models, for fear it will hurt their reputation. It's even been a problem for the magazine you're reading right now."
Emerging plus-size brands are at the mercy of their meager funds. Despite a huge potential customer base, grassroots labels have to rely almost entirely on word-of-mouth promotion, blogger support, and social-media outreach. As a result, they often have a hard time reaching mainstream audiences, which is what they need to do to ensure their long-term growth and sustainability.
ON THE PAGE
Although limited, there still are some lovely plus-size options out there, so it should be simple for magazines to photograph models wearing plus-size pieces by major apparel lines, right? Not exactly. When well-meaning editors want to feature body diversity in fashion, they run into another set of problems. In order to include items of clothing in a fashion editorial, an edi-tor has to request samples from brands (or their PR agencies) for the photo shoots, which happen several months before the issues are on stands. But for most young indie labels, producing samples a full season in advance isn’t financially viable. And though a major label like Calvin Klein or Michael Kors may create clothing in sizes up to 24, they typically produce just one set of samples each season to lend to editors for photo shoots—and they’re created only in a fashion-world-friendly size 2 or 4. So even if an editor books a plus-size model for a story, she’ll have to struggle to find plus clothing for the shoot or somehow locate the very rare designer who makes editorial samples larger than size XS.
That’s what happens when an editor actually wants to feature plus sizes; many of them don’t have any interest. “There’s obviously no shortage of plus girls in the country,” says PR agency owner Gwen Wunderlich, who has repped several plus brands. “But in terms of featuring plus clothing in editorials, there’s pushback from top people like you wouldn’t believe. I don’t want to ruin my business, but I could name a top magazine who was like, ‘We don’t do plus.’ Really? Maybe you should know who your reader is.” Top-tier stylists and photographers also often refuse to work with full-figured models, for fear it will hurt their reputation. It’s even been a problem for the magazine you’re reading right now. “For fashion photographers or fashion stylists, that’s not something they want to put in their portfolios, because it’s not the norm—it’s not what’s going to get them other jobs,” explained BUST’s Creative Director Laurie Henzel, when asked about her many attempts to put together body-diverse editorials. “A lot of stylists, the minute I mention I want to use a plus girl for a fashion feature, they’re like, ‘No, I’m not available. I don’t want to do it.’”
“The lack of experience is one of the reasons why people are afraid of shooting plus. You have to shoot it differently. You have to work harder to get the flattering angles, and not everybody knows how to use certain lenses and light,” says a photographer in the industry who asked not to be named. “People really want to feature plus, they just don’t know how,” says MadisonPlus.com’s Cheshire, a former plus-size model. “One of the main reasons size 0 models are there is because they’re easier to shoot. You don’t have to deal with rolls of fat and the model needing to know how to manipulate her body to highlight it. [Shooting plus-size] takes more work, more thought, and more time.
”Our photographer source thinks the lack of fashion-forward clothing is the primary reason some photographers avoid shooting plus. “The major problem is that it’s hard to find good designer clothes for plus—not street style, but something avant-garde and creative. I shoot plus a lot, and I always wonder why plus clothes are so ugly. Why do they have to make it look like a ‘fat person’ outfit?”
“Don’t put a frickin’ black kimono and belt on me and tell me I’m supposed to be happy, when people can walk into Marc Jacobs and buy a leather dress with cutouts and sequins,” says Wilder. “The choices that are available [for plus] piss me off.”
FEAR OF THE F-WORD
In the end, dressing curvy bodies in our social climate (where such bodies are often viewed either as victims or propagators of an obesity epidemic) is a touchy, difficult proposition. While consumers and brands may rally together to call for more body diversity and visibility in fashion, scorn around “the f-word” can be a barrier to plus-size fashion gaining mainstream momentum. Wilder agrees that fear of fat maybe the reason there’s a shortage of edgy, glam pieces in her size. “The customer has been indoctrinated that being plus-size is a temporary point in your life, hopefully,” says Wilder. “It hasn’t been an aspirational look, and that’s what mainstream fashion is selling: ‘Look at this person. Don’t you wanna be her?’ Plus-size women are trained that we shouldn’t buy stuff for our body as it is now. We should buy stuff when we reach a certain weight, or we should buy stuff to motivate us to lose weight, to become that ‘after’ pic—that’s when you can participate in fashion. That plays into why people don’t design things for us. The plus designers getting support are the ones selling cheap, fast, human-rights-abusive crap that’s not gonna last, because I don’t think [the consumer] thinks that they’re gonna last at that size. It’s a Catch-22. You’re not going to be dressed well at the size that you are if you don’t accept that that’s the size you are.”
Goretti Welborn, the product development manager at Modcloth, which launched a line of plus clothing in June, thinks brands are afraid of addressing the customer’s size at all. “I think there’s this concern, and I can speak as a plus person, about the customer’s psyche and how you approach them. But I’m like, ‘Hey, guess what? I’m fat, I love myself, and I want to look hot.’ I think [brands wonder], ‘Can we talk about [the customer’s size]?’ and the answer is, ‘Yes, we can.’” Though the Calvin Kleins, Michael Korses and Eloquiis of the world drive me crazy, I do have an overwhelmingly positive feeling about where plus-size fashion is going. With growing numbers of plus-size women across the world, the big-name brands will eventually be forced to cater to these customers, or risk suffering a major hit to their bottom lines. Online fat-acceptance communities are steadily gaining strength, bringing attention to indie clothing brands and expanding the visibility of normal, plus-size women in the media. “Now, with more people being overweight, the younger generation has grown up with most of their class being plus,” says Cheshire. “These girls are expecting more. They’re demanding it.” And once they find well-made pieces they love, those shoppers will come back, armed with their credit cards, as will their friends or coworkers or next-door neighbors. And they’ll look cute as hell while they do it, too.
By Nicolette Mason
Illustrated by Naomi Elliot