The Real Reason Fashion Labels Are Failing Plus-Size Women

Designers who want to serve fans of every size need to invest their resources efficiently.
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Mariana Leung
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Designers who want to serve fans of every size need to invest their resources efficiently.

Contrary to public perception, fashion designers do not hate plus-size customers. Full-figured fashion fans have been always been frustrated by the lack of selection from their favorite brands, and I don’t blame them. Clothing manufacturers actually do recognize the buying power of the larger sized shopper, but offering styles in plus is just not that simple.

Earlier this year, blogger Chastity Garner boycotted Target for excluding fashion fans in her size range from their latest designer collaboration. Another blogger, Sarah Conley urged shoppers to vote with their wallets if they want designers to cater to them. As a woman with curves, I cheered them. As a veteran of the industry, I lived the challenge of their disappointment.

I have worked as a technical designer for multiple size ranges for brands that include Lord & Taylor, Coach and many others. I can testify that perfecting plus-size fashion is more complicated than extending a label’s size range. A sample size for contemporary or upscale label could be a size 2, 4, etc. Merely sizing up from that into larger sizes would be treating a plus-size customer like a rectangle -- flattering no one. There have been plenty of companies who try, and the clothing ultimately does not sell because the fit is awful. The executives then conclude that they do not have a significant plus-size customer base and then refuse to invest in it.

To produce full-figured clothing well, it needs to be fit on a fit model that truly represents the customer. Professional fit models guide designers into adjusting proportions and tweaking individual clothing styles to look great on their body. Even then, full-figured shoppers could be very busty, pear-shaped or muscular. One fit model cannot possibly cover every body shape in that size range.

A professional fit model’s rate starts around $200/hour. Professional plus-size models charge at least as much or more because they are considered specialists. While this may be the rare instance in fashion where larger girls rule, it is an expense that many clothing companies do not have the budget for.

Unfortunately, the fit and budget are not the only challenges. The team assigned to execute plus-size styles is often at a disadvantage from the beginning. Technical designers are the ones who fit the clothing, correct the patterns and take it from concept to production. Full-figured styles often take their direction from the brand’s main collection. While the central collection has an entire season to develop, the plus-size styles are often put into work only after the regular collection has been approved. This means the technical designers only have a fraction of the time to prepare production to hit the stores at the same time.

Full Figured Fashion Week

Full Figured Fashion Week

I love asking full-figured fit models where they shop. The most common answer is brands that specialize in their size range. Eloquii, Lane Bryant and The Avenue are the recognizable companies. They do it well because they specialize in that customer. They also have large marketing budgets.

Like any independent fashion label, many do not have the same advertising dollars as the big corporate brands. There are plenty of plus-size fashion labels developed specifically for these customers who have to rely on word of mouth. Cushie B. was launched by designer Valerie Thompson, a former design director at Josephine Chaus and Cynthia Steffe who is herself a full-figured woman. I found many stylish labels at Full Figured Fashion Week catering to all price points and demographics. They came from around the world and served everything from swimwear, office wear to special occasion. They may not have large budgets but they are ready to serve curvy girls hungry for style.

A Cushie B. photo shoot.

A Cushie B. photo shoot.

Full-figured fashionistas were one of the most successful groups of influencers at the outset of fashion blogging. This was a powerful shopping demographic largely ignored by mainstream media. Collections developed with bloggers like Gabi Fresh and companies like Gwynnie Bee that rely on feedback from vocal shoppers end up with the most engaged customers.

Designers who want to serve fans of every size need to invest their resources efficiently: have design teams work from the initial concept direction at the same time to prioritize all size ranges, and collaborate more with influencers who represent your target shopper for styling and fit feedback -- see them as allies, not a battleground.

Curvy girls, treat fashion like dating. If your favorite designer ignores you, give your love to the ones willing to spend their time and money to woo you. They are out there (and like any suitor, trying hard to get to know your body). Seek out the good guys that may be under the radar. Your wardrobe is a relationship totally worth investing in.