Hi. I’m Rachel.
In case you don’t know me, I’m a plus size store owner, stylist, fashion photographer, and, a few years back, I designed five seasonal plus size lines catering to sizes XL-6x under the brand name Sweetooth. I currently own a plus size brick and mortar and online store called Re/Dress that I bought three years ago — before I bought it, I worked as its VP of eCommerce. The store is going into its eighth year of business, and I’ve been in the industry for ten. Over the last decade, I’ve learned a lot about production and sourcing for both straight sized clothing and plus sized clothing. I can create tech packs and line sheets. I’ve developed a successful line of products that continues to expand, and just got picked up by two major distributors. I read industry rags about cut, pattern, and color trends. I’ve helped a lot of small fashion businesses produce lines, built wholesale programs from the ground up, and done shipping and distribution for six different companies. I’m passionate about strategic planning and cost analysis. For the last three years, I’ve lectured at Parsons School of Design about ethical fashion production.
TL;DR: I’m deep in the business of fashion, and I know what I’m talking about.
Even longer than I’ve been involved in fashion, I’ve been a body positive activist. I’m a fashionista, but I’m an advocate for body autonomy first and foremost.
This week, I embarked on a journey that most fashion buyers take yearly — I went to WWD MAGIC in Las Vegas. MAGIC (an acronym for Men’s Apparel Guild in California, but it’s now mostly women’s apparel — hence the Women’s Wear Daily prefix) is three days of seminars, fashion shows, lectures, and paramount to all dog-and-pony shows: buying opportunities and first looks at Fall/Winter 2016 lines. An average of 120 million dollars is spent from buyers at each MAGIC tradeshow. There are 1.1 million square feet of displays, nearly filling the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, and hundreds of off-site shows, events, and parties. As a buyer that is constantly looking for new hot items and the best deals, it is literally my world for 72 hours. It’s the one time of the year I get a chance to make in person contacts who can help me shape my product offerings in new ways and open new doors for my business. It’s a really important time that sets the tone for my year. The overwhelming onism is almost painful.
Though three days of shopping and discovering amazing new garments might sound like a dream to a lot of people, you don’t just, like, show up at MAGIC and saunter through the football-field-sized world of options, picking out dresses like they’re daisies. You gotta come with a game plan, a carefully-painted game face, a want list, a budget, and a firm but kind demeanor. You’ve got to be on, be decisive, and not be afraid to negotiate. You need to seem important.
It’s difficult to describe the sensory experience of MAGIC because I can’t say I’ve seen anything quite like it. Over the summer, I visited the Galeries Lafayette in Paris, this huge mall with several floors of expensive boutiques, a Sistine Chapel-esque stained-glass ceiling, and an incredible view of Gay Paree. I’m not sure why the energy was this way, but it seemed like they were giving away free cars somewhere in the building, and people were frantically searching for that place. Shoppers were ruthless and charged, in groups, through hallways and staircases. I felt rushed for no reason. We were shopping for nothing in particular on a Monday afternoon, but it was INTENSE. A similar intensity travels through buyers in kinetic waves of panic at MAGIC. We are like wild dogs, and each vendor is passing out freshly cooked beef shanks. This makes absolutely no sense, as vendors are mostly there to take orders, and there are no limited quantities on anything. We all receive our shipments at the same time. Still, the feast or famine + fomo mentality is pervasive.
The actual environment of MAGIC employs the same tactics that fast-food restaurants used before wifi was invented to get folks in and out as fast as possible. Brightly-colored everything, fast-paced music, low temperatures. It’s like shopping in the refrigerator of a 7-Eleven that only blares EDM.
As you walk through the marketplace, it is the job of salespeople to draw you into their immaculately designed booths with tropey compound ampersandy names like “bow & arrow,” “tea & rose,” and “doe & rae.” They pass out tote bags, candy, bottled water, crummy irregular samples from the cutting room floor repackaged to look like gifts — anything to make you feel just guilty enough to give them two minutes of your time. That is, unless you’re a big fat fattie shopper like me.
I attended my first day at MAGIC with my friends & peers in plus size boutique ownership, Alysse Dalessandro from Ready to Stare and Jessica Hinkle from Proud Mary Fashion. Both have attended in previous years, and Alysse has even presented at the show. We all have smaller boutiques, and, though we’re all looking for super fresh, creative plus sizes, we’re not competitive. We work together to find things that would work for each other’s businesses and don’t let shit get petty. In a sea of skinnies hopped up on complimentary sugar-free Red Bull buying things with other people’s money, it’s a camaraderie that only three, low-budget, small-business-owning fat women could have. Alysse and Jessica are calm and casual, which definitely helped me maintain my sanity when shopping. We also indulged in an extra long bitch session at lunch, which truly gave me life when I needed it most.
However, as a small pack of big ladies, we garnered literally ZERO attention from salespeople. It’s no secret that the fashion industry is largely disinterested in making fashionable plus sizes. Sadly, MAGIC only reinforced the idea that we were not welcome there, and almost none of the stuff was for us or our customers.
Expecting that this might happen (not my first time at the rodeo), I’d made a list of vendors I’ve bought from in the past that would be there. With that list, I would at least be able to identify 20–30 booths that had plus sizes. Considering the average woman in America is a size 12/14 (i.e., an XL), one would assume that the show would be saturated with vendors catering to plus sizes. And one would be wrong, because fashion is not about accommodation or accessibility — it is an industry based on a mixture of hope, fantasy, and shame.
Our first pass at the floor yielded results from two companies we’d all bought stuff from before. Fast fashion junior plus (size 12–22) clubwear: crop tops, body suits, and slinky things. Of the 300 booths we walked past, only one offered their entire range in both plus and straight sizes. Only one of them had a sign that read “we carry curvy sizes.” During the second pass, I began to stop at the familiar vendors I had bought from before. The conversation was always the same:
Me (holding my badge up, so they know I’m a customer): “You carry plus sizes, right?”
Them: “Yes, but we didn’t bring them with us.”
Me: “Why not?”
Them: “They just don’t really sell here.”
We began to ask every single booth if they carried plus. We took turns getting shot down, because rejection is easier when diluted. Some vendors would trick us and initially say yes, and later inform us that by plus, they meant they make up to a 1x- the equivalent to a size 14/16. One vendor that was selling really garish club clothing, basically modeled after Bjork’s wardrobe in 1994, looked Jess up and down, clearly judging her plus sized body, before smarmily reporting that they only carried up to a large. Jess was, literally, wearing an outfit they were selling. I could feel tiny daggers coming out of my eyes. After hours of playing Mary and Joseph looking for a place to birth Jesus, we collapsed into a giant bench of sorrow and Sbarro pizza in what felt like total defeat.
Afterward, I was having a meeting with the reps I work with from Amazon.com, and they could sense my grief. They were shocked at the experience I’d had, considering they recruited me to sell the plus size products I’ve developed on their site because their plus category was growing by leaps and bounds and needed fresh product. “Do these vendors fucking know what you spend?” one asked indignantly. “Clearly they don’t know who you are” said the other, and though I thought he was joking, he actually wasn’t.
To be transparent: last year, I spent close to $60,000 developing and manufacturing the seamless products I produce. This isn’t like, a huge sum in the kingdom of fashion, but it sure as shit isn’t anything to sneeze at. With the growth opportunities I’ve had this year, I am on track to spend twice that in 2016.
Keeping that in mind, you can imagine how ridiculous it was when I walked into the large booth of a seamless company who I’d never seen before, and, though they had four salespeople, two of them just staring into the middle distance, not one approached me for help. These folks even had a plus size section that I thumbed through (the second marked plus section I’d seen that day), took several pictures of, and spent a solid ten minutes fondling. Finally, I approached a person at their order counter eating a sad salad and asked “do you do custom runs or only sell packs?” and when they murmured “both” through a piece of iceberg, I said “oh, great. I buy minimum quantities of 300. can you help me over here?” She gave me the international sign for “1 minute,” and after waiting for 2, I walked out in a Julia-Roberts-in-Pretty-Woman “BIG mistake. HUGE!” huff.
After that bullshit, I was done for the day.
Having Jessica and Alysse to fall into was really great. They dropped me off at my hotel and I glamorously popped the blisters on my feet, drank a gin and tonic, and ruminated on the events of the day. I felt really deflated, but I wanted to stay motivated for the next day, because I was on a fucking mission. I stared at the maps of Magic like I was trying to figure out the goddamn Da Vinci Code and sketched out a plan for maximum hunting. I had two appointments at rockabilly/retro dress companies the next day, but, to be honest, I wasn’t that excited. While some of the retro-look frocks have nice cuts or prints, I’m pretty over that aesthetic, and don’t understand why it’s such a standby in the plus size canon. I decided to call it a night and went out and tied one on with my comrades. They showed me a preview of the plus size zine they’re debuting this week on their phones in a corner of a dark, glittery bar. It was so beautiful. I had several more drinks and discovered my zest for life again. Totally the best thing for it.
I had a whiskey-induced dream that I found dresses made of rainbow waterfall holograms that went up to a 6x. I woke up hung over, but determined. I was ready to make that dream real.
The early morning appointments with my retro dealers were about all I could handle before I needed to GTFO of MAGIC that next morning. As I was leaving an appointment, tentatively holding an order for dozens of polka dot and sailor look dresses (slim pickings), an older woman stopped me on the way out of the booth. “Do you know about the WWIN show?” she asked. “At the Rio.” Thinking she was trying to hand me another flyer for something, I was just like “no, and I’m not from here, I can’t go.” I whined. But this persistent angel grabbed my wrist in urgency and was like “no, it’s a free show, just like MAGIC. They have a lot more WOMENS sizes. It’s going on now, at the Rio. You should check it out. Today’s the last day, and they have free lunch.”
And this is the keyframe moment in this story. No words could have sounded more perfect to my fat, hungry ears. I immediately walked out the the convention center and took an Uber across town to the Rio.
The Rio is a tropically themed hotel that looks like a cocaine laser 80’s Miami fever dream. The lobby smells like stale cigarettes and hibiscus Herbal Essences conditioner. It felt lowbrow, like me — it felt right.
The WWIN (Womens Wear in Nevada) show is definitely not MAGIC. It has a Netscape Navigator website, a Facebook page with less than 1,000 likes, and effectively zero media presence. It’s a rinky-dink, Mickey Mouse production where booths are made out of gridwall, the salesperson you talk to is also the designer or the owner of the company, and nobody’s trying to buy your love, because quite frankly- they can’t afford to. It feels like a craft fair in that way that you walk by, folks say hi in this needy way, and give you sad puppy eyes as you look through their goods. Or, you avoid eye contact completely so you don’t have to smile through a two minute presentation that ends with you taking a pass on puffy pirate shirts.
If MAGIC was the Miss America pageant, WWIN was, like, Miss Goddess Tampa Bay. But while my first impressions were a little glib, as I began to walk the floor, something amazing began to happen. Two ‘WE CARRY PLUS SIZES’ signs in two minutes of walking. Then a third. Then a fourth. Had I fallen into the wormhole that takes you to all of the fat clothes?
While things were looking up, they were also looking meh. A lot of the plus size stuff was frump-a-dump. Silky suits, swim caftans in culturally-appropriative prints, sequin-covered skirts made out of slinky material that no one wants to wear, shapewear, crinkly fabric, shiny satin, pants called “Slim-hers” and “bettabutt” (they stopped me and gave me a tote bag). Yeah.
So, after an hour, I went and got my free lunch. Those ladies were not fucking around with this lunch, guys. It was a soda, chips, fruit, and a huge club sandwich on a croissant. I was grateful for this wonderful favor, but still feeling kind of downtrodden. And wouldn’t you know it, as I was lying in repose (okay, I was sitting) in an odd hallway, a plus sized woman in a beautiful sari approached me and asked if I was buying plus. ‘YES!’ I gasped. “I make only plus starting at a size 16 and up to a 30” she said. ‘SHOW ME YOUR BOOTH,’ I screamed, 40 decibels too loud for human ears.
She showed me her booth, containing a small collection of contemporary, cute separates and dresses, and it was incredible. I thought it was a mirage. Her prices were good. She designed everything herself and sewed it with her mother and sister. She let me change colors, put pockets in skirts. She worked with my smaller minimums, was willing to source new fabrics, and worked out of New Jersey, so shipping and communication would be easy. Her company was new and she needed help connecting with plus size designers and stores to produce custom runs. Because she is my dream angel, I told her that I’d be more than happy to help her, give her feedback on her new items, and keep her informed of what the plus customer wants.
After that, I was unstoppable. I saw the new Cherry Velvet collection and it is GLORIOUS. (We’ll have some incredible new prints of their fantastic dresses in April.) I talked with two other brands who didn’t have plus samples, but agreed to do custom runs for me in certain styles. Most of them stopped at a 3x, but I talked them up to a 4 or 5x. (And if they will do those, hopefully they’ll make an even higher size range!) It was great to finally have some leads and contacts.
I went back to meet Jess and Alysse at POOL- another MAGIC show full of indie designers, and though we were mostly snubbed by people too cool for us (you can keep those hand-screened artisan recycled fabric ‘But first, coffee’ tank tops, dipshit), Jess introduced me to two vendors who do unique things in plus, and I felt pretty invigorated. We decided we’d go in on some pricy yet spectacular small-batch pieces from a fantastic women-run shop in San Francisco that would happily go up to an oversized 4x for us. I’m really excited for us to get our grubby paws on them. I also met and totally fangirled Tuesday Bassen, illustrator and badass, who I happily bought some chum from.
Today is post- MAGIC Friday, and I am exhausted, but a bunch of fat babes are coming into Las Vegas from LA and PDX, and we’re all doing a plus sized pop-up shop downtown. It will be a fantastic ending to a bittersweet experience, and I’m due for a reminder that the work I do is important and needed.
The moral of this story isn’t surprising. The fashion world doesn’t want fat people to have nice things, and they make us work ten times harder to get the scraps that we do get, which is dumb as shit because SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY! The altschmerz belonging to the issue makes one blasé; the oppressive and rude behavior is expected. Luckily, there’s a group of us fighting tooth and nail, using every ounce of energy we have to get plus size folks clothing that has quality, great fit, style, and value. We feed off of each other’s energy, we are infallible, and we are not stopping. Cherish and support your indie plus size retailers, folks! They go through fresh hell to get you the goods. Fashion may seem vain or frivolous to some, but for us independent shop owners, it’s political. Having the clothing we want gives us the armor to fight our everyday battles, and we shouldn’t have to struggle to be able to express ourselves. Changing the media-led perception of plus size fashion starts with manufacturers, so the race begins at tradeshows like MAGIC. I hope to see you at the finish line come Spring, when all the new stuff I bought debuts.