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Despite the rise of body positivity, the fashion industry still falls short
"We want brands to treat us like we’re more than just a buzzword or a trend to be chased."
Plus-size fashion has been around for centuries. But for many, myself included, a shift in the attitude towards plus-size fashion (and within the industry as a whole) didn’t really take place until 2008.
Prior to this, I had spent countless hours in fitting rooms thinking that there was genuinely nothing that could fit the curves of my round, apple-shaped body. But suddenly, options began to sprout up that weren’t unfashionable and were actually trendy. In Canada, I found myself shopping at stores like Addition Elle more frequently—even though they still bedazzled their t-shirts every now and then—and started dabbling in online shopping when I couldn’t find what I needed in the store. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could be stylish—even at my size. It made for a huge shift in my mental and emotional state of mind.
That was the year that plus size fashion finally started to break the mainstream, and become more of a conversation point. It was the year that body positivity started to make media headlines, as people started to realize 68 percent of American women wore a size 14 or above. Bloggers and influencers like Nicolette Mason, Gabifresh and Kellie B dominated places like Tumblr, LiveJournal and eventually, Instagram showing the world just what fashion (or, more accurately, “fatshion” as it has been called online) could be.
For years, plus-size individuals with a sense of style and money to spend have been craving the ability to walk into stores, and shop the racks like their counterparts. Back in 2008, bloggers and influencers paved the way showcasing to the rest of North America: plus-size individuals were a large percentage of the buying public. Since then, the annual sales of women’s clothing size 14 and higher rose 17% from 2013 to 2016, with plus shoppers representing $20 billion worth of buying power. But even with all these stats and figures speaking positively of a growing market share, two important questions arise: is this market growth reaching back to the plus-size consumer and are these businesses thriving?
“The thing that I think is wild is every year they bring out studies about how much money plus-size women are spending on clothing,” Sabrina Servance, a blogger and model based out of Florida shares with Supermaker on the phone. “But you have to go beyond looking at numbers. You need to actually physically talk to people who are fat, work with them, see what they go through on a regular basis to find clothing. Then they can have the a-ha moment. But that doesn't happen with a lot of these brands.”
For Sabrina, shopping is still very much a struggle, as she recounts a recent trip to the mall to find pajamas. “I found nothing, absolutely nothing. How frustrating is it that I can't order anything because it wouldn't have gotten here on time or [that even if I] sen[t] it to my hotel it might not fit? It was wild.”
The biggest trend in fashion right now seems to be ‘size inclusivity,’ with fashion retailers and brands across the country—from Anthropologie to Adidas to J.C. Penney—experimenting by adding more sizes to their range. For many of the new brands expanding their size ranges, their sizing typically stops at a 20 or 22. And while this can be viewed as a step in the right direction, there is still a huge part of the plus-size community being left out, namely "superfats" or "infinifats" who occupy the size 26 and above space, and are largely limited on where they can shop. Kat Eves, a plus-size stylist based out of Los Angeles explains to Supermaker: “While the plus-size industry has made huge strides, there's still a ton of work to be done on the size inclusion side. We've fought for 2X, we've fought for 3X, but we really haven't fought for anything beyond that in a meaningful way.”
Yesenia Torres, the director of design with ELOQUII, whose size range offers up to a size 28 explains it’s fundamentally a business decision that comes down to dollars and cents, as brands try to keep inventory levels down in-stores. “From a business perspective, these retailers who are trying to be inclusive are trying to keep their inventory down and not have the rails crammed,” Torres says. But she also points out a reality that many have debated about plus-size fashion: “I think one thing that people don't talk about, and I wish it wasn't the case, but it is true, it is more expensive to produce plus size clothing. Just because the markers and the patterns and fabric use is more expensive.”
While it may be more expensive, Torres is quick to explain, “it's all about really looking into your movements and thinking, okay, this could be a risk for us because we need going to trump up the cost. We have to test it to know it and they have to really go after it. I think this customer is just so tired of people saying we're inclusive now.” So, what does it take for plus-size brands to really get it right?
Jasmine Elder is the brainchild behind the brand JIBRI, which originally launched in 2004 and is considered by many in the plus-size fashion world to be a pioneer. Based out of Atlanta, the brand (which caters up to a size 26/28) has stayed fiercely independent. Elder explains that throughout her time making and designing, many plus-size fashion businesses have come and gone, “but people don't last and neither do some of these bigger businesses.”
Elder further explains that, for many who enter the plus-size market, it’s necessary to have an “understanding of plus fashion and the plus body and an interest in bringing something that's not so gimmicky and not just a gimmick to them. These particular customers, they know what’s going to last.” One of the biggest reasons why JIBRI has withstood the test of time is because of its designs and Elder’s attention to detail with a plus-size body in mind. Elder explains, “Brands don't have anyone who's lived in that body sitting at the table to explain it. Sometimes there are not even women at the table. So how can you know what women are feeling in their clothes and how they like to feel in their clothes if there's no one who has lived experienced there? I don't know.”
At this point, it comes down to support and allyship in supporting large fats in getting more choices and continuing the role of fat liberation in the plus-size fashion industry. Eves explains, “You know, it's 2020. It's time that we get there. It's taken long enough.”
And while it’s clear that the tides are changing within the plus-size fashion market, the industry itself has to stop with the half-hearted attempts of entering the market and, instead, put its money where its mouth is by genuinely expanding their size ranges, make sure to have clothes available in-store and not just online and, finally, invite fat folks to the table—as consultants, fit models and as designers.
We live in an era where conversations about fat activism, body positivity, and self-love reign supreme. Being a part of the plus-size community can be an incredible opportunity, but we want brands to treat us like we’re more than just a buzzword or a trend to be chased. Sure, there is a lot of money to be made, but beyond that, people like me—the average plus customer—want to be taken seriously. The way plus-size consumers dress has a crucial impact on the way we think and feel, which is why it is time to go all in.
“If you really want to gain this customer and really celebrate this customer like you say you want to,” Torres concludes, “you have to take the risk and just do it. Just do it full out.”