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2020: Not a Good Year for Dinosaurs

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In her latest piece for WhichPLM, Emma Hayes, Womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, delves further into the industry’s issue with fit when it comes to plus size womenswear – specifically, in light of the current global climate. Emma has worked in retail for over 3 decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

Many corporations would prefer to avoid any involvement with the ‘P’ word: politics. But after the events of the first half of 2020, arguably, it is not an option.

A lot can happen in a year. For example, it was in 2019 that an H&M advert was published, depicting a small black boy wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words: “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle’. Not surprisingly, it was widely castigated. “As a black British person” wrote journalist Edward Adoo, “I felt uncomfortable when I saw the advert. The historic context of the word “monkey” has caused outrage and pain to my generation and many others who came before us.”

Going back to 2017, Kendall Jenner starred in an advertisement for Pepsi, which also scored an own goal. In it, Jenner plays the part of a model (herself?) who is drawn into a street protest, later appearing to win over a member of the riot police by offering him a cola. According to blogger Maison Piedfort: “Pepsi mistook social justice movements for opportunities to sell soda, which is pretty disrespectful to the people who have suffered and sacrificed for the sake of protest and change.”

Few people believed that these companies intended to cause offence, yet, nevertheless, they did. Mistakes are a normal part of life, but some argue that these ones actually indicate much deeper failings, pointing out that, had a more diverse range of people been involved in the decision-making surrounding these commercials, they would never have been made. In publishing them, the brands exhibited that they weren’t just naïve: they also lacked empathy and engagement with the wider community, including some of their own customers.

As a fit consultant, body shape diversity advocate and, indeed, as a plus size woman myself, I cannot speak for other marginalised groups. I have no need to: there is plenty of this kind of thing happening in my own field and it’s not limited to advertising. Many times, I’ve looked at a range of plus-size clothes and instantly observed that, had larger women’s voices been heard at any stage of conception, design, production or supply, it would have been a very different story.

This is part of a long and ignoble history of sub-standard treatment being meted out to various undervalued groups in the population. When I first worked as a buyer for plus size apparel, back in the 1990s, I observed a huge difference between the offer for the ‘mainstream’ size woman, who was, at that time, between a size 8 to a size 14, and the ‘plus size’ woman, considered to be a size 16 upward. The ‘mainstream’ story would often consist of pretty, colourful, fashion-forward apparel, whereas the plus size option (were there one at all), would be a minimal selection of middle-aged looking styles. With each new generation of the population growing bigger, it was the younger girls who took a larger size: so why only offer them a range of older looks? It looked judgemental: apparently larger women, of any age, cannot be fashionable.

On the surface, this situation has changed substantially, but even in 2020, a larger-sized woman is likely to be presented with only a tiny fraction of the choice of styles as are offered to her smaller-sized equivalent, despite a loud clamour for greater equality in social media. Various companies are striving to become more inclusive generally, and this is certainly reflected in a greater number of plus size or size-inclusive ranges. Yet significant problems remain.

From an inventory point of view, an example of this is the ubiquitous lack of appropriate grading. Most plus size womenswear companies have ignored the highly diverse body shapes of this cohort, opting instead for a generic ‘average’ cut that fits only a limited proportion of their customers. It is due to lack of engagement with the fit needs of larger women that more than half of all the apparel sold online in this sector is presently being returned, because, in the main, it does not suit customers’ bodies. This has caused some brands to have their profitability perpetually dragged down by woefully high returns rates and others to actually go out of business.

But this isn’t all: still there is insufficient choice of plus-size product, inaccurate assumptions, underrepresentation and patronising imagery or insensitive terms continuing to be used in the plus size sector.

During the first half of 2020, many have watched – and supported – the great movement of this generation, the Black Lives Matter campaign. It is a game-changer that spans every important aspect of human life, from education, health, to the justice system, industry and economics: even the inner workings of the human brain. The cause of racial equality has been hundreds of years in the making, and, arguably, along with climate change, is the biggest challenge of the time. The issues addressed are so vast and heinous that it would be highly inappropriate to attempt to ‘tack on’ side interests, such as size acceptance. However, students of past great political upheavals have observed that any headway towards achieving social justice in one field will probably lead to similar advances in others: as the proverb goes, “a high tide raises all ships”.

It’s clear that this is no ‘surface’ movement: it’s highly likely that, ultimately, it will profoundly affect the apparel industry, with calls for greater social justice and demands for a more representative sample to populate the fashion corporations (or, at the very least, interact with them). Also, there is already a strong groundswell towards the support of independent commerce that springs organically from consumers’ own communities. These businesses are likely to rewrite the rulebook of employee empowerment, public engagement and community participation. Looking through this new lens, certain practices common to fashion companies are already beginning to look outdated, if not thoroughly unacceptable.

Brands have to be more sensitive now than ever to changing attitudes in this volatile era, where consumers and the press are hyper-vigilant to stories of injustice and exploitation. A stern warning of how this can present itself is what has recently occurred at the fast-fashion monolith, Boohoo. According to Dazed, “Boohoo, the online fashion retailer behind brands like Pretty Little Thing and Nasty Gal had more than £1 billion wiped off its value this Monday (July 6) after reports of “modern slavery” at a Leicester garment factory.” Suddenly, some brands find that they look like dinosaurs, and a time when the COVID pandemic has smashed into the world economy, setting off a once-in-a-generation economic firestorm, this is not a particularly good time to be a dinosaur.

In response to the prevailing situation in 2020, consultants will each have their own brief, and those advising brands about employee rights are likely to be busy. From my (very narrow) point of view as a fit specialist, the first concern, as always, should be with the product. The number one priority should be for brands to genuinely become more size-inclusive, better reflecting the population and offering access to a greater number of people. Ideally, all brands should also act today to begin the process of understanding the body shapes of women, such as using scanning technology to survey as large a cross-section of their customer base as possible. Sensitivity should be showed to the fit requirements of all ethnic groups equally (especially those who have hitherto been largely ignored). Then brands will be better placed to develop more varied and fit-for-purpose, inclusive grading for women, offering those with diverse body shapes, for the first time, ‘fit equality’.

From a point of sale standpoint, brands should develop or utilise fit technology, such as (but not limited to) fit tools and hand-held scanning tech, so as to diminish the returns problem. Companies should see returns not as an irritating ‘fact of life’, but as an urgent problem to be solved as an indication of their dedication to fairness towards all customers, not just the privileged few.

All sectors of commerce have to adapt to some new realities. To see an example of how this tsunami has already permanently re-shaped the landscape, it is worth considering again the two advertisements mentioned at the beginning of this article: realising that no brand would be so ill-advised to have produced them after the events of this year.

To say that these commercials are now outdated is a gross understatement. They already look like the historical oddities of a hundred years ago.

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Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.