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Plus Size Fashion: The New Gold Rush?

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In today’s guest post, Emma Hayes, womenswear customer fit expert and Founder of At Last, explores the many issues around today’s ‘plus size’ market, and what we can do to better this. Emma has worked in retail for over 3 decades, with a specific focus on womenswear and lingerie, and is fascinated by bodyshape diversity.

In the UK, we are often told that the average woman is size 16 (a difficult fact to prove, actually, although it’s known that larger women make up around half of the population), yet the percentage spend in the plus size fashion sector lags at around 22%. So it looks like larger women are spending less than half of what they might be expected to do.

There is no consensus as to what constitutes the size range for ‘plus size’, but it’s clear there is a dearth of choice of apparel offered from size 16 upwards. In Britain, premium brands like Marina Rinaldi, or fashion-forward Anna Scholz, stand amongst the few honourable exceptions to the rule that there is virtually no top end in plus size fashion. Mid-pocket fashion fares little better: European e-tailer, Navabi, is one of the few that can use the words ‘quality’ or ‘design’ about plus-size without hyperbole. The vast majority of British apparel in this size range rests firmly in the non-designer, value sector.

The same applies to the US, where a few brave brands have created fashion-forward outposts in a largely underwhelming landscape. Most American women are forced into the same, fairly narrow price-point as their UK counterparts, having to put up with a similar lack of design creativity. In both markets, the vast majority of plus size apparel is made from stretchy, cheaper fabrics, modified for a non-specific fit. It’s shocking to find that tracking down a classy, well-made and functional business suit that fits a size 24, for example, is a big ask for these women – regardless of the fact that there are businesswomen aplenty who are asking for just that. Fashion’s disappointing offering to one half of the female population means it would be easy to fit a list of all of the main plus-size players in this one article, yet would be difficult even to calculate the length of such a list of ‘mainstream’ sized brands.

The logic is clear: arguably, 50% of the population is not being offered anything like a satisfactory breadth of choice on which to spend their money. Admittedly, this market is projected to grow an extremely healthy 7.1% in the next few years, yet even at this rate it is unlikely to ever catch up.

It doesn’t take a long time browsing through ‘size acceptance’ social media to get the feeling that plus size womenswear consumers are not happy. On one hand, they’ve noticed that they are being offered nothing like the choice of the fashion-forward looks they aspire to, and on the other, these women also make persistent complaints about ill-fitting clothing. It does appear that this cohort is suffering from considerably worse grading problems than their ‘mainstream’ sized equivalents.

This resonates the persistent drumbeat of bad news about the fit-related returns that are plaguing this sector. Brands can be very secretive about their failures, but there are dark places in plus-size ecommerce where returns rates of up to 70% (far worse than the already abysmal returns rate of ‘mainstream sizes) are whispered about, the lion’s share of which is reported due to ‘fit problems’.

All in all, something is very wrong in the state of plus size.

Could fit be at the root of all plus size fashion’s woes?

It would appear so. Women come in a range of figures. To name a few: ‘apple’, ‘pear’, or ‘busty’ body shapes (men’s physiques are less diverse). Amongst slimmer women, these various types are often evident, but it is in the plus-size consumer that they become really exaggerated. Put simply, each female body stores its weight in a particular pattern (it’s fairly rare to have it spread evenly all over), meaning that, as a woman puts on weight, whichever part of her physique was comparatively large to begin with continues to grow, whilst other areas become proportionally smaller, exaggerating the shape. Therefore, the larger a women becomes, the more likely she is not able to squeeze into apparel that is made for her size but not her shape.

The fashion industry has largely soldiered on trying to ignore this inconvenient fact. Sending out apparel in standard grading and sizing to a cohort that is anything but standard is like throwing mud against a wall and hoping that it will stick. The resultant slurry of returns is clogging up the industry.

The chronic fit problem particularly plagues ecommerce, because it doesn’t presently offer consumers the opportunity to try garments on prior to buying them. This has meant the industry has been forced to ignore designer, tailored, fashion-forward and expensive clothing, or anything else that relies on a very specific fit, which would probably stand no more than a one in six chance of hitting the mark. Faced with the tidal wave of returns, most of this sector has had to wriggle its way right down to the bottom of the price, variety and quality scale, so much of the offer consists of ‘easy-fit’, cheaper, predictable garments.

The result of the fit problem spreads out like an oil spill, polluting the whole scene: the plus size fashion industry’s margins are damaged, it’s even more ecologically unsustainable than the rest of the fashion industry, lacking in maturity, lacklustre and suffering from galloping customer dissatisfaction.

Yet those with imagination look at a stunted industry and see only a huge, exciting opportunity, with billions just waiting to be disgorged by digital disruption. Apparel businesses are still utilising sizing systems that were developed for last century’s technology. With present day advancements, so-called online ‘fit tools’ will soon be capable of identifying a consumer’s individual body shape and match it with the corresponding apparel. It’s like California just before the first prospector struck gold.

A radical re-think

The requisite garments are not yet in fashion’s inventory: clothing will have to be graded specifically for an individual’s body shape, dictated by a feedback loop of data gleaned from a large enough sample of consumers just like her, using those same fit tools. Apparel will be manufactured in a series of differing, niche shapes (mass, rather than individual customisation) in shorter runs using advanced digital systems at every stage.

The sizing system also needs a radical re-think; it has to be far more comprehensive to take into account the wide range of consumers’ diverse metrics. The consumer will be largely unaware of her new clothing size, which will be applied to her automatically using AI technology working intuitively, immediately, confidentially and non-intrusively. All she will know is that she is ordering a piece of clothing that will fit her.

If this sounds seductively easy, it shouldn’t: is very complicated, and as with all such situations, the trick will be to simplify it as much as possible from the start. The industry will initially use judgement and subtle customer knowledge to cluster the metrics into meaningful groups. There will be a trial and error period at the beginning where the data (which has never been so widely mined for this cohort, or any other) is gathered and analysed. This process has the added complication that a woman’s body shape dictates more than just the metrics of her apparel; working along with her own taste, it has fit and style preference implications, too. However, understanding these aspects just represent yet another way of better serving the consumer.

And this is just the beginning. The body shape data will ultimately be used to create better-fitting apparel for people in all sizes and shapes (the slimmer cohort will also end up getting a better fit), and achieve a more equal, diverse clothing offer to everyone, whether they are minority groups, fitness junkies, disabled people or have otherwise outlier body shapes. It will allow the development of curated apparel offers, enabling brands to benefit from increased sell-through, and individual customisation for specific purposes (say, bridal wear, occasional or, indeed, that smart work suiting). It will slash fashion’s shameful carbon footprint and boost the bottom line. It will market all aspects of the fashion industry (from top luxe at one end, to budget fast fashion at the other, and everything in between) to the neglected half of the female population. This will open up billions of dollars in increased commerce.

The first step is the development of the fit tools and associated input technology (like handheld scanning, for example, as relying on customers’ willingness and ablility to input their own measurements will not be scalable). It will not be an immediate process, and the fashion and tech industries have to come together to dig in for a long haul, being prepared to invest time as well as resources. Researching, acquiring, partnering and developing these advances should be the number one priority for those fashion brands that do not want to be left behind by the next great leap forward of digital technology.

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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.