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‘Plus size’ or the new normal?

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In his latest exclusive for us, WhichPLM’s fit expert, Mark Charlton, discusses the concept of ‘plus size’, and the associated pitfalls brands and retailers often fall into.

I have a passion for great fitting apparel and for over 20 years I have been helping brands fit apparel, understand sizing constructs and globalize fit offerings.

In this article I would like to address the recent growth of the plus size market and attempt to analyze why. I’d also like to challenge whether ‘plus size’ should, in fact, be the new normal.

Not a day goes by without a brand or a retailer extending its sizing offer to capitalize on the so-called ‘plus size’ market. Most recently, think Madewell, J-crew, Bonobos.

Why? Human bodies are changing. Just one of example from a 2016 study in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education states that the average American woman is now [in 2016] between sizes 16 and 18 (that’s 18 and 20 in the UK).

Brands and retailers are starting to wise up to the fact that humans are changing and this is a good thing – a baby step in the right direction.
But, merely adding larger sizes to an existing size offering is not the solution, nor is it addressing the route of the issue.

The term plus sizing personally offends me (and I only use it here as unfortunately it’s an industry norm), as I’m sure it does others. The fact is that humans are changing; we’re evolving and the whole sizing construct needs to evolve with us.

The larger end of the size scale is much more difficult to fit as an ‘average’ size 20 woman, or an average sized XXXXL man, doesn’t exist. The variables of each body measurement are much more exaggerated and the range significantly increases. There are no averages.

Catering to a larger body type?

Here’s how a typical brand creates ‘plus sized’ apparel.

They choose the size that no longer fits correctly on a larger sized body. They redraft the garment pattern, adding balance to accommodate for growth and curves, reducing armholes, wrists and necklines for parts of the body that do not grade / grow proportionately, and then apply another grade to this garment pattern to create a plus size offering.

In my opinion this process is incorrect, needs an overhaul and underlines that the whole sizing construct needs to evolve.

There is a reason that garments no longer fit at a certain size, typically 3-4 sizes away from the base size. If the base size (the size used to design, develop, fit and approve the prototypes), for example, is a medium when the product is graded to XXL or XXXL this will no longer fit correctly.

The culprit is linear grading

Grading is the term used to apply a rule (grade rule) to each point of the garment pattern to create the next size and the next size after that, and so on. Linear grading means this process is proportionate and follows proportionality rules across the size range.

Guess what? We humans don’t grown proportionately – as we grow in girth we don’t get taller! We also do not grow / apportion growth in a linear sequence – as our chest increases our neck does not grow at the same proportionate rate. Hence, when redrafting the garment pattern, certain elements need to be brought back to fit correctly.

The first problem then is linear grading.

The solution to this is to study how the human body actually apportions growth through the size range, all the way to the top end of the sizes, then grade the pattern, non-linearly, to ensure an accurate and true to human body shaped garment pattern.

For all the doubters (graders / pattern technicians / technical designers) reading this, think about what a grade rule is: an X/Y incremental measurement added to a point on the garment pattern to morph the pattern to create another shape to fit the size above and the size above, etc. This can absolutely be done in a non-linear sequence to remove the need for regrading or adding a ‘plus size’ range.

The next factor is garment over body ease

If a body chest measurement is 40” a garment may measure 42”, hence 2” of garment over body ease. Linear grading assumes this is maintained throughout the grade. Therefore a 60” chest person would have the same 2” of ease. Not sufficient for the larger body.

In actuality this should be maintained as a percentage, using the example above 40” to 42” is 5% meaning the 60” chest would require 3” of ease to maintain the 5%.

Of course, the ease over body – and in some cases negative ease exists (think compression garments) – differs across the product offering and therefore so should the grade rules.

The sweet spot

The next factor is trying to create an average (sweet spot) per size: an average medium, an average large, an average extra large. Humans are not ‘average’, we are individual. Of course a brand can choose to cluster its consumers, but clustering across 6 or 7 sizes is always going to cause a problem with fit across a mass population of consumers.

The solution to this is to offer dimension in a sizing construct. The industry, in pockets, has been doing this for decades: “Big and Tall”, “petite”, “athletic fit”, “plus size”. However, I would add that most of the aforementioned dimensions are niche and never the full extent of a brand or retailer’s full product offering. Is this fair? Absolutely not.

The historical rationale for limiting “non average” sizing is SKU (stock keeping units) proliferation. Imagine having to stock each size in each store location should the “big and tall” consumer swing by. Another news flash: e-commerce means pooling your stock potentially globally, therefore limiting SKU proliferation and excess inventory.

My suggestion to truly cater for an evolved human race that is diverse in body shape, proportion and culture is to evolve the entire sizing construct, and offer dimension in fits across the entire product offering. Create dimension in the grading practices, do not grade linearly. Understand your consumer, communicate your sizing standards and your fits. Help your consumer understand how your product will fit them.

Embrace the diversity that exists and do not try to be average!

Plus sizing is not a new space, it’s an opportunity that exists due to the inability to evolve the sizing construct at the pace at which the human race has evolved. It’s time to evolve!

Mark Charlton With more than 20 years’ experience in the apparel industry, Mark Charlton is a technical leader who has worked with manufacturers, trading companies, direct-to-consumer retailers,omni-channel national and global brands. His key focus is product groups from M2M tailoring to lingerie and everything in-between. He has an uncompromising approach to understanding the complexities of apparel fit, both on a consumer and global level. Additionally, Mark has a proven record of driving and implementing organizational and process change from corporate teams throughout the global supply chain.