For all the body-positive activism of late, there’s one group that continues to ignore plus-size shoppers — and their wallets.
According to new data by research firm Edited, only 0.1 percent of luxury fashion brands identify as plus-size, a stark disconnect given that more than two-thirds of women in the U.S. wear a size 14 or above.
While there are plus-size retailers that serve the mass market — ASOS Curve, Torrid, Lane Bryant—there are very few Fashion-capital-F brands that even consider the customer base that represents, by some estimates, $80 billion in latent demand.
New York Fashion Week may have sent a message that progress is being made: It featured some of the most diverse runways to date, two plus-size exclusive fashion shows (Torrid and Addition Elle), and theCurvyCon, the Comic-Con of the plus-size world.
But a more critical eye discerns that the “progress” made is only surface-level. As for those diverse runways? Prabal Gurung, a designer who’s known for using his runways as a vehicle for activism, cast two plus-size models in his show this year, but his clothes seem to reach only a size 8 on his website (his famous slogan T-shirts are available in sizes extra-small to extra-large.) Chromat, a swim and activewear brand that included transgender and plus-size models in its show, offers up to only a size “XL” on its website and up to a size 38DD cup size.
And Chromat, Addition Elle, and Torrid are not considered “luxury” fashion. Speaking of Torrid, the mall brand’s runway show elicited perhaps the most poignant review during NYFW: It “reaffirmed fashion’s disdain for fat people” (that is, stacking a front row with thin-fluencers while relegating plus-size bloggers and tastemakers to the back, which doesn’t exactly support the brand’s mission).
Calling out all this isn’t to denigrate the work being done but to avoid complacency. “The luxury industry has had a very narrow view on what it defines as beauty,” says Edited senior analyst Katie Smith. “There was a stigma attached to not fitting within those lines, and that was most noticeable for fuller-figured women, who for so long went mostly ignored by the industry.”
The point is, when you think of design houses whose wears are aspirational to any fashion follower (the Chanels and Diors of the world), the barrier to purchase is not financial alone for plus-size men and women. Clothes are literally not made in their sizes, no matter what their bank accounts look like. (For the plus-size readers now rolling their eyes and saying “duh,” bear with me.)
So why don’t more luxury brands (and retailers in general) cater to the plus-size market, which has left more than 100 million people in dire sartorial straits? What started as, frankly, a matter of discrimination, is now a data issue. According to Target senior vice president of apparel Michelle Wlazlo, retailers traditionally abided by basic sizing practices that don’t meet the needs of plus-size women beyond a size 12. That is, not all plus-size women have hourglass frames, and Target, in this case, is working to gather more data about how best to cut fabrics for larger sizes.
As for luxury retailers, scale and pricing becomes an issue when sizing up. “Using more fabric when you’re using the finest fabrics the world has to offer, will cost the brand more, which isn’t a cost that could be fairly passed on to a plus-size shopper,” says Smith. Since luxury brands don’t sell their garments at nearly the scale of mass-market players, their margins would become strained if their manufacturing costs increase.
But that doesn’t mean adding more sizes to a luxury brand’s offerings wouldn’t pay off. In the U.S., 2016 plus-size apparel sales grew 17 percent from three years before to $20.4 billion and could grow multiples still.
“At a time when the luxury retail sector is already embattled with sluggish growth, investing in plus-size apparel items — an obvious market opportunity — is a no-brainer,” Smith says.
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Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style + Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.