‘Fatshion’ Finds Niche Online, Not in Stores

By Lenore Fedow

After considerable controversy last year over the exclusionary marketing strategies of popular teen clothing brand Abercrombie & Fitch, the company has released a woman’s plus-size line for the spring 2014 season.

Abercrombie & Fitch came under fire last spring when a 2006 Salon magazine interview with the company CEO resurfaced, explaining why the Abercrombie does not offer plus-size clothing. “A lot of people don’t belong,” explained Michael S. Jeffries, who went on to say that Abercrombie & Fitch wants “to market to cool, good-looking people. We don’t market to anyone other than that.”

One problem is that most American women do not fit the Abercrombie ideal. ModCloth, an e-tailor specializing in vintage and independently made clothing in a wide range of sizes, conducted an online consumer survey of 5,000 American women, ages 15-65. The June 2013 survey concluded that more American women wear a size 16 than those who wear a size 0 and 2 combined. The average American woman is a size 14 and over half of all American women wear clothing in sizes 16 and over, according to Plunkett Research, a Houston-based market research firm. Of these women, over half buy their clothing online.

Abercrombie & Fitch is the latest retailer to move into plus-size merchandise. But, like most major retailers, the company is still keeping both its plus-size merchandise and customers out of stores and relegating them to online sites. The reasons range from practical problems, like issues with displaying clothing in a wide range of different sizes, to the perception that plus-size fashions aren’t chic.

Most American women wear size 14 of above. Photo by Emma Kazaryan
Most American women wear size 14 of above.
Photo by Emma Kazaryan

Until recently, Abercrombie & Fitch’s largest jeans size was a 10. Women’s shirts were available up to a size “large;” but, based on size-chart measurements, Abercrombie & Fitch’s “large” is considered a size medium in American Eagle, Old Navy, and Ann Taylor.

Indeed, most retailers have begun to stock large sizes online. Last February, Gap extended its online sizes to include a size 20 and XXL. Last August, H&M launched its H&M+ line online. Similarly, Old Navy, Anthropologie, Express, American Eagle, Talbots, Ann Taylor, and J. Crew all carry plus-sized clothing; but anything above a size 14 is only available via the Internet.

One practical problem in carrying plus-size clothing alongside smaller sizes in retail stores is that the larger clothing requires different displays. The hangers most retailers use to showcase their garments, for example, are too small for most plus-sized clothing. “Larger sizes fall off,” explained Gaynor Lea-Greenwood, senior lecturer in International Fashion Marketing and Communications at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, via email. “Visual merchandising does not look so nice with large sizes on the fixtures and fittings, as they do not give it a neat look.”

Another problem is that “small and plus-sizes in stores are priced exactly the same and yet it is obvious that the larger sizes take more materials and therefore costs [more] to make,” added Lea-Greenwood. “Customers in the smaller size spectrum do not want to be reminded they are subsidizing larger sizes.”

There are exceptions. Talbots, for example, charges $10 more for their plus-size jeans than their “normal” size jeans.

In retailing, presentation is everything, according to Mark Joyner, the author of The Irresistible Offer (2005). For a customer to walk into a store and see a messy rack would be visually off-putting, he explained in the book. “You can literally close a deal in the mind of your prospect within the first three seconds of coming into contact with your marketing,” wrote Joyner.

For plus-size women, getting the attention of the mainstream fashion world is a major challenge. Melissa Ludwicki, a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate and New York-based freelance makeup artist and shoe designer, said it is a battle worth fighting. She knows first-hand how a limited plus-size selection can affect a woman’s life from a young age.

“I wouldn’t go into certain stores because I knew they didn’t carry my size,” said Ludwicki who is 5 feet 10 inches tall and curvy. “It also made me skip out on shopping trips with friends because I hated that the skinny girls got to wear all the cute clothes and being plus size, I was stuck in clothing that made me look boxy and manly because there was no shape.

“Just because a girl is plus size, doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a waist,” added Ludwicki.

The battlefront extends far beyond the average American mall. High fashion models are notoriously thin and the couture clothing they model is available in even more limited sizes than ready-to-wear—often only up to a size 8. However, Ludwicki has seen the tides changing here as well.
Last year, Eden Miller was “the first designer to show a plus-size clothing line” at New York Fashion Week, said Ludwicki.

This year, IMG, a leading modeling agency, signed some of the biggest names in plus-size modeling, including Ashley Graham and Danielle Redman.

“Call me crazy, but your sales would really increase if you weren’t marketing to such a small percentage of the population,” said Ludwicki.

Christel Parker, a New York- based psychotherapist and eating disorder specialist, treats men and women who struggle to embrace their own unique bodies. “The thin ideal that we find so commonly now in our culture is perpetuated so much and that can be very damaging to a person,” said Parker “It’s damaging psychologically and it has profound affects when people cannot meet that ideal.”

celebrate your size
Macy’s is one of several traditional retailers with a plus-size department.
Photo by Emma Kazaryan

Nearly 10 million American women suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and compulsive overeating, according to the National Eating Disorder Association. According to Rader Programs, a provider of clinical treatment for eating disorders, 20 percent of people suffering from anorexia will prematurely die from complications related to the disease including suicide and heart problems. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Sensing a market opportunity perhaps, in 2012, ModCloth began its self-described mission to free plus-size women from “dowdy styles and ill-fitting cuts.” The company sent its plus-size buyer to more than 1,500 vendors in an effort to seek out designers who would be willing to help the site expand its plus-size collection. At the time, only 35 vendors signed up.

Two years and one in-depth consumer survey later, more than 100 apparel makers are working with ModCloth to create trendy plus size clothing. They gather popular “fatshion” (an Internet term popularized on Tumblr) bloggers, such as Jess of The Militant Baker and Gabi Fresh, to discuss the challenges faced when designing plus-size clothing, and have even visited their customers’ homes to take a peek in their closets for inspiration.

ModCloth recently took its extended range of sizes on the road, setting up pop-up shops in Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Los Angeles, displaying clothing from XS to 4X to crowds of over 400.

Experts say that expanding the offerings of plus-size clothing could benefit both stores and shoppers. Offering plus-size fashions can help many larger women feel “better about themselves,” said Parker who also speculated that “from a business perspective, a lot of people say that thin sells but actually that’s not the truth. What they’re starting to see is when marketing is happening towards different body shapes, that is increasing sales.”

One key question for fashion industry is whether selling more plus-size fashions—with their added costs—will also improve their bottom lines.