Plus-Sized Fashion and the Apparel Industry

A response from decades of fitting women and making them look like princesses…for a pricetag well beyond ready-to-wear.

A recent NY Times article about the burgeoning plus-sized market touched only lightly on some of the issues that the designers and manufacturers of plus-sized apparel confront in the process of developing product for this marketplace. While the  reporter pointed out some of the business reasons that many clothing labels don’t pursue this increasingly lucrative marketplace, including some of the basics such as increased cost of manufacturing and increased cost of materials, she actually missed what we think are the most the critical points about developing for the plus-sized woman.

The first is a point that any fashion designer or couteriere will recognize right away: the size 8 pattern block is the ‘standard sized’ block, and as you get closer to the outer ranges  of the  ‘standard sizing’ (size 0, size 14) the size/shape challenges become, well, challenging.  Women carry their extra weight differently that men do.  When men get plus-sized, most of the time they just add it in their abdomen.  Compared to women, men  are relatively ‘boxy.’ This makes grading ‘big and tall’ garments for men easier to design the style and to grade the manufacturing patterns than it is for women with their curvier figures.  This means men’s garments in the ‘big and tall’ styles are more likely to  fit correctly and look good.

When women gain weight, they may add additional flesh anywhere on the body, which can range from fleshy upper arms, to a big bust line, wide hips and even plump ankles and feet.  The woman’s underlying frame won’t change, but where and how she carries the extra weight does.  In dealing with plus-sized women, there isn’t an easy algorithmic predictor of where this extra flesh will be located on the body, precisely because of the variety of body types that a plus-size may have.

This means that plus-sized patterns don’t grade equally or evenly from the standard block.  You can’t just incrementally grade up from a standard block and hope the fit pattern will be correct.  What that means to the consumer is that fitting a plus-sized gal is much harder than a ‘standard-size’ woman and quite often design houses will default to some version of the muu-muu in an effort to have some sort of offering in this marketplace.

Add in the fact that you can’t just pull a design out of the collection and think that all of the design elements will translate – you usually have to do  major reworking of the design to move seams and darts as well as resizing other elements such as buttons.  At a certain point the design becomes a completely different design. Everything about the plus-sized garment costs more because you need bigger buttons, more yardage for the garment (which doesn’t nest as tightly on the yard goods, which adds even more yardage to the overall yardage length), you have more or longer seams to stitch, more thread, the finished garment weighs more so costs more to ship than the standard garment, and so on.   Just one garment with these additional costs could be absorbed (maybe), but do even a moderate run of 10,000 pieces and suddenly your margin is gone.

The same printed designs that look adorable on the smaller framed wearer will look juvenile and lost on the bigger wearer, so that means that either the print needs to be scaled-up to complement the wearer’s additional volume (adding additional expense across the supply chain since you’ve added a ‘new’ print to your collection) or more likely, the garment is produced in a plain (less expensive) fabric.

The apparel industry is not willfully ignoring plus-sized women.  We can’t afford to miss any revenue stream out there.  It’s just a lot harder to deliver a product that fits any given plus-sized woman well, AND looks good on her  then it is to design a standard size garment where there’s a much greater likelihood of the wearer being happy with both the fit and styling.   A standard size run  for the 8-14 market  gets hairy when you move to the 16+ market.  Remember how we said women carry their extra weight differently? Well,  if you pick out any five plus-sized women, odds are you’ll have at least three fitting challenges, and possibly five: pear with big hips & thighs;  pear, with big fanny;  big tummy and no fanny; round all over;  classic hourglass; T-shape with big bust and arms and no fanny; T-shape with big back, smaller bust, heavy arms…the list of fitting challenges goes on, but apparel manufacturers are constrained to produce one design standard per size.  How do you fit all of these women, each of whom need more fabric in a given area, and have the garment look and hang correctly?

To illustrate the issue, let me share this true story about fitting plus-girls: I spent a couple decades doing couture. At one point, I had to fit two brides maids for the same wedding, both size 26.  Theoretically, I should have been able to use the same pattern for both since they both had the ‘same’ RTW size and they both weighed the same within a couple of pounds.  However, when I measured them, it turned out one girl carried her weight in her tummy, with no fanny to mention; the other girl was closer to a classic hourglass with big hips and chest.  The hourglass was straight forward to fit; the other one gave me many gray hairs.  Try hanging one of those big old pseudo southern belle dresses with acres of skirt off a girl with no fanny…it’s hard enough with a littler woman, but when you have a bigger woman with yards of fabric in the skirt dragging it off the waist down the rear, and no waist worth mentioning, it’s a problem that requires some heroic fit efforts which aren’t possible in ready-to-wear.  And you can’t charge more for the woman with whose fitting issue who gave you more gray hairs because she’s not going to understand the pricing differential, even though her fitting issues were much time consuming than the hourglass girl.

We did get the flat-bottomed girl fit, and she looked lovely in her bouffant ersatz southern belle frock, which had some serious power rigging under it to keep it where it was supposed to be. (And she got a waistline for the first time in her life, which thrilled her to no end. Woot! the power of couture and proper foundations!)

After that experience I swore off doing plus-sized.  I found it far more time-consuming, expensive, and just too hard, even in a couture setting, to address all of the challenges that the plus-sized market offers.  In a production setting, it’s very difficult to produce a garment that any given plus-sized wearer is going to agree fits correctly and looks good on her.  If the wearer is one of the lucky ones, whose body shape/form/mass aligns with the fit model used by the design house, then she’ll be fine. But what about all the other women whose body don’t match? And how do you tell what body type the design house used in the first place?  Most design houses aren’t posting pictures of their fit models (although maybe they should).

Another thing I found after decades of couture is that women have a really poor vision of what their body is really like. I have had clients swear up and down they took a “size 16 religiously”, but that’s not what the tape showed.  Couture is vanity-driven, but it does not buy into ‘vanity sizing’, because the only standard is the one the client’s body presents.  The tape measure doesn’t lie even if the client does.  And just to clarify, clients lie for a lot of reasons, including the fact they’ve never been accurately measured, or they are honestly confused about their size because there’s no accurate size standard in the apparel industry, not because they are willfully trying to deceive the couteriere that she’s ‘really’ an 18 when the tape says something different.  In one case, I had a client who had a size 18 bottom and a size 14 top, and she wondered why dresses never fit her correctly.  She was ‘averaging’ and buying a size 16.  Her bodices were always baggy and her bottoms were always too tight.  We were able to fit her and even visually slenderize her through clever placement of trim and seams, but this is not something that is currently an option with modern production capabilities.  Couture like this is expensive — so expensive it is outside the budget of most women except for special occasions such as weddings or proms.  This means most women who are buying ready-to-wear are limited to what the industry can do.

This is one of the reasons we’re so excited to see all of the new technologies entering the marketplace that use avatars.  Woman can finally have their bodies scanned and get a true representation of their bodies.  We’re still a way off from enabling the customer to develop garments that fit her uniquely and are custom fabricated just for her unique figure, body shape and measurements, but we think that one of the things which will drive the whole field of custom fabrication will be this issue of women not being able to find clothing that fits them well and makes them feel like a million bucks.  And we know that  Fashion Research Institute will be leading the way to helping both designers and consumers get a better fit and production from their design concepts, all the way from conception to manufacture.


Shenlei Winkler Speaking at ISTE2010 SIGVE Virtual Environments Playground

Join educator and author Shenlei Winkler for this whirlwind tour through three well-defined use cases for OpenSim-based education.  Focusing on her celebrated work in virtual worlds for fashion designers, she also highlights ongoing research and development of exciting new projects in historical simulation.

Winkler will be talking about OpenSim for Education: Butterflies, Battlefields and Fashion Design from 12-12:30 pm MT/2:2:30 pm ET in the ISTE Island 4 region in Second Life.  Please join us for what promises to be an interesting half hour!

Fashion Research Institute Announces Butterfly Exhibit Grant Applications Now Open

Fashion Research Institute is pleased to announce the offering of five grant awards to educators around the world to further evolve and develop an exhibit of over 100 unique species of butterflies Shengril La Chamomilein an immersive learning environment using the OpenSim platform, which is an open source virtual world platform that allows actual users to change their digital environment. Using virtual worlds gives educators powerful tools to offer both synchronous and asynchronous education, research, and simulation.

For more information please visit our website. There you will find complete details on applying for this grant valued at over $75,000.

Vintage Splurge!

Good Morning my fashionistas!!!

I found my new happy place!!! Saturday we got up bright and early so that Shenlei, her mom, and I could all go out to tag sales and vintage shopping.  We set out and found some local garage sales that were going on, if you call it going on, being that it was pouring cats and dogs out. I was so not about to go out and start rummaging in the rain.  We called off garage sales as everyone else felt the same way. We ended up going to the Salvation Army to look for old prom and wedding dresses to cut up and make new things out of (these would be especially perfect for our handbag line).   They didn’t have too much actually, and the stuff they did have were still too overpriced for being in the condition they were in.  However, right about half way through, we found a beautiful black beaded dress that we are going to take apart for its trimming and beading.  It was only $10 and so we thought it would be well worth it. We get up to the cashier and he announced that during Saturday and the rest of the weekend, there was  a half-off everything sale going on. So we got our awesome beaded dress for only $5. The trim itself you couldn’t get that cheaply. SUCCESS!!!!! WE WILL NOT PAY RETAILLLLLL!!!!

Victorian-styled headwear - It's Actually a Replica!

After that wonderful little piece, our tastes were still not satisfied for our thrill of deals.  Shenlei said she was going to take us up to Hyde Park, about a 10-15 min drive up Route 9, and show us an exquisite little antique place.  THIS IS MY NEW HAPPY PLACCCEEEEEEE. This place, the Hyde Park Antiques Center, is AmAzInG!!!!!! Its a beautiful old building that has many many MANY different rooms in it, each room is a different vendor. Each had just the absolute amazing articles collected throughout the ages.  I was in awe with the amount of old vintage books and other additions that were being displayed from many many years ago.  I was just sooooo happy to be there.   The amount of fabrics and textiles that were for sale was awesome.   We found a bunch of old crocheted lace all over, many different mink shawls with the actual heads still attached (thinking very hard about going back to retrieve one), Many different Victorian outfits and hats and accessories!!! I fell in love with one Victorian hat I found which I believe is a riding hat back in victorian times. It was soooo beautiful and I was on the verge of splurging on it when Shenlei said that this could easily be replicated. So she promised to give me a day of lessons to replicate it. We took a couple of pictures of the style and materials used so we can come as close as possible.  Shenlei found an awesome little treasure chest assortment of old jewels and messed-up pearls that she was looking for for only $5.  All sorts of little goodies in there including an actual boy scout pin, vintage crown matching cuff links, and much, much more.   ( it was the pearls she was after though.)

The EverReady Diner

Towards the end of the shopping trip, I stumbled across a pair of perfect condition vintage ladies hand gloves.  They were a lavender/gray color, very tiny but a perfect snug fit for my hands and made out of a very very thin suede.  I showed Shenlei, she said they were sooo under-priced and I needed to splurge…I paid all of $3 for these perfect treasures!!! lol Her mom finally caught up with us and brought us back to reality after playing dress-up when she said we’ve been there for almost a whole 2 hours…in 1 shop!!!!  and that she was getting a little hungry. So we scurried over to the cashier, trying not to look at all the wonderful new things we missed around us.  I found some old vintage books and these wonderful gloves that I can’t wait to put an outfit together for. I’m sure they’ll go great with my Sleepy Hollow Shadows Collection as well 🙂  They were such a steal.

After overwhelming experience of our vintage shopping, we headed to what is very common around here, an old-fashioned diner. Now, I’ve never really been to one before, but it was toooooo cute! It was a real old-fashioned diner that was all metal and very very 50’s.  Just look at the pictures!!!!! These are found all over the place here. This one is known as the EverReady Diner located in Hyde Park.  The chef is actually from the CIA. No, not the government program but the Culinary Institute of America which is actually located only about another 5 minutes or so up the road. (That’s pretty majestic itself, looks somewhat like Hogwarts in the Harry Potter movies. Shenlei suggested we plan dinner there sometime!!! 🙂 ).  The food was absolutely delicious at the EverReady and I actually wolfed down the whole Greek Gyro I had ordered without realizing how hungry I was from all the excitement of the vintage store.

Inside the EverReady: Note the Chrome Trim!!!!

It was a really fun day and I really can’t wait to go back. Shenlei mentioned that in the winter when business is slower, they have cuts in prices so well definitely have to go back then and see what else we can find.  I know there’s a really old pair of vintage cat’s eye (hot green) sunglasses I want there, but the price was too high for them. Keep your eyes out and let me know if you find a good pair! That’s my new obsession is vintage cat eyes. I would accept remakes or modern versions as well 🙂  Anyway, go around town and stop into one of these cutesy little stores, you never know what kinda treasures you can find!!!!

My New Crocheted Monokini!!!

Oh! and one last thing!!!..THE MONOKINI IS COMPLETE!!!! 🙂  Im going to have to add some triming on the sides to spice it up a little more but hope you like the design!!! Im already working on a couple more crochet tops I have in my head. Hope you enjoy the pictures and I’ll be in touch soon!

Hugs and Kisses!


This Week’s Festivities!!!

Sleepy Hollow Imagery For Sleepy Hollow Collection

Good Morning All!

Well, I’m half way through my first full week working with the most FaBuLoUs Shenlei and I have compiled a whole bunch of things to work on for the next couple months.  I’ll keep you updated little by little with each upcoming project. I hope you enjoy the trip 🙂

After being completely hooked on my new found addiction to crochet, Shenlei had to pull me away from mid-completion of my monokini project (pictures soon but only of completed garment!)  I first got back to work on my vintage handbag collection.

Morning Glory Painting!

Still working on the Miser Bag, I got started painting a beautiful scene of Jessamine, Sorrel, Forget-Me-Nots, and Morning Glories.  We worked over and over on construction paper, and I was having difficulty on the shading part of the Morning Glory.  (I think I was still coping with having to put down my crochet shaky hands lol)  I finally got the hang of it and proceeded to the actual fabric of the bag dun dun dun.  Shenlei was happy to see that the Morning Glory looked like…well…a Morning Glory 🙂  I have included some pictures for you to see.  I have one more flower to work on and then the painting part will be complete.  All that’s left to do is then construct it and then BAM!…1 down and 15 more to go 🙂

My Tree Design in Fashionable Grid

The next thing we began to work on was a content catalog project for the FRI’s inventory in the virtual world.  This was done through OpenSim and more importantly on FRI’s private grid called the Fashionable Grid.  Here, Shenlei showed me a bunch of beautiful sculptured trees she had created and it was my job to replicate these in all the different kinds of trees out there. She first gave me  a basic sculpty (sculpture of trees) for a single tree, a very large tree, and a patch of trees.

She then gave me different kinds of what are called textures that create the different kinds of the trees.  It was my job to take these textures and apply them to the sculptys to create many different species of trees.  For example, I started with the large tree.  She then gave me a group of textures labeled “pine trees”. Inside contained 12 different pine tree textures that were all different colors of the pine trees that occur throughout the season.  I then replicated the sculpty 12 times and to each, applied one texture. When I was through, I had a whole forest of all the different kinds of pine trees there are. THEY ARE BEAUTIFUL!!! I have included a picture of the Autumn Trees I also did.  These will be used as inventory for future work.  I still have  a bunch more trees to go but will keep you updated.

More Handbag Painting!!!!

The next day, Shenlei had given me what she calls “time practice sketches”. I was to do 50 ‘pencil roughs’, which are really fast sketches, in under 2 hours of different suit designs for our upcoming Dawning collection which is corporate women’s wear.  These are very rough sketches with only basic sketches and designs. From there we then sat down to examine which designs had  most potential and which were best to represent our company.  Shenlei picked out 12 of her liking and now it is my turn to go back and do three more versions of each garment she picked.  This process allows me to slowly evolve our collection using fine details because this is a couture line.

I saved the best for last!!! My newest and favorite project right now is the development of my Sleepy Hollow collection. I sat in with Shenlei and the rest of the interns in SecondLife on Tuesday for our weekly meeting and we all had a chance to come up with and develop some inspiration for a new virtual fashion collection.  Missy already got a head start and came up with a beautiful concept board for a virtual swimwear collection called “The White Queen.” She had the most beautiful imagery and some of her first attempt garments were just absolutely stunning.

Pencil Roughs

I decided I wanted to do another virtual collection mirrored in real life again like I did for my Senior Collection at Buffalo State College.  I have entitled my collection “Sleepy Hollow Shadows.”  It is going to be a mix of Victorian bridal wear and modern day silhouettes.  What’s really exciting is that in my real life collection,  I am going to be playing with a fabric called Tyvek. YES! this is the stuff you use to line houses with and other crazy things like hazmat suits for chemical work.  BUT, we found that when washed, it drapes very nicely and is going to give an absolutely killer look for the imagery.  Right now we’re trying to do some sourcing for it (although we can find it at Home Depot, we’re hoping to not pay retail :).  A friend of mine’s father works at DuPont and said he would be willing to lend me a couple of different sourcing options that may be willing to donate material for our project.

So first what I am doing is creating a concept board for my collection.  I am taking a lot of imagery from all the shots I took at the actual Sleepy Hollow Cemetary and then a couple clothing images from the Tim Burton film of Sleepy Hollow and combining them for my inspiration.  I will incorporate all my elements and motifs I wish to use and really show them off in my board.  After, I will draw out colors for a color board. I am thinking a gradient scale from black to white as well a rust color.  Tyvek unfortunately cannot be dyed, so I must work with its white base BUT!!!! we can SPRAY PAINT!!!! 🙂  very exciting.  I also have this killer idea for the dresses but that will have to wait for now because it needs a lottt of preparation work.  Stay tuned for that!!!

I will then develop a material board which contains the fabrics and notions I wish to use for the collection.  Remember that all the garments I make it real life will also be replicated in virtual life, down to the very last broach.  After my concept board is complete, it is then time to start sketching my first 12 garments in rough sketches.  Shenlei said we are going to take a couple more field trips for this collection to different antique shops and flea markets to find more inspiration and possible fabrics and notions. That I am really excited about.

I will have more pictures for you later and keep you updated on all that is going on here in my little palace 🙂  I am off to paint and possibly pick up some more yarn that I ran out of. GOING THROUGH CRAZY CROCHET WITHDRAWAL RIGHT NOWWWWWW….so I’ll have a finished pic of my fabulous monokini design shortly for you.  Thanks so much for keeping in touch!  Loving the comments about loving my blog.  Thank you all!

Hugs and Kisses!