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.