What Women Want: Breaking Down the Plus Size Fashion Debate

Plus size; the phrase coined in the fashion industry for women that don’t fit into a traditionalist’s ideal of what the perfect women should look like. In 1969, The Australian Women’s Weekly published an interview with Nancy Richardson under the heading “Real Fatty”. At 73 kilograms, she was the poster girl for the first Weight Watchers branch in Australia. Why? Because her father had said to her, “You’re so fat I cannot stand to look at you”.

Fast-forward to today and Nancy would be considered the average weight for an Australian woman. In fact, I weigh about the same as Nancy did all the way back in 1969 and I dress in a size 12-14. In many clothing stores, size 12 equates to a large, and is the biggest size women can purchase. Many retailers, however, don’t see this as an issue because they’re catering to the needs of the average ‘woman’. But, some clothing sizes run small, meaning a size 12 girl might not always fit into a size 12 pair of jeans, and what about the entire market of women that don’t fit the standard ‘mold’?

This lack of range and availability for women shopping for clothes led to the plus size boom, not just in Australia, but over the world. For instance, Specialty Fashion Group announced last year that it would be using the proceeds of the sale of five of its key clothing brands to the Noni B Group to “drive growth in City Chic”, its flagship plus size brand.

City Chic and Specialty Fashion Sale
City Chic has capitalised on the demand for larger sizing options.

So, why was Specialty Fashion so keen to hold onto City Chic, even after offloading all of its other retail offerings? City Chic has reportedly continued to be Specialty Fashion’s strongest brand, with the business stating in 2018 that it would generate $20 million in sales by the end of the year.

According to Specialty Fashion, the success of City Chic can be attributed to its focus on a niche fashion market that has been traditionally overlooked by mainstream retailers.

If City Chic has done anything over the past few years, it’s shown that shoppers are looking for greater sizing variety. Women also don’t want to have limited choice in styles and designs just because they wear a size 14 or above.

For Jane Lu, the CEO of online fashion boutique, Showpo, what women really want regardless of their size, is a variety of clothing options to choose from.

Lu says her fashion-forward customers didn’t want to wear ‘frumpy’ clothes because they were larger than a size 12-14.

“I think the biggest change in consumer expectations has been around the design of the clothing that is available in inclusive sizing. We spoke to girls who told us that they found plus size to be frumpy and limited to certain prints and sizes. Why do retailers dictate to them what they get to wear? Why can’t they wear the latest trends?” she tells Power Retail.

Shifting Ideals: From Plus Size to Inclusive Sizing

This brings us to the key shift in the Australian fashion industry. The term ‘plus size’ doesn’t fully encompass what it means to cater to the modern woman’s wardrobe needs. As such, we’ve started to see the emergence of ‘inclusive sizing’, with Lu leading the charge with Showpo’s diverse range of women’s clothing.

“There was a gap in the market and an opportunity to fill it while making an impact. It was a no brainer. We want to empower women – and the ones we had spoken to wanted to feel confident in what they were wearing, but felt like there wasn’t product available. We wanted to offer styles we already had, to a wider audience, not provide a specific range with different styles and cuts. We don’t limit our design thinking in this way,” she explains.

Showpo took existing products and adapted them to suit the needs of modern women.

According to Lu, this desire to cater to every woman, regardless of size, led to a greater investment in design and production capabilities, which has given the brand more “power” over its designs and sizes. The company has also shifted its marketing efforts to encompass all Australian women that share a love for fashion, a decision, which Lu says, has also proven fruitful for the company’s brand awareness and bottom line.

“We can pinpoint sales growth in our size segments… When we run campaigns featuring inclusive models, we see engagement with this creative increase as well as a positive sales impact. This trickles down further to the sentiment registered on our social channels, positive and encouraging commentary and really the way our customers choose to interact with us and how they feel about the brand,” she says.

Making the Shift to ‘Inclusive Sizing’

When asked what sort of considerations Lu had to make when expanding her product range to include sizing flexibility, she said there isn’t a way to fast-track the process, as making a positive change takes time.

“We started as a pure retailer with no experience in design and eight years ago manufacturers simply weren’t producing in a diverse range of sizes,” she says.

“From a product perspective this required an intensive amount of legwork, over four years ago we started dabbling in design, and diversifying our product range to grow it to fuller size range of  4-20 AU (0 – 16 US), and we had to consider product, design, fit and production schedules to maintain our stringent timelines. We had to undergo vetting and training with our supply base given that many hadn’t produced in this range of sizes before and needed guidance with grading and patterns.

“This also involved considering doubling our sample budget to enable us to produce content in two sample sizes for our customer. Now, when you jump online at showpo.com not only do you see the size offering but you see two different sized models side by side in the same outfit.”

Showpo photographs its diverse clothing range on models of all sizes.

Peter Alexander, on the other hand, has faced additional hurdles with its inclusive sizing strategy, which was first implemented two years ago.

In January, it came to light that the sleepwear label was charging up to $10 extra for its ‘larger’ sizes than it was for ‘smaller’ sizes. In defence of its higher price points, Peter Alexander it charged more for its bigger sizes because they spend more on the materials to make them and have had to adjust their designs to ensure the clothing fits different body shapes properly.

Peter Alexander first launched its ‘plus size’ range in 2016.

“To ensure comfort and that the fit is right, we use a different pattern to our regular collection while still maintaining a beautiful garment,” the statement said. “It is these different patterns, along with the size of production run and to a lesser extent fabric consumption, that impacts the price of the styles.”

Consumers were less-than-impressed by this reasoning, taking to social media to vent their frustration, claiming the higher price points are “unfair”.

“They use more material on a size 14 than a size 6, but they are the same price … and then suddenly a size 18 costs $10 more,” wrote Belinda Cox on Facebook. “The difference in material costs would be minimal.”

Lu, however, remains confident that retailers not offering women the clothing they want at a reasonable price point will create extra challenges for brands down the track.

“Ultimately, by limiting your size range, you’re losing access to a whole other market. If a customer feels considered by your brand, and your product backs it up, you not only have the potential to generate sales but create brand loyalty and build a community with your audience. Retailers who aren’t considering this are simply losing access to this opportunity.

“I think like anything, the more choice consumers have the more retailers will be challenged with their offering. They, like everyone else, have to innovate and provide a point of difference to their customer in order to keep them. This applies across design, customer service, brand experience and beyond,” Lu says.

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