NEW YORK, United States — Jill Wenger, founder of cult New York-based boutique Totokaelo, used to find shopping at her own store a challenge.
“I would select approximately 2,400 styles each season for Totokaelo. Out of those, around a dozen would fit me without alterations,” said Wenger. “My weight fluctuates between a size 14 to 16. I'm a designer customer. Outside of the off chance I can find an oversize style by Celine or Dries that fits, there isn’t much in the market for me.”
Wenger sold Totokaelo in 2016 and started Roucha, her “size inclusive” clothing line, the following year. A brand designed to fit women of all body types from size 0 to size 20, Wenger devised her own sizing chart that focuses in on offering clothing “in varied lengths and widths” (a size C, for example, fits a woman sized 10 to 14 and taller than 5 foot 4, while a CC fits women smaller than 5 foot 4).
A growing number of brands that traditionally focused on straight sizes are now selling clothing to plus-size customers too, from retail chains like Loft and Madewell, to start-ups like Reformation and Tanya Taylor. These lines typically extend beyond a US 12 (a UK 16) and run up to sizes 20 and above, where options for stylish apparel are relatively sparse.
Retailers are scrambling to figure out how to serve this suddenly very visible group of women.
Certainly, the plus size market opportunity is an attractive one. In 2017 it was worth £6.5 billion ($9.2 billion) in the UK and $23.1 billion in the US, and, by 2022, is expected to grow 10.7 percent and 22.9 percent respectively, according to GlobalData.
“Brands that have never considered plus before are starting to pay attention,” says Katie Sturino, founder of plus-size blog 12ishStyle and personal-care brand Megababe. “Major retailers who have ignored the plus size audience for years are scrambling to figure out how to serve this suddenly very visible group of women.”
But offering an expanded size range brings its own challenges, from higher fabric costs to nailing the fit in larger sizes. “There’s an entire set of rules that go with this part of the market … It’s quite a different animal,” explains Alex Waldman, who co-founded plus-size native brand Universal Standard with her partner Polina Veksler in September 2015.
So, how does a brand go about expanding beyond straight sizing?
Style comes first
Traditionally, the product offering in the plus space has been limited, making it harder to find stylish clothes. The new crop of “size inclusive” brands say they’re trying to rectify that.
At Roucha, Wenger aims to design clothes that appeal to women of all body types (her best-selling size is actually an AA, made for women sized 0 to 2 and taller than 5 foot 4. This is closely followed by a C, which fits a 10 to 14 taller than 5 foot 4.) That can mean designing clothes that don’t rely on fitting the waist in a specific way or adding a drawstring to give people the option to wear pants on their waist or hips.
Size is “one of the many choices we make when defining a unique, expressive personal style,” she says.“There’s no right answer. It’s a matter of taste.”
For some brands, housing straight sizes and plus sizes together is an important part of this. Tanya Taylor — who extended her namesake brand up to a size 22 in June 2017 — chose to integrate the larger sizes into her website’s existing product pages, while denim brand Good American — which spans sizes 00 to 24 — only works with retailers that will take their full size range and display the clothes in one space.
“We make absolutely no compromises,” says Good American co-founder Emma Grede. Currently, the brand is stocked at Selfridges in the UK and Nordstrom in the US, as well as some Bloomingdale’s locations.
Find the right manufacturing partner
Not all manufacturers are equipped to produce plus size clothing, while some are not willing to take on what can be a complex assignment.
Universal Standard's Waldman and Veksler said some factories told them they didn’t have looms big enough to produce the brand’s largest sizes, which run up from a 10 right up to a 28. However, “a factory that’s forward thinking and wants to partner with you, they will make the investment in the fit mannequins and in the technology,” says Veksler. This year, the company has plans to grow its size offering to span 6 to 32.
Tanya Taylor found the factories she works with were very supportive when she moved into the plus segment. “They’ve bought dress forms that fit our size 16 so they can accurately drape and show us the process, which I think shows a commitment on their end,” she said.
Flat pricing is a given
Creating new patterns and using more fabric is going to be more expensive. Charging more for the final product, however, is not an option.
“We made a decision out of the gate that we would do flat pricing and that we’d make it work,” explains Laura Jacobs, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Loft, which launched its Plus line this February. “We didn’t want this customer to feel any different than a existing customer or the customer we had been serving.”
Taylor says her brand margins on extended sizes are “benefitted by being [focused on] direct to consumer, versus the rest of our brand is 90 percent wholesale.” (In addition to the Tanya Taylor site, extended sizes are also stocked on Rent the Runway and 11 Honoré.) While plus sizes currently account for 15 percent of the brand’s e-commerce inventory, they drive 30 percent of online sales, she says.
Universal Standard’s Veksler says acquiring new customers helps make up for lower margins. “You cannot charge differently for those garments,” she says. “Because you’ll be getting and serving so many additional customers, you will make up the money by additional sales.”
To get the fit right, ditch the formula
When it comes to the plus segment, one fit model does not work for all sizes. As the body changes dramatically from size to size within the higher double digits, the grading rules used for straight sizes don’t apply to plus sizes.
12ishStyle's Sturino says it’s easy to tell when a brand hasn’t adjusted accordingly. “So often I find that I am disappointed by a brand’s attempt to be size inclusive when I try on their offerings and find I have to size up four times than what I’d usually wear,” she says.
Wenger does all the grading for Roucha herself, and recommends bringing a grader in-house and making a sample in every size. Universal Standard uses multiple fit models, fit their clothes across body types and developed its own micro-grading system for pattern creation.
The design changes within that size range. The garment looks exactly the same, but the pattern is made dependent on the size.
Good American's Grede agrees using multiple fit models is integral to getting a good fit across the size range. “In any one garment we have either two or three patterns,” she says. “The design actually changes within that size range. The garment looks exactly the same, but the pattern is made dependent on the size.”
Finding a design team with the right technical know-how, however, was a challenge. “There’s definitely a shortage in people with the expertise at this end of the size spectrum,” she adds.
Plus-focused retail partners can help you get started
Another way to approach expanding a size range is to partner with a retailer who already has the expertise and know-how.
11 Honoré is a luxury e-commerce site that sells runway looks in sizes 10 to 24. Founded by tech veteran Patrick Herning and former Vogue editor Kathryn Retzer, the site launched last August and has raised $11.5 million in funding to date. Brandon Maxwell and Michael Kors are among the designers currently stocked, while names like Altuzarra and Derek Lam will join the mix this fall.
The platform works exclusively with a consulting company that specialises in pattern-making to provide partner brands with expertise on managing the fit and design of larger sizes. “[It] takes all the heavy lifting off their shoulders,” explains Herning.
Additionally, 11 Honoré cover any upcharges in production to ensure pricing is kept flat across size ranges. “It can be at times more expensive to produce these pieces, but Patrick and I are very committed to making sure that our customer never pays a price differrence,” says Retzer.
Similarly, CoEdition — a new multi-brand marketplace selling contemporary plus-size clothing that launched in March this year and has raised $4 million Seed funding — is looking to do something similar. Currently, the platform only works with brands that already exist in the plus space, but in time, it hopes to do collaborations and capsule collections with brands that don’t yet cater to the plus market in the future. “As we grow and collect more data and analytics, we can share that with partners to help educate them in how to service this woman,” explains co-founder Brooke Cundiff.