NEW YORK, United States — I read with great interest the Associated Press piece entitled "The Funny Math of Clothing Sizes" that appeared on this website a few weeks ago. The article describes the disparity between the growing number of plus-size female consumers in the United States and their disproportionately small share of overall women’s apparel sales.
“The average American woman is about 25 pounds heavier than she was in 1960. Yet women's plus-size clothing, generally defined as size 14 and up, still makes up only about 9 percent of the $190 billion spent annually on clothes," says the article. The author goes on to identify the drivers of this disparity as twofold: firstly, a lack of focus on the category by fashion designers (“the fashion industry has long spent more time, money and marketing on clothing for taut bodies”) and, secondly, pervasive stereotypes associated with the notion that larger women do not want to dress fashionably.
As the co-founder and chief executive of Fashion To Figure (FTF), a fast fashion retailer targeting plus-sized women, I have first-hand experience with these issues. Moreover, my great-grandmother Lena Bryant pioneered the plus-size clothing market in the 1890s and many generations of my family operated her namesake business (Lane Bryant) during much of the 20th century.
While the point about designers ignoring larger women is unfortunately entirely accurate, the focus groups and surveys we have conducted -- along with many hours spent on our store floors interacting with customers -- indicate that today, plus-size women want to dress as fashionably as anyone.
There was a time, decades ago, when society was more rigid and specialty stores catering to larger women like our family’s business essentially provided a place for plus-size consumers to hide. Back then, avoiding scrutiny was more important than finding fashion trends. But thankfully, things are changing. Actresses, public figures and other role models of all shapes and sizes have started to change stereotypes for a new generation of women. And, now, a majority of women sizes 12 to 26 want what all consumers want: fabulous product, compelling prices, a contemporary store environment and a range of options. This is what we provide at FTF. So, it strikes me that by ignoring this segment, fashion brands are missing a substantial business opportunity.
Why would anyone ignore this market when women like Adele, Rebel Wilson, Oprah, Queen Latifah, Octavia Spencer, Melissa McCarthy and Christina Hendricks, to name just a few, are massive influencers of consumers and encouraging plus-size women to be fashionable?
It no longer makes sense for fashion companies to refer to channel or brand conflict or a traditional fashion aesthetic as a reasons for not pursuing the plus-size segment. Back in 2006, Karl Lagerfeld’s annoyance that his H&M collaboration was produced up to size 16, captured in his statement that his designs were only for "slim, slender people" offended many. Today, as the average size continues to rise, the stance is not only offensive but foolish from a business perspective. H&M seems to have recognized as much as has started to carry plus-sizes in stores.
When we launched FTF in 2004, we were surprised that there was not more competition in the plus-size market. And we are still taken aback that there are not more choices now. While this may seem like a good thing from a self-interest standpoint, we think it is a bad thing for our customers and society as a whole. We started our business for the same reason our great-grandmother started hers: to affect lives positively.
Whether they end up working with us, or with others who may join the market, it’s time for those throughout the fashion industry to realize that catering to plus-size women is one of those instances where one can do very well financially by doing what's right.
Michael Kaplan is co-founder and chief executive of Fashion To Figure (FTF), a fast fashion plus-size women's clothing company.