The body positivity movement has hit the mainstream, with brands from Anthropologie and American Eagle to Athleta and Nike launching extended sizing in the last three years alone. One brand has them beat by nearly two decades. Today, its private equity backers are cashing in.
Torrid, the retailer that launched in 2001 as the “Goth Barbie” sister brand to Hot Topic now has over 600 stores of its own, which along with its website generated net sales of $974 million last year. On Thursday, the company’s shares began trading on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol CURV. The stock ended its first day of trading at $24.15, a 15 percent gain from where it priced.
Torrid’s IPO marks the culmination of a strategy that dates back to 2014, when a brand makeover shifted focus from rock-inspired clothes to a broader range of styles, with an emphasis on fit. That positioned the retailer as a trendy brand with a track record of taking the needs of plus-sized women seriously just as the body positivity movement was beginning to make inroads in the fashion industry.
“There is a cultural movement that is beneficial to us,” chief executive Liz Munoz told BoF. “Between social media giving a voice to the voiceless and the body positivity movement, it’s an exciting time — and we are right in the middle of it.”
Where hundreds of stores in shopping malls have proven a liability for other brands, Torrid’s visibility is crucial to many of its customers, who say they’re made to feel invisible by a fashion industry that caters mainly to one type of body.
“Shopping is a psychological minefield for anyone, and then you get a group of consumers who… aren’t allowed to gain competence in this process because they have to shop exclusively online,” said Amanda Mull, a staff writer at The Atlantic who has written about the failures of the recent wave of plus-size marketing. “You get an enormous head start as a brand if you just give them a way to experience the clothes.”
It’s the brands that have their eye on these customers that people quietly support.
Newer companies have also found success within plus-size fashion, including 11 Honoré in the luxury space, Good American with denim and Universal Standard with minimalist fashion. Walmart acquired Eloquii, a start-up, for a reported $100 million in 2018. Incumbents and start-ups alike are eyeing the industry’s profit potential: 70 percent of American women wear a size 14 or larger, according to research firm NPD, and plus-size apparel will generate $32 billion in sales in 2021, according to Coresight Research. But it can be a tricky market to enter. Loft and White House Black Market are among the brands that have started, then shuttered, plus-size lines.
But Torrid’s IPO demonstrates the opportunity for brands that can tap into the community that the body positivity movement has helped inspire, said Cece Olisa, founder of plus-size conference CurvyCon.
“The power in plus-size is the culture,” Olisa said. “It’s the brands that have their eye on these customers that people quietly support.”
How Torrid Found Its Footing
When Torrid launched, customers were thrilled to have stores that sold youthful clothes in extended sizes.
“Growing up, there were no options, unless you wanted to buy something your mom would wear,” said Kanoa Green, a fitness instructor. “Buying Torrid clothes was the first time I ever remember feeling cute in clothes.”
Despite its early success on the style front, Munoz, who joined the brand in 2010, said Hot Topic didn’t put much effort into giving Torrid a “high quality, collective vision.” She said the company mostly made clothes that were styled by outside vendors Torrid merchandisers would find at trade shows.
In 2013, the private equity firm Sycamore Partners bought Hot Topic and began a rebrand for Torrid. It was spun off the next year (Sycamore also bought Torrid competitor Lane Bryant from Ascena in December 2020 through its affiliate, Premium Apparel).
Munoz said around this time, Torrid brought the design and manufacturing process fully in-house. The company also focused on perfecting the fit across every size — a major point of contention in plus-size clothes. Torrid’s website boasts a nine percent return rate, compared to a typical 30 to 40 percent, according to eMarketer.
Buying Torrid clothes was the first time I ever remember feeling cute in clothes.
“We had years of work to do on the product,” Munoz said. “Eight years ago, we said, ‘we are going to stay here until we nail fit.’ We fit 140 garments a day.”
Aimee Cheshire, founder of the now-defunct plus-size brand Hey Gorgeous, said Torrid became known as an industry leader for fit because it developed its own sizing system (it sells 00 through six, equivalent to sizes 10 to 30).
“They created their own definition of sizing, instead of trying to jump off of traditional sizing in the market,” Cheshire said. “They wrote their own rules.”
Green, who does plus-size fashion consulting, still tells start-ups to study Torrid’s fits when designing their own garments.
In its IPO filing, Torrid describes its clothes as “unapologetically youthful and sexy.” Chesire said companies like Universal Standard and 11 Honoré tend to sell more stylish wares.
“You dig down and it’s still the same, typical plus-size products, like fit-and-flare tops and clothes that try to hide your waistline,” Cheshire said. Munoz said Torrid is “not about fashion” and instead focuses on customers who want their “body to be flattered in the best way possible.”
Mull credits Torrid for being among the first brands to enter certain plus-size categories, from denim to intimates.
“When the market started moving to bralettes and stuff less structured, they were really one of the first options,” she said. “It was an intelligent move because it’s hard to find larger band-size bras that are not matronly.”
For its customers, the formula has worked: Net sales jumped from $440 million in 2016 to $909 million in 2019. Gross profits grew from $172 million in 2016 to $330 million in 2021.
The Power of Plus-Size Retail
Though 69 percent of Torrid’s sales were online in the year ending May 1 (up from nearly 50 percent before the pandemic), the company “would not have a profitable way of acquiring customers without those stores,” Munoz said. The company plans to open about 25 more stores.
The way I can go into a store and ask for a size without being worried I will be judged is an enormous relief.
Torrid employs plus-size retail associates, which Mull said makes all the difference.
“The way I can go into a store and ask for a size without being worried I will be judged is an enormous relief and a level of in-person comfort that is extremely difficult for fat women to come by,” Mull said.
The Future of Plus-Size
Torrid initially filed for IPO in 2017 before pulling back its plans because Munoz said the company “wasn’t ready.”
“This can’t be an overnight phenomenon,” she said of serving the plus-size market.
Cheshire said that Torrid has been able to experiment with fit and product because of its private equity backing — a rare luxury.
“Most brands won’t have that big corporate support to buy time to figure out customers,” she said.
Munoz said Torrid will focus on brand awareness to capture more market share. It will also expand into more underserved categories. She said Torrid has its eye on scrubs, which brands like Figs have made fashionable, but is yet another category where plus-size shoppers struggle to find options.
“We’ve only got four percent of the available [plus-size] customers,” Munoz said. “There’s a lot of potential considering the magnitude of the market.”