LONDON, United Kingdom — The feeling of arriving home after a long journey — relief, familiarity and comfort. This is what Marina Rinaldi hopes a customer will feel as she ascends the broad stone steps, glides past the doorman and touches down upon the soft Chinoiserie rug in the brand’s pale grey Georgian townhouse in London’s Mayfair.
Relief, because, finally, her hunt for beautiful, luxurious clothes is over. Familiarity, because the staff refer to their clients as “family,” share complimentary afternoon tea and spend, on average, two to three hours with each client per visit. And comfort, because no other retail environment is tailored to meet the every need of the plus-size woman.
In most high-street stores, the plus-size section is an afterthought: a cramped space, hidden deep in the bowels of the shop. In luxury stores, it is non-existent. But, over the last three decades, Italian label Marina Rinaldi has rewritten the rulebook for plus-size luxury fashion to the tune of a turnover of €165 million ($182 million) in 2013.
Founded in 1980 and named after the great-grandmother of the founder of its parent company, Max Mara Fashion Group, Marina Rinaldi sells approximately 2 million items per year in over 200 stores in designer districts from Beverly Hills to Doha, as well as 700 wholesale stockists including Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.
That the brand has produced advertising campaigns shot by Arthur Elgort, Peter Lindbergh and Patrick Demarchelier and has a London flagship where the staff is Savile Row-trained, may sound commonplace for a luxury label. But in the plus-size market, it’s incredibly rare.
“For a woman in our size range to be able to come in and even to find a long evening gown, fully accessorised, is a huge service,” said Lynne Webber, managing director of Marina Rinaldi.
Diletta Bettarini, store manager for Marina Rinaldi’s London flagship, wears her dark hair cropped and side-parted, her lips deep red. She speaks fervently in a rolling Florentine accent. “It’s not a problem of money, it’s just the image,” she said of other luxury fashion brands’ refusal to sell plus sizes in their stores. “They want to keep the brand for tiny people. The ‘right’ size for them is a 4 to 6.”
So how has Marina Rinaldi successfully made and marketed luxury fashion in what most brands would view as the ‘wrong’ size?
It starts with the product. Unlike most makers of plus-size clothing, which simply scale up and tweak straight-size designs, Marina Rinaldi’s design team and pattern-making department, each comprised of 40 staff, start the design process with a UK size 16, ensuring that the pieces fit a plus-size figure. “The whole business needs to refocus on the technical aspects required to do that appropriately,” said Webber.
The right shopping environment is also critical. It takes a little while to realise, but everything in Marina Rinaldi’s London store is masterfully proportioned to its clientele. On the first floor, the white walls are unadorned, making the rooms seem even more expansive and the high ceilings, bedecked with cornices and chandeliers, even further north.
The burnished gold clothing rails are taller and thicker than usual and the clothing displayed in small quantities, balancing the garments’ extra width by spacing them apart and hanging them from a greater height. The changing rooms are, quite literally, whole rooms — converted bedrooms, complete with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, mottled green Veronese marble fireplaces, teal crushed velvet chairs and pin cushions for on-the-spot alterations.
“It’s very important for our staff to be patient with customers and to know how to make them feel confident, because very often we have customers who don’t have a very positive self-image,” said Webber.
The move, last July, from the brand’s previous Bond Street location to this ex-residential building was, in part, to foster a private atmosphere to encourage clients to relax. “Often our consumers need to take a lot of time over their choice and need to be encouraged, advised.”
Describing the brand’s designs, Ms Webber veered between anodyne terms like “appropriate” and language like “sensual” and “sexy.” Indeed, when it comes to marketing plus-size, it is hard to know whether to shout or whisper.
On the one hand, plus-size women crave a brand that celebrates their size through its product. On the other, as Webber noted, “women don’t want to talk about their size all the time.”
In 2012, Marina Rinaldi changed its brand voice from speaking about plus-size with “attitude” to not speaking explicitly about size at all — in its lookbooks and campaigns, it is not always apparent that the fashion on show is plus-size. “To a very discerning eye, if you look at our website I think the first impact is of how attractive the women look and how attractive they look in what they’re wearing,” explained Webber. “You’re not necessarily stopping to think about what size they are.”
A version of this article first appeared in a special print edition of The Business of Fashion, which highlights ‘7 Issues Facing Fashion Now,’ from sustainability and the human cost of manufacturing clothing to untapped business opportunities in technology, Africa and the plus-size market. Join the discussion on BoF Voices, a new platform where the global fashion community can come together to express and exchange ideas and opinions on the most important topics facing fashion today.