Imagine a woman, with a sense of style and money to spend, who can’t find a clothing store. She’s with friends, but she’s locked out, unable to buy anything that she feels is sexy or fun or lovely — whether it’s to wear to a club, the gym or a job interview — from any of the shops they pass.
Now realize that there are millions of such women — 42% of American teenagers alone, according to data from Euromonitor. But they’re of all ages and sport pocketbooks collectively bulging with $46.4 billion to spend on apparel each year, per Coresight Research.
It’s a retail desert kept barren by the disregard for major market opportunity. Two-thirds of U.S. women consider themselves to be a special size defined as plus, petite, junior or tall, according to NPD Group’s Consumer Tracking Service. One-third of female consumers identify as plus-size, the same study notes. NPD has also found that U.S. teens who purchased in the junior size category dropped from 81% in 2012 to 73% in 2015, while teens who purchased plus-size clothing was at 34%, compared to 19% in 2012.
“So many women cannot purchase fashion because it’s not available to them,” Shawn Grain Carter, professor of fashion business management at The Fashion Institute of Technology, told Retail Dive in an interview. “It’s another reason why you will see aspirational customers reach for handbags and shoes from haute couture houses because they’re easier to purchase.”
The king is dead, long live the queen
The relegation of sizes like plus and petite to specialty retailers — for years notably sparse at mainstream retailers and conspicuously absent at couture brands — springs from clothing manufacturing’s history, according to Carter. Royal courts dictated fashion based on the preferences of the king, and the nobility had garments made to order (a tradition that continues in luxury fashion). The riff-raff made their own clothes, with the lesser fabrics available to them. Nobody needed “sizing.”
That changed with industrialization and the military’s need for mass-produced apparel for men (easier to this day because men’s apparel isn’t as complex as women’s). But the industry never forged any standards, so apparel companies interpret size on their own. The culture around fashion changed, too, and the rise of streetwear, including from luxe labels, demonstrates how much now flows from the bottom up rather than top down, Carter said.
As a result, beauty standards in America have mostly evolved. Beyonce and Taylor Swift, as different as they are, are both accepted as talented, strong and beautiful women, and fashion education has kept up, Carter says. But the lack of size standards and prevailing notions of aesthetics continue to shut out women who aren’t within even the industry’s loosely established ranges. And many brands, especially in couture, still hesitate to align with a diversity of body types.
“Fashion is only fashion when the masses buy it. If it’s not bought by anyone, then it’s not fashion, it’s art.”
Shawn Grain Carter
Professor of Fashion Business Management at The Fashion Institute of Technology
“They want to preserve this idea that ‘I’m a designer of this particular brand and I design for this particular woman, and this muse will be in a very defined, narrow, sometimes ethnic-centric view of what female beauty is,'” she said. “But it’s the 21st century now, and you have women all over the world — from Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. It’s not the point of view of New York, London, Paris and Milan any more. Fashion is only fashion when the masses buy it. If it’s not bought by anyone, then it’s not fashion, it’s art.”
While social media can be problematic because many of its influencers continue to perpetuate an impossible-to-achieve and even unhealthy ideal of female beauty, it’s also helped consumers express demand for stylish apparel that actually fits them, Carter also said.
They’re leaving their mark on the industry, according to Marie Driscoll, managing director of Luxury and Fashion at global retail think tank Coresight Research, who said that, slowly but surely, that does include luxury. “Plus sizing is more like old thinking is what we’ve learned from people,” she told Retail Dive in an interview. “They’re not in the closet, they want fashion and they don’t want to have to look like Victoria’s Secret angels. It’s a really healthy point of view, and there’s a lot of unmet demand from women that are not size 0 to 12, from ages of 15 to 65 — from all women. Younger millennials and Gen Z have given voice to this, but it ripples throughout the entire female population.”
That is propelling new direct-to-consumer brands, and, in some cases, the consumers, by necessity, have become the designers.