Last September, online retailer Nasty Gal announced that it was “finally joining the party” and dropping its first ever extended-size capsule collection, offering its signature silk minidresses and high-waisted jeans in sizes 0-18. While this news did garner a lot of double-taps, many other women in the plus-size community quickly made it clear that they were not RSVP-ing “yes” to the retailer’s invite.
That’s because, they argued, a line that’s truly made for every woman would go way beyond an 18. (That’s the size of the average American woman in 2019, FYI.) “A 25 piece collection that goes up to size 18 is not inclusive by any stretch of the imagination,” said Twitter user Casey McCormick. “Do better so you can take our money.” Another Twitter user, The Killerqueen, added: “Why isn’t the tagline ‘We’re finally jumping on a bandwagon we don’t actually care about’?”
Nasty Gal quickly responded by saying that this collection was its “first step towards creating extended sizing options,” and it’s since started offering select pieces up to size 20. To be fair, going from straight sizing into plus sizes isn’t a simple endeavor for a brand—it requires specialized design and manufacturing expertise, not to mention lots of time spent getting the fit of each garment just right. It’d make sense for Nasty Gal to test the waters with a limited range of extended sizes before diving in head-first, if that’s what they were, indeed, doing. But the backlash against this collection and others like it does raise an important question: Is “size appropriation” becoming a bigger problem as brands rush to capitalize on the inclusivity movement?
I spoke to several thought leaders in the plus-size fashion world to find out, and they confirmed that there are, in fact, many examples of brands claiming to embrace the plus-size market, but not fully walking the walk. This doesn’t just apply to sizing, but also to marketing and merchandising. But it’s not all doom and gloom—we as consumers have a lot of power to change things, and evolution is already starting to occur.
Keep reading to learn how to tell if a brand is truly size inclusive according to the pros.
1. Know that true inclusivity goes beyond size 18 and limited options
Nasty Gal is definitely not the only brand that’s extending its sizes, but only so far. When Topshop announced that it would be growing its size range back in 2017, its new assortment topped out at a 14—just one size larger than it offered previously. Express’ “extended size” range goes up to an 18. And while these efforts are certainly a step in the right direction, many women are frustrated that size offerings aren’t broadening even further.
“Brands get all happy because it’s like ‘Oh, we’ve extended to a size 16!’ or a size 18, and I’m like, Yes, but there’s so much more,” says designer and consultant Rachel Richardson, creator of plus-size fashion blog Lovely in LA. “If you’re really doing plus size, you need to incorporate all sizes. At least get to a 24 and you can work from there.”
What’s more, adds fashion photographer Lydia Hudgens, some of these so-called plus sizes don’t actually fit plus-size women. “An influencer recently did a capsule collection with Macy’s, and they kept spouting that it was a size-inclusive range but it ended at 18,” she says. “And I was a size 12–14 at the time, but [the 18] was almost too small on me. It’s not size inclusive to just expand into two different sizes, and then your sizing is cut too small.”
Another telltale sign of how inclusive an extended-size collection actually is is how many pieces it offers, says Emma Grede, co-founder and CEO of Good American—a womenswear brand whose size range has been 00-24 since its inception. “We love seeing that more fashion brands are offering extended and inclusive sizing!” she says. “But one of the issues we’ve noticed is that brands are entering the ‘plus size’ market with only a few items or styles available and often sacrificing the quality of the product.”
Not only is this unfair, but it’s also just bad business sense, says Steven Feinstein, founder of new plus-size fashion brand Marée Pour Toi. “We [often] find that we sell [more of] the top end of the size range and very little of the bottom end,” he says. As such, the largest size in the brand’s fall 2019 collection will be increasing from a size 24 to a 26, and Feinstein plans to keep growing the size range even further as long as there’s demand for it.
2. And that real inclusivity extends to a brand’s marketing, too
A few years ago, including a perfectly-proportioned, size-10 model in an ad campaign or fashion editorial may have seemed revolutionary. But that’s not cutting it anymore. “When it comes to mainstream media and marketing, we really aren’t seeing a mix of body types. It is still the four-to-one ratio: four straight-size models and one model that is slightly curvier or plus size,” says Katie Willcox, activist behind the Healthy is the New Skinny movement and CEO of Natural Model Management. “In real life, that ratio would be reversed and a group of five girls or women would include all different shapes and sizes.”
Even among brands that claim to prioritize size diversity, we hardly ever see this. Hudgens notes that a lot of the time, when brands promote their extended-size offerings, they hire models at the lower end of that size range—for instance, a size 12 model for a line that goes up to size 20. “If you’re gonna do it, use a plus model,” she says. “Get somebody in there who’s a size 18–20, or at least go up to the largest size you carry.”
Or even worse, says Willcox, they’ll work with an influencer whose personal feed doesn’t reflect the body-positive ethos of the campaign. “I have seen influencers work for brands who don’t airbrush and tell girls to love themselves, yet on the influencer’s page, it is clear there is photo editing being done on images,” she says. “That, to me, says the brand cares more about the number of followers over the authenticity of the influencer or the brand message they are marketing.”
“Celebrating women for who they are and highlighting their talents, abilities, and accomplishments over how they look is real body positivity.” —Katie Willcox, body positivity activist
This kind of behavior is basically a recipe for backlash—or, at the very least, it’s subtly telling consumers that the brand isn’t truly invested in serving all sizes. But there are several companies that are widely praised for doing it right. Richardson applauds Good American for shooting all of its pieces on models in a size 0, a size 8, and a size 16. Online shoppers can toggle through the three images on each product’s page to see how a given item would look on their bodies.
Universal Standard also makes an effort to showcase a variety of people on its site, and not just when it comes to size. “We want strong representation across all categories: size, age, race, sexual orientation,” says Waldman. “We cast women in our campaigns, editorials, and [website] shoots that we feel will represent the brand ethos in the way we would like.” So you’re likely to see a middle-aged model wearing a size-large jersey dress pictured next to a 20-something in an extra-small tee—a juxtaposition that looks refreshingly like real life.
Willcox hopes to see this continue, but not just as a means of ticking off diversity boxes on a call sheet. “Yes, it is wonderful to start conversations and see all types of people represented, but when will we get rid of the human categories and just let people be people, versus a skin color, hair type, size, body type, handicap, illness, or gender?” she says. “We need to evolve our identity beyond the physical attributes we cannot control. Celebrating women for who they are and highlighting their talents, abilities, and accomplishments over how they look is real body positivity.”
3. Look for brands that are playing the long game and value your feedback as a customer
Richardson’s noticed a frustrating trend in the fashion world lately—some companies aren’t giving their plus-size offerings a chance to take hold before throwing in the towel. “I personally hate when brands dip their toe in the water for, like, a year, and then they’re like ‘Oh, this isn’t working, we’re just going to discontinue [the line],'” she says. “Some brands just don’t give it their all, and as consumers, we can tell.” (Fashionista recently speculated that Reformation may have been doing this after introducing a size 0-22 capsule collection last spring and then going quiet—however, the brand responded that it’s debuting a permanent extended-size collection in early 2019.)
Richardson says that there are a few reasons why a line might not catch on right away. For instance, the brand may not have taken enough time to perfect their sizing based on customer feedback. This pays off: Communicating directly with shoppers has been a huge aspect of Good American’s success, says Grede. “Crowdsourcing is an extremely valuable tool for us to help determine what product and design features the Good American woman needs in the future,” she says. “It can be challenging, but it’s of utmost importance that we listen to our customers so we’re able to offer them what they want.”
“Crowdsourcing is an extremely valuable tool for us.” —Emma Grede, co-founder and CEO of Good American
For instance, Good American started offering a size 15 in jeans—straddling the gap between straight size and plus size—when research revealed that customers were returning sizes between 14 and 16 at a rate of 50 percent more than any others. “We knew that the industry-wide discrepancy of sizing patterns has created issues for many women in this range,” Grede explains. “In the future, we’re planning to include size 15 in all of our collections, and we’re continuing to work to introduce new sizes down the line.”
Waldman adds that pricing can also be a deal-breaking issue brands may face in the plus-size market. “Larger women have been brought up on fast fashion, and that means they are most accustomed to fast-fashion prices,” she says. “[Universal Standard] is regularly referred to as a luxury brand even though our prices are considerably lower than say, a Club Monaco. Nowhere else but in the plus-size world would that be considered luxury. So, there are some things to get used to for women who have traditionally been ignored by fashion—namely, the idea of quality being on offer, not at fast-fashion prices, and being worth it.”
Richardson agrees that there’s a lot of education that needs to happen on both sides of the equation when launching a plus-size or extended size collection, for the brand and its consumers alike, and that this isn’t an overnight process. “Brands that really commit to it will start to see the return—I don’t think it’s ever really a super quick return in plus-size, though,” she says. “It takes time to build that customer’s trust, as she’s been ignored for so long. And it takes time to build the brand itself so consumers know that if they go to that brand, it’s going to work on their body.”
Ultimately, says Hudgens, the way to overcome this issue and all the others is for consumers to use their voices and their pocketbooks—both to clap back when they see size appropriation happening, and to support brands that are doing it right. “The biggest thing is we have to put our money where our mouth is and prove we’re here to buy,” she says. “I think brands are afraid [plus-size women] won’t want to spend money because they’re always in the hope that they’ll lose weight, but I don’t think that’s the end game for a lot of people.” Given that the size-inclusive fashion market is predicted to triple in the next two years, I’d say that thesis is right on point.
Cosmetics brands are also guilty of jumping on the buzz bandwagon, particularly when it comes to extending their shade ranges. Luckily, Rihanna’s Fenty brand is delivering real inclusivity on both the fashion and beauty fronts.
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