Plus-size Women May Make the ‘Rockin’ World Go Round,’ but Many Retailers Still Snub Them
Posted by Jane Janeczko on September 9, 2013
The women of the world are getting bigger, but the number of plus-size retailers is rapidly shrinking. In the last year alone, two powerhouse plus-size fashion retailers, Fashion Bug and Eloquii (an offshoot of the Limited), have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Protection and many stores, like Saks Fifth Avenue and Old Navy, have removed their plus-size offerings from their brick-and-mortar stores.
The elimination of plus-size sections in department stores does not show a smaller demand from the market. In a 2008 study by Mintel, a market research firm, researchers found that the average dress size of an American woman runs from a 12-14, which for most retailers is the beginning of their extended sizes. Furthermore, two out of three adults fall in the overweight category.
The word “fat” is also slowly evolving, and many plus-size women voluntarily refer to themselves “fat.” It is, after all, nothing more than a descriptor, similar to tall, short or skinny according to the followers of the Fat Acceptance Movement. The term “Fatshion” now comfortably exists in the fashion zeitgeist. Nicolette Mason, 27, is a contributing editor and columnist for Marie Claire and maintains her personal lifestyle blog, Nicolette Mason, which covers plus-size fashion. The blog is a personal pursuit for Mason and it mostly holds her daily reflections, personal outfits and her travel adventures. Mason does not find the word fat controversial at all. “Some people choose to reclaim it, others don’t, says Mason. “I think it’s a word that, like the plus-size community itself, will continue to evolve in its use and meaning.”
So why in a time when it is slowly becoming more socially acceptable to be overweight are retailers trying to shame their clients out of their stores?
In 2012, Daiane Scaraboto and Eileen Fischer published a study called “Frustrated Fatshionistas: An Institution Theory Perspective on Consumer Quests for Greater Choice in Mainstream Markets,” which they explained this trend from the logic of art and commerce rules. Designers often create their artistic creations working aesthetically. These aesthetics almost never extend to fat bodies. Karl Lagerfeld, who himself has publicly battled with his weight, was famously quoted in Vogue U.K. in November 2004 when H&M announced that they were making a plus-size line as saying his aesthetic vision does not include plus-size people. “What I designed was fashion for slender and slim people. That was the original idea,” said Lagerfeld in the Vogue U.K. article. Consumer markets adapt haute couture and high-end fashions created by designers shortly after making their runway debuts. Since so few designers make any kind of plus-size fashion, there are very few chances for consumers to incorporate the newest designs into wearable pieces. “Given the widespread stigmatization of fat bodies, it is not surprising that the consumer segment least attractive to marketers in this aesthetically oriented industry would be consumers whose bodies society typically deems unattractive,” wrote Scaraboto and Fischer.
H&M hired the plus-size American model, Jennie Runk, a U.S. size 14, to be the face of its Summer 2013 swimsuit line. The image from the campaign that has received the most buzz is a shot of Runk in a black bikini with a small roll of fat visible over the high-waisted bikini briefs. After H&M released the ad campaign, Runk used her success and attention to write a body positive essay in May, “My life as a ‘plus-size’ model,” on her experience growing up and feeling insecure in her own skin.
Gabi Gregg, 27, a Chicago-based fashion blogger who runs the blog Gabifresh, can take partial credit for the rapidly expanding “fatkini” movement. Her personal blog post went viral last summer, which inspired her to put together a photo gallery of other plus-size women in bikinis on xoJane.com. The positive responses led to an appearance on the Today Show last summer.
Walking into a Chicago Bloomingdale’s event hosted by the blogger, on the fourth floor, back corner of their 900 N. Michigan Ave. location, I was surprised by the large turnout of her fans. Gregg wore a black Tahari bodycon dress with gray and neon-pink piping, a black motorcycle jacket and dangerously high stilettos with her sunglasses pushed back on her hair while she sips a lemon-flavored San Pellegrino and rapidly Instagrams photos of her shopping event. The store arranged a 50 percent off discount for all plus-size shoppers for the afternoon, supplied red velvet cupcakes and organized a raffle for the women stopping by to hang out with Gregg who offered enthusiastic advice to several fans who walked out of the dressing room to her opinion.
Gregg attributes to her success to her popular outfit posts, which frequently break “fashion rules” and are very trendy. A few of Gregg’s favorite outfits in the past year were a pink tutu and embellished silver top she paired with a motorcycle jacket and a color blocked jersey dress with horizontal stripes. “The visual of seeing my body in cute clothes really seems to have a big impact,” says Gregg. This summer, Gregg partnered with the retailer SwimsuitsForAll to create a collection of cute and on-trend swimwear for women sizes 10-24 (Gregg wrote on her blog that Spring Breakers inspired the shoot for the collection). The centerpiece of the collection, a galaxy print bikini, sold out in six hours.
Gregg is one of the most visible and successful plus-size bloggers in the community, but admitted that she feels some friction amongst the growing online “fatshion” community. “The community is really split between the mainstream stylish and the more political fat activists,” says Gregg who started blogging with the “fatshionista” Livejournal community. “Like, I occasionally get criticism for calling an outfit flattering because flattering is a controversial term. I usually get support from both ends of the spectrum, which is interesting to see, but I also get shit from both ends. You can’t please everyone.”
Even when stores stock more size options, they charge more and put clothing in the back of stores behind the standard size clothing. Often plus-size options cost approximately 25 percent more than standard sizes. Retailers justify this by claiming that more fabric costs more money and therefore the higher prices are reasonable.
While most fatshionistas agree that their fashion options are better than they were 10 years ago, many still want more style equality in the marketplace. Jessica Dee, 26, an Australian stylist, designer and blogger at Too Many Sequins, still feels dissatisfied with the options available to her and other plus-size women especially when it comes to small fit detail, like too small sleeves or gaping necklines, often gets looked over. “While the plus size industry has come leaps and bounds, it still has a ways to go,” says Dee. “Brands are slowly, and I mean slowly, starting to realize that we want to wear the same things as are thinner counterparts, and that we aren’t afraid of fashion anymore.”
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