Big Money, Little Supply: Significant Profits to be Made in Women’s Plus-Sized Fashion Industry

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According to a new study the average American woman wears a size 20W (Misses size 16-18). This debunks the widely believed and publicized statistic that size 14 is the average. Despite the growth in demand for plus-size clothing, many retailers and brands are either closing their doors to the plus size market, or downsizing on their production. The fashion industry has always been conservative in expanding beyond straight sizes, but surely the increase in body positivity and acceptance could not have passed them by. Albeit an increase in plus-size models on the covers of magazines and as models during fashion week the plus-sized sector of the retail market is still limited to only a few brands catering to the plus-size demographic.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 66% of American women are classified as overweight and would then fall into the plus sized category in fashion. Even though that is more than half of the retail clothing market, plus sized clothing is marginalized, and poorly produced for mass consumption.

Misses sizes (fourteen and up) saw a growth of 17% from 2013-2016 encompassing a $20.4 billion industry. Despite these large numbers, retailers and designers customarily stop creating sizes at a size twelve which leads the plus-size consumer to gravitate towards e-commerce sites. The stores that do offer plus size clothing are often limited in selection, style, and color – with black and figure-hiding cuts being the norm. These statistics clearly show that there is a market for plus-sized clothing and that retailers are simply making the choice not to capitalize.

Some brands tout that the manufacturing costs inhibit the ability to create more plus sized options. Creating larger sizes does cost more because it is not as simple as scaling up a size four dress to a size six. More variation in shape is needed for larger sizes, such as larger arm openings and contouring fabric to the form. This cannot be done with the technology and algorithms used to scale straight sizes. Instead designers need additional education to learn to make garments for a variety of figures. Since many designers are only trained to make straight sizes most do not know how to create different flattering shapes for plus sized women. Furthermore, in factories it can be costly to switch gears and create larger sizes. The clothing itself does include more fabric; the need to cut more shapes in order to create curves and contour within the clothing, and the added labor to sew them together, results in a costly procedure. Despite the additional cost, brands that do carry plus size clothing want to stay fair to their consumers and won’t raise prices.

Even with the increased manufacturing costs the demand among women is so high that brands that do branch out into creating flattering and high quality pieces are seeing growth. Booho, a fast fashion e-commerce website based in Britain saw their profits grow 42% after they added plus-size and petite ranges to their product line. This shows that offering an array of cuts, fit, styles, and sizes can pay off significantly for fashion merchandisers.

Modcloth, a vintage inspired ecommerce website conducted an online customer survey with more than 5,000 American women aged 15-65. The results were highly reported at the time since they proved that more and more American women are wearing larger sizes and are more likely to shop online. The data is presented below:

      • More U.S. women report wearing a size 16 dress than a size 2 and 0 combined.
      • 1/2 of U.S. women wear a mix of what is considered standard and plus sizes.
      • 57% of U.S. women wear at least some clothing in sizes 16 and above.
      • U.S. women who primarily wear plus sizes are twice as likely than those who don’t to shop online daily.
      • U.S. women who primarily wear sizes 16 and above indicate that they buy over 50% more of their clothing online compared to women who only wear standard sizes.
      • Almost 1/2 of U.S. women who predominantly wear size 16 and above report having bought clothing online in the past 6 months, compared to approximately ⅓ of those who never wear sizes 16 and above.

The data produced by the survey illustrates that there is clearly a market for plus-sized fashion and that it currently exists online. While some mainstream retailers do offer plus-sizes in an online-only basis the selection is typically limited and far smaller than the straight-size selection. The inability to offer a wide selection of plus-size fashion in store results in many women missing out on the full shopping experience.

While the shopping experience and clothing available remains predominantly exclusive to straight size there is a shift in the desire to be open about wanting plus-sized option. Fashion week is slowly including more plus-sized models in shows, even though that is still an exception – not the norm. Hopefully, merchandisers and designers will acknowledge the growing market because there are hundreds of thousands of women in America who are looking for better plus-sized options that aren’t solely available online.

Written by:

Michayla Wolfe



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