If you were to sift through the selection of most plus-size clothing—that is, if you are clever enough to find stores that offer plus-sizes at all—you would be hard-pressed not to see their similarities to the giant blankets used to hide cars on The Price is Right. “There’s something big under there, but what could it be?”
Plus-size clothing is often an aimless, outdated attempt at draping fabric over top of women in order to hide the parts of their bodies society has deemed unworthy. It is misguidedly targeted toward women who apparently want to cover every inch of skin with layers of tapestry. Plus-size often doesn’t account for women who embrace their curves and fashion-centric individuals who want to look vibrant and make a statement with their clothing. For too long, plus-size clothing has been about covering up, hiding out, and blending in. It is safe. It is quiet. And most of all, it inexplicably ignores a huge part of its market.
Before a plus-size store will decide to incorporate a trend in its line-up, it waits to see what sells in the standard stores (after they fashion their ideas off of the runway). By the time it recognizes the successful trends and commissions creation for plus-size, you can already say goodbye to the skinny jeans, braided belts and riding boots.
Fashion-forward plus-size woman and recent Ryerson fashion grad Rachel Holt wonders, “Why can’t you take a risk with us? Plus-size women want to take risks, too, and they want to be on trend when the trends are out.”
It defies the laws of supply and demand, which dictate, “if you build it, they will come.” In this era of abundance, shopper’s law usually dictates, “if you seek, you will find.” But when it comes to plus-size fashion, forget it. With the few exceptions like Jessica Biffi’s collections with Addition Elle and stores like Forever XXI, The Answer, Gussied Up, and Torrid in the U.S., stores often downright refuse to carry plus sizes.
Why? Well, designers will tell you that they need to work off of a different foundation block for plus-sizes. Generally, they use a size 10 or 12 and size up or down from there to encompass sizes 6 to 16 using basic grading rules. Anything bigger (or smaller, for that matter) needs to begin at a different block. They will tell you it takes more time and effort to create plus-size versions of the same clothing. But that doesn’t explain why I see hangers full of double extra-smalls and size 0’s while trying to squish into a contorted size 14—extra-large? Yeah, right!
Some stores will tell you that there is no money in the plus-size market. Yet in 2010, one third of Canadian women were overweight. Reitmans, who supplies a large chunk of the plus-size clothing in Canada, is the most profitable clothing store in the country. Biffi’s 2010 fall capsule collection launch at Addition Elle saw clothes fly off the racks (I was there throwing ‘bows with the rest of them). The absolute truth is that there is a gigantic void in the plus-size market, which is why business advisors recommend stores incorporate them to boost sales.
So, what then? The real answer: the fashion world has a stigma about plus-size. “People are trying to break that trend, but it’s not going to happen overnight,” Biffi says, listing off several fashion icons dedicated to using plus-size models, like Gaultier and Ben Barry. It is one thing for big-name designers to sprinkle in some plus-size models for shock value, but high fashion is far removed from regular retail outlets. It would take years for plus-size trends on the runway to break into the clothing stores.
That’s why Holt is starting her own boutique in Toronto later this year. She’s going for an edgy, risky look, all in plus-size. She wants architectural designs, custom tailoring, premium denim and, most of all, to be on trend. She wants it to be special; she wants her customers to feel special.
This is the type of grassroots movement that needs to take place if plus-size women want to participate in fashion. We need to build the stores from the ground up and we need to build our own clothes, like Biffi.
“Plus-size women need to start becoming their own advocates,” says Holt. “Nobody else is going to do it for us. Ask. Keep demanding it. Eventually we have to be heard.”
text by Whitney Wager
illustration by Katrina Cervoni