Are Plus-Size Women the Problem With Plus-Size Fashion?

Hold all comments until the end, please.
Avatar:
Tyler McCall
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
2195
Hold all comments until the end, please.
French fashion designer Jean-Marc Philippe presents a plus-size collection in Paris. Photo: Bertrand Guay/Getty Images

French fashion designer Jean-Marc Philippe presents a plus-size collection in Paris. Photo: Bertrand Guay/Getty Images

It's no secret that the fashion industry has long struggled to adequately meet the demands of plus-size shoppers, failing to offer her (for the most part) trend-forward clothing, and leaving her out of editorials and runway shows. Many in the fashion community have begun to rally to correct this shortcoming. 

But as the saying goes, sometimes the only thing standing in your way is yourself. So what if the problem with the plus-size industry isn't with faceless businessmen, but with the customers themselves?

"It's become such an angry section of fashion," one plus-size blogger, who wishes to remain anonymous, explains. "Everyone has an opinion, and it's such a negative, negative environment, and it sounds sad, but they want to tear each other apart. Models get it all the time, brands especially. They'll say, 'Oh we can't use that model again because they say that she's too skinny.'"

Indeed, Sarah Conley, a plus-size blogger and retail consultant, explains that when retailers are approached by customers to feature more true plus-size models, the companies will often conduct tests. One such brand displayed the exact same clothes on a size 8 model and a size 14 model on its website; the size 8 model sold better every time. 

"As much as we think we want to see people who look like us, it's not really showing through in customer behavior, which is really unfortunate," she explains. "I think that people who say they want to see a more diverse group of women, whether it's body shape or size, they're not always following those wishes and demands with their credit cards."

Mango launched a plus-size line in July, using models that certainly appear smaller than a size 14. 

Mango launched a plus-size line in July, using models that certainly appear smaller than a size 14. 

The outcry for high-end designers to increase their size ranges has also grown steadily louder for years. The plus-size community has wondered why they are being ignored by major fashion designers like Prada and Marc Jacobs, and by retailers like Target and H&M when they do designer collaborations that so many of their straight-size friends snap up. The problem is that while plus-size sales are modestly on the rise, generally the customer still gives the impression she won't spend the money when it counts. 

"I will say there is a perception in the business community that plus-size women aren't willing to buy higher-priced items," Conley says. "That's been true for every brand that I've previously worked with, where we can't price something over X amount because they're not going to buy it, or we're not going to do a designer line because they're not going to buy it."

"At the end of the day, you can talk all you want, but if you don't put your money where your mouth is, then don't talk," the anonymous blogger says. "Don't ask Marc Jacobs to make you something if you can't even afford Marc by Marc Jacobs. You should have to put your credit card down before you can even have this conversation."

And the same problem is confronting conventional plus-size retailers who are trying to bring in trendier and more tailored clothing. Plus-size blogger Nicolette Mason says that previously, trends took about a year to trickle into the plus-size market; now, that lead time has decreased, but it is still taking the customer time to adjust to the new options.

Nicolette Mason "Crop Topping It" on her blog. 

Nicolette Mason "Crop Topping It" on her blog. 

"Because there are so few options available, brands really have to start in the middle of the road, and not everyone is willing to meet them in the middle of the road and take those options to their tailor," Conley says. "We need to do a better job as a community of building up those retailers and encouraging them in the right direction even if it isn't exactly perfect for us and making sure that our dollars speak for us when we do see something that we like."

Instead, Conley says, many women are spending money on cheaper things that they don't necessarily like just because they're available in their size rather than waiting to spend more money on a few special pieces they really love. "We just need to become more conscious as a community to only buy things that we really, really love, that we really want to wear and support those brands and tell them, thank you so much for making this, here are my dollars," she says.

One wonders why we've become so fixated on demanding that high-end designers provide plus-size garments while ignoring the contemporary brands. Labels like Tibi, Rebecca Taylor and Rebecca Minkoff, if they were to offer plus-size, would be far more affordable than the high-end designers -- but then, they're not as high-profile as the Chanels and Pradas of the world. We should also be looking at all of the new, dedicated plus-size brands that deserve our attention.

"I think people put too much energy in expecting existing brands to go into plus when there's so much talent that's excited about it and passionate about doing it right," Mason explains. "And they're often coming from a place of honestness and earnestness where it's plus-size women themselves designing clothes that they would want to wear."

There is of course a body politic that goes into shopping for women. Everyone I spoke with agreed that women who are told that their body shape should be considered temporary, always in need of a new diet or weight loss plan, aren't exactly going to plunk down $300 for a dress that, ideally, won't fit them in a month. 

"There are so many women who don't self identify as plus-size, and maybe they just settle for drawstring or elastic waisted pants because they don't necessarily want to know that they're a size 16 or an 18," Mason says. "There's a lot of that which happens in our culture, and that's fine, people can have their own path with their bodies."

Publications can't win either. A handful have attempted to cover the plus-size market by adding in a dedicated page each month. But that, some say, isn't quite enough. "It's almost insulting in a sense: you have a magazine with 300 pages and here's one page," says the anonymous source. "They could continue to do things that were really shitty because they had thrown us a bone."

"Obviously having a full page is really powerful, because it speaks directly to that consumer rather than just being a credit or a byline," adds Mason, who has her own full page in Marie Claire. "If it's a full trend story, and you're doing a roundup -- especially from more of the shopping magazines like Lucky -- there's an enormous opportunity to include it throughout the book because it fits in so well."

Melissa McCarthy on the November 2013 cover of Elle.

Melissa McCarthy on the November 2013 cover of Elle.

When a magazine does finally put a plus-size woman on the cover, every decision made, from the styling to the crop of the image, comes under fire. It's a lesson Elle learned when it put Melissa McCarthy on one of its covers. Many took to the web -- myself included -- to question the styling decision to put McCarthy in a coat when her fellow cover stars were put in more revealing clothing.

"I don't understand where the complaints come from sometimes," plus-size model Candice Huffine told me in April. "The thing that really confused me the most is the Melissa McCarthy cover for Elle, because that is so awesome -- she's amazing, she's hilarious, she's a mega star regardless of her size and she's doing amazing things, the coat looked amazing -- who cares [if she's in a coat]?!" 

"The conversation always goes somewhere it doesn't even need to and it never goes back to the positive," she finished. "The curvy woman doesn't have to be represented by the bombshell that's va-va-voom, she can also wear an oversized blazer if she wants to -- I feel like the point is being missed that there's really awesome representation out there."

Though Mason says having a woman like McCarthy on the cover is still important and impactful for women not used to seeing her body type on newsstands, she does understand why some give negative feedback. "Nobody wants to be represented as a people by one person who they don't think is a reflection of themselves," Mason says. "I think that's unfortunately the way it is with any minority group being represented by one person, that's always how it's going to be and I don't foresee that changing." 

That's why the awesome representation is coming from within. Thanks to the advent of personal style blogging, the plus-size industry has more exciting avenues to display new options and different body types. Bloggers like Conley and Mason, among others, can use their blogs as the platform for the small, indie, plus-size brands that traditional print publications cannot. "It's an enormously important community because for many women it's the only information stream that's consistently viable to find new fashion," Mason says.

Still, it's not without its own drawbacks. First, many have come to expect that plus-size bloggers fully embrace their size and not outwardly exhibit self doubt in her body. "That's what's frustrating, because you have to embrace yourself when you don't always feel the best," the anonymous blogger explains. 

The negative feedback chamber extends to bloggers as well. There's the case of "in-betweenies" -- style bloggers who hover at a 12 or 14 and who are not fully accepted by every one in the plus community because they're "too thin" to be plus. Commenters can also uphold bloggers to serious standards when it comes to brands they work with. "They got really mad at me once for featuring DKNY because ages ago Donna Karan said something about not wanting to dress plus women," the anonymous blogger says. 

Nicolette Mason models her first clothing collection, designed in partnership with Modcloth.

Nicolette Mason models her first clothing collection, designed in partnership with Modcloth.

Overwhelmingly, though, it's those same style blogs -- started by the plus-size customer herself -- that are providing the impetus for change. "I think it's different in the plus world than mainstream fashion blogging in general because there's an understanding in the plus-size community that we're all trying to work towards the same goal together, and that is for everyone to have access to great fashion," Mason says.

"I feel like if we're not seeing ourselves represented, then we need to go out and represent ourselves, and that's why the Internet is so amazing because there's so many beautiful women with really strong voices making names for themselves," Conley says. "We don't need a large publication to back them up and do the work for them, they can do it themselves."