Despite the fact that the average American woman is now a size 14, it seems like the fashion world is less plus-friendly than ever. First there was the Abercrombie & Fitch PR disaster, where CEO Mike Jeffries said women over a certain size "can’t belong" in his stores; now Lululemon is being accused of shunning plus-sized customers, hiding their size 12s off the sales floor.
You don't have to go very far to see the disparity in a tangible way: A quick trip to staple e-commerce site Net-a-Porter, for example, shows that there are currently over 2,000 options in a size 6. Click on a size 12 and that number drops to just above 200. It's a common experience across the retail space, which means retailers are leaving the average American woman (like myself) to scrape together a wardrobe. But retailer ModCloth recently reported that the average plus-sized customer spends more than her straight-sized counterpart--so what gives?
"There's a [judgment placed on] plus sized from the straight sized market saying, 'We're not going to give you the square footage on our sales floor because we don't want you in our store,'" says Eden Miller, who designs her own plus-size line called Cabiria.
"They're saying it doesn't sell when in actuality there's not enough diversity in the offerings and it's shoved in a back room," she explains further, referencing department stores who place their plus-sized clothes between their home goods and children's departments. "If you have to walk through a bunch of sofa covers, or the assumption is that you're a mom and while you're shopping for your kid you're just going to grab anything that fits your body and put it on, that's not really paying attention to the customer in an equal way."
This approach isn't only affecting the sales floor, but the way designers are being taught to work. Aimee Cheshire, who runs the website Madison Plus Select, tells me that many fashion schools don't even teach plus-size design. "The market is for the mainstream fashion world, people who design for straight size fashion," she tells me. "So people think it's crazy trying to teach their students how to pattern plus sizes and design for those figures because it is much more difficult."
Despite these challenges--or perhaps because of them--new options for the plus-sized customer are cropping up every day from indie designers. And thanks to the internet, those options are no longer limited to women in urban areas. But even with a growing field of plus-sized designers, getting your hands on more fashion-forward fare isn't necessarily getting easier. "The problem comes when cool stuff is not developed in large amounts," Cheshire explains.
"I have these wonderful designers, but they're all boot-strapping themselves," she continues, citing Miller's line Cabiria and another favorite of hers, Stefanie Bezaire. "They can only make a handful of one size, so maybe you'll have three size 18s--the production amount is so small because they're all doing it themselves and financing it themselves or through Kickstarter."
And the more established lines that offer plus-sized on a mass-market scale aren't advertising it. "One thing that would vastly improve visibility of the growing plus-size market is if designers who currently offer plus-sizes invested more of their resources into publicizing and marketing their lines," offers Nicolette Mason, blogger and contributing fashion editor at Marie Claire.
"MICHAEL Michael Kors [Kors's contemporary line which comes in plus sizes] is available in nearly every department store--from Bloomingdale's to Macy's to Nordstroms--yet they never publicize the line or devote any ad space to it at all."
Without that valuable ad space, fashion magazines can't--or won't--devote the editorial space to plus lines either. Mason, who writes Marie Claire's "Big Girl in a Skinny World" piece each month, has perhaps the best perspective on this particular challenge. "It's really hard for plus-sized brands to get print media placement," she says. "If you count Marie Claire, People StyleWatch, InStyle, Redbook and Glamour, they all have one dedicated page to plus sizes."
"There's just not a lot of real space to get the word out."
It's a cyclical problem: Without coverage from media, companies can't garner the attention from would-be investors. "WWD wouldn't give me the time of day, and I think I have a really amazing product that's something that should be talked about," Cheshire tells me of her site. "Investors love to put money into another denim line or a purse collection or a jewelry line. They need to take a step up and start believing in us and really start helping this industry grow because we've been boot-strapping for so long that it's time to really take it to the next level."
At the end of the day though, conditions will only improve when the plus customer is ready to invest in herself. Each woman I spoke with told me, in one way or another, that the average plus customer is reluctant to invest in her wardrobe. It's the kind of support that is essential to the growth of a viable plus-size fashion market. But it's a problem that Miller believes runs deep.
"[Plus-sized women] are essentially being attacked in the media, being told that you should have a moral position on what size you are instead of being comfortable and accepting it and seeking out beautiful clothing in your size," she explains, "or the body dysmorphia on the other end where so many women on the heavier end of the plus size spectrum feel that they don't look good in anything that they put on, even when they put something on and look fantastic. It's the body acceptance aspect."
It's a complicated issue, and the plus-sized fashion market has got a ways to go. But thanks to outspoken bloggers, mass-retailers like ASOS who are launching stylish plus lines, and indie designers like those Cheshire supports on her site, things are moving forward.
Check out some of Cheshire's favorite plus-sized designers: