In 2017, the conversation surrounding the plus-size or "curve" fashion industry is flourishing, and positive, tangible strides toward inclusivity and representation are taking place; New York Fashion Week's Spring 2018 runways, for example, showcased more plus-size models than ever before. Events like Curvy Con are catering to the plus community, while brands like Chromat are striving to be inclusive in sizing and model representation; meanwhile, e-commerce sites like 11 Honoré are finally making high-fashion available to those it previously excluded based solely on size. It's unquestionable that the plus-size industry is a burgeoning one.
And yet, there's still a laundry list of challenges, misconceptions and pervasive (though incorrect) assumptions keeping this business from reaching its fullest potential. At Fashionista's fifth annual "How to Make It in Fashion" conference on Friday, Deputy Editor Tyler McCall assembled a panel of experts to discuss the subject of "Why It's Time for the Fashion Industry to Catch Up with the Plus Size Market."
The group included Chromat founder and CEO Becca McCharen-Tran, Eloquii CEO Mariah Chase, 11 Honoré co-founder and CEO Patrick Herning and model-slash-entrepreneur Candice Huffine, who just launched her own athletic brand, Day/Won. The panelists drove home the point that these developments are not merely a sales gimmick or fleeting trend. The plus industry is a growing sector of fashion with a broad, expanding market — and at this point, to ignore it is simply bad business sense.
McCharen-Tran recounted the story of a conversation she'd had just the day before the panel with an unnamed, well-known designer. "I was like, 'When are you going to have plus-size models in your show?' And he's like, 'Well, at this point, I don’t want it to seem like I’m just jumping on a trend,'" she said. "And I'm like, 'Oh, so you're just going to continue not doing it at all?'" This mindset and excuse, according to the panelists, seems to be pervasive throughout much of the industry.
Another misconception within the industry, and one that particularly frustrates all of the panelists, is the notion that plus-size customers simply don't want to spend on fashion. With its high-fashion offerings from the likes of Baja East and Brandon Maxwell, Herning noted that this is exactly what 11 Honoré is proving to be incorrect. "The question came up again and again when we were fundraising," he said, explaining that until now, these customers simply haven't had the options — but that doesn't mean that they don't have the cash and the desire to spend it on luxury goods. "This customer is spending money on Birkin bags; this customer is spending money on Cartier jewelry; this customer is spending money on Chanel shoes," he said.
Since 11 Honoré's launch just a few months ago, the retailer has opened up a whole new range of high-fashion options for plus-size consumers, and the sales are there to back it up: Brandon Maxwell is almost completely sold out on the site, and the items that are selling best are the ones that aren't "watered down."
Chase has run into this misconception for Eloquii as well. "One of the questions I got over and over again in 2013 — which was the early days of the plus renaissance — was, OK, Mariah, you've showed me this data that [the plus-size consumer] is 67 percent of the population, yet her spend is only 20 percent of U.S. women's apparel spend, so obviously, she doesn't spend on clothing," she said. "And I would be like, well, obviously she has no options. Obviously when she goes to actually search for those options, it's a kind of crappy experience; she's told that she's got to go to the basement or to the 7th floor. So, what do you think this customer is doing? She's spending it on beauty, travel, gadgets, accessories, her kids, her home, her kitchen. Of course she's not spending on fashion; it makes her feel horrible."
Chase added that Eloquii's business has been able to speak for itself in this regard. "Our customer lifetime value and the retention rate of our customers rivals that of any straight size brand – our good customers are spending a lot with us," she said.
These assumptions can be destructive for the plus-size industry, according to Huffine, who rattled off a list of "maddening" stereotypes she's used to hearing about the plus shopper. "We can't have assumptions about who this woman is. We can't just say that the plus woman is a conservative woman who wants to hide her body; she doesn't wear sleeveless things; she doesn't work out; she's not interested in fitness," she said. "We've got to just eradicate this entirely, because I think every one of our businesses is proof that she wants to just be her; she wants the opportunity to have the things to express herself and her lifestyle and do whatever she damn well pleases."
As for other challenges plaguing the industry, McCharen-Tran was quick to point out the need for diversity. "One of the challenges in the plus industry is the whitewashing [of it] and the lack of voices of color," she said. "There's just not enough black plus women designers or models that are getting their shine; there's not enough trans or disabled curve models or designers."
But she also pointed out that she feels hopeful that diversity will become more of a priority within fashion and within the plus-size sector. "I feel that the rise of social media has enabled so many new and exciting voices to have their own platform, and hopefully we're at a place where you won't just think of Ashley Graham [when you think of plus-size models] — she's amazing — but you'll also think of Philomena Kwao or Marquita [Pring]."
Social media has, in fact, been a crucial business tool for all of the experts on the panel. The online community of plus-size women discussing fashion and demanding to be recognized by the industry is key. For Eloquii, this is arguably most obvious: "When the brand was shut down by The Limited, there was an outcry on social media and blogs saying, 'How dare you?'" explained Chase. "That power really was the genesis of everything." It's why the brand was able to re-launch and remain so successful in the space today.
Perhaps the most emotionally resonant moment of the panel was when Huffine was asked to talk about something she's learned after her years working in the industry. "You're never going to go wrong with representing the truth of women. It's just always going to be a positive experience, uplifting for everybody. There's nothing to be afraid of," she said. "I've learned there's nothing wrong about representing the whole of women — size, race, age, religion, all of it."
That's something with which the fashion industry as a whole is currently coming to terms, and while it's clear that there's still a long way to go, witnessing leaders in the industry who are not just articulating these goals, but also working to bring them to fruition, paints an encouraging view of what the future holds.