Back in February 2018, Loft — once the lower-priced sister to Ann Taylor that eventually grew into its own brand — announced that it would be launching plus sizes, to much fanfare. After testing it through a partnership with subscription service Gwynnie Bee in late 2017, Loft teased the new category by dressing actor Chrissy Metz for a "Late Night With Seth Meyers" appearance. By the fall of 2018, the brand was touting that it would make the extended sizes available in stores, a major win for plus-size customers used to having to shop exclusively online. It sponsored a booth at The Curvy Con the following year.
Now, just three years later, it's all set to come to a quiet halt.
On Sunday, March 14, customers had taken to Loft's Instagram comments to ask a simple question: Where are the plus-size clothes? Some noted that options had been steadily dwindling for sizes over 18, especially in the most recent spring drop, despite the fact that no announcement had been made about its plus line. The brand's Instagram handle responded to a handful of commenters, noting: "Due to continued business challenges from the last year, we have had to make some very difficult decisions, which has impacted our go-forward sizing." By the fall season, @loft added, sizes would stop at an 18/XXL. (Fashionista has reached out to Loft for comment.)
To say that it was disappointing to customers would be an understatement.
"I've been pushing for more and better options in plus size for years, so seeing major brands abandon plus entirely is disheartening. Loft is especially frustrating because they did not give plus a real chance," says Sarah Chiwaya, the blogger who started the #PlusSizePlease movement back in 2014. "Plus was still a relatively new offering for the brand, and there were only a handful of locations that carried it in-store, so they had plenty of untapped potential to develop their plus-size customer base."
There's no doubt that retailers have been hit hard over the course of the last year, even and sometimes especially plus-size brands. in November, Dia & Co CEO Nadia Boujarwah told Market Watch that apparel spending had "dropped to the lowest levels we've seen in 30 years of recorded history."
"Because this market was smaller to begin with on the supply side, the same macro dynamics have had a disproportionate impact on the brick-and-mortar retailers," she added. "We estimate that, just since COVID arrived, 30% of the retail stores that cater to plus-size women have closed permanently."
And by the end of 2020, Loft parent company Ascena filed for Chapter 11 and was forced to sell off its assets, including Loft, Ann Taylor, Lou & Grey and Lane Bryant, to Premium Apparel, an affiliate of private equity firm Sycamore Partners. The firm is already proving somewhat controversial with regards to the sale: In February, major mall operator Simon Property Group filed objections against the takeover, citing concerns that Sycamore planned to close more stores — including profitable ones — than originally agreed upon. (In the past, Sycamore Group has acquired and bankrupted Nine West, shut down and sold Coldwater Creek and backed out of an agreement to buy Victoria's Secret.)
So it isn't exactly a stretch for Loft to pin its woes on Covid-19 — but those numbers don't tell the whole story, according to many in the plus-size community.
Chiwaya points out that, as was the case for their straight-size counterparts, a year-long quarantine in sweats has changed plus-size shoppers' habits. "When I heard the news that they were shuttering plus, I speculated (and my readers quickly confirmed) that many plus shoppers are only shopping Loft for office wear. So of course there’s going to be a downturn in sales when pretty much everyone who works in the office has been working at home for a year," she says. "To make the decision to chop plus without even giving it a fair post-pandemic chance speaks volumes about their priorities."
Over at The Curvy Fashionista, writer Mayra Mejia argued five ways the brand went wrong in its plus-size offerings, from a lackluster marketing effort to a limited selection of pieces. Mejia also rightfully pointed out that Loft is exiting the market as more and more brands are trying to break in. Citing a Vogue Business report, she noted how the plus market in the U.S. is projected to grow at nearly twice the rate of the overall apparel market.
"If these numbers do the talking and you pair that with the 67% of women in the US who are plus sized, what really happened here? Marketing? Assortment? Fit? Access? All of the above? Yes, to the latter," says Marie Denee, the founder of The Curvy Fashionista. "Plus size fashion no longer operates with an 'If you make it, they will come' type of approach that would have worked five to seven years ago. Now? The plus size shopper is savvy, discerning and speaks with her dollars and social media platforms."
There's no question that entering the plus-size market can be expensive and complex. The need for new patterns and fit models, plus an increased fabric yield, can increase expenses by as much as 20%, a cost that can't be passed on to the customer without alienating them. But, as brands like Tanya Taylor have shown, expanding sizing can lead to a much bigger increase in sales — when done correctly. And Loft had already paid the initial cost of launching its plus business.
Some, like Nicolette Mason, pointed out on social media that the brand could have made cuts in many other ways to preserve its plus line, from creating fewer SKUs each season to scaling back volume.
Besides, straight sizes were just as affected by the sweatpants boom as plus sizes — and unlike straight sizes, the plus-size market is growing year-over-year. Still, there's no mention of changes to the straight sized offering. It's become old hat, but once again, the plus-size market is shouldering the blame for slumping sales.
"I'd be willing to bet that plus sizes were not the only sizes that were selling less during a pandemic," Chiwaya says. "I'm sure there were other sizes, especially on the smaller end (which statistically very few people actually wear) that were not selling well in the last year, yet plus was the first to get the axe."
The blowback from the weekend's post has continued to roll out over social media, with commenters continuing to flood Loft's Instagram posts demanding that it reconsider. Ultimately, regardless of whether Loft changes its mind about its plus-size line, the decision to sneak the announcement into the comments of a social media post — on a weekend, no less — has left a sour taste in the mouth of its customers, who feel disrespected by both the decision and the secretive way it announced the change.
"With Loft, there was and still is so much potential to bounce back and better serve the consumer, but they have to be willing to listen, receive, and implement changes to help positively impact their bottom line," Denee says. "But this news, the way we found out, and their reasoning leaves little to be desired."