Why is the fashion industry ignoring the plus-size market?
In 1985, the average woman in the US wore a size 8. Today, she wears a 14 — the number that usually marks the dividing line between standard and plus-size fashion. In the United States alone plus-size clothing is now a $17.5 billion market, but it remains one of the most underserved segments of the fashion industry. Plus-size departments are often small spaces hidden at the back of stores; styles are limited, less adventurous and off-trend. Plus-size fashion rarely appears in advertisements or shop windows. Luxury fashion is particularly allergic, with many designers manufacturing their products only in small sizes. Why is the fashion industry ignoring the plus-size market?
NEW YORK, United States — “No, we don’t want anything different,” said Nicolette Mason, her voice cracking with the weary laugh of one tired of repeating herself. “We want to be visible. We want to wear great clothes. We want to participate in the same trends.”
A prominent plus-size blogger, Mason has designed a clothing line for online store Modcloth and is a columnist on the plus-size industry for Marie Claire. But despite being one of the most well-known names in plus-size fashion, she shares a struggle with all women who are a US size 14 and above: a dearth of on-trend, good quality fashion in her size, across the board, from high street stores to luxury brands.
“I’m looking at exactly the same runways and trends as other editors are looking at,” she reasoned. “It’s disappointing to then get a very diluted version of that when I’m shopping in the plus-size market.”
The vast majority of fashion businesses still ignore this lucrative market, worth about $17.5 billion in the US alone in the 12 months ending April 2014, according to market research firm NPD. Meanwhile, those who don’t, deliver uninspiring clothes in dark hues, built to disguise a body, not to dress it up. The Internet has surfaced the voices of women like Ms Mason, however, and some businesses are listening to their cry that a love of fashion does not stop at size 14.
Childhood friends Zahir Dehnadi and Bahman Nedaei founded one such business. From the very beginning, their path to the plus- size market was online. In 2008, while helping Nedaei’s aunt run her eBay clothing store out of her basement, the duo noticed its plus-size items were unexpectedly popular. “We got tremendous customer feedback. We had customers sending us love letters and thanking us and telling us about their pain of not finding good fashion and how they felt ignored,” recalled Nedaei. "We kind of stepped back and said, ‘What are we doing?’”
They began to toy with the idea of stepping inside the “big black box” — this being Dehnadi’s term for the plus-size market, due to the lack of knowledge and data on the market.
“We talked to investors in the fashion industry. They were saying: the plus-size customer is lazy, she doesn’t earn much money and she doesn’t want real fashion,” Dehnadi recalled
“We literally couldn’t find any research,” added Nedaei. Their search for existing brands selling quality, fashionable plus-size clothing was also fruitless. “At first, we thought, if there’s no competition, then there’s no market.
Luckily, they listened to the customer instead. Since launching in 2009, Navabi, a dedicated plus-size e-tailer, has tripled its revenues every year, built a 150-strong team and now trades in 30 countries. In January, the business announced a €25 million (about $28 million) funding round, led by Bauer Venture Partners. Navabi sells collections from over 130 brands and last year launched its own line, which now accounts for a quarter of sales. The company declined to reveal current revenue figures.
Eloquii is another business whose story is testament to the potential of the online plus-size market. Like Navabi, this plus-size brand owes its existence to feedback from plus-size consumers.
In 2011, American clothing company The Limited launched a plus-size label named Eloquii, only to shutter it a year and a half later, when The Limited scaled back to focus on its core business.
“Social media, bloggers, the online community — that’s what brought this brand back,” said Julie Carnevale, Eloquii’s vice president of merchandising and a member of the original team. When Eloquii closed, the emails and blog posts flooded in from devastated customers.
“If there weren’t [online] outlets for our customer to get to us, we would never have known the outcry, the emotional impact that the brand had on these girls.” In 2013, Steve Zawada and Jodi Arnold, also members of the original Eloquii team, reconvened with Carnevale. “We knew the opportunity, we knew the potential,” said Arnold, the brand’s creative director, who recalled that shoppers spent more per transaction with Eloquii than The Limited’s straight-size business. They tweaked Eloquii’s product offering to be “more like what you would find in a Zara store” and strengthened their digital marketing strategy, having learnt that this was a powerful way to reach their target.
What’s different now is digital. Plus-size has staying power now because the customer is digitally-enabled and digitally-empowered.
In February 2014, Eloquii was back in business. Before the year was out, the brand had begun growing revenue by 100 percent per quarter and, in December, secured a $6 million Series A round led by Greycroft Partners, bringing the company’s total capital raised, thus far, to $9 million. Eloquii projects that its sales in 2015 will exceed $20 million.
“People talk about plus having had moments in the past,” said Mariah Chase, CEO of Eloquii. “What’s different now is digital. Plus has staying power now because this customer is digitally- enabled and digitally-empowered. She can create the content she wants to see. She can connect. She can make things viral. She can share.”
“I think that without social media, without Instagram, without blogs, we would not have seen as rapid a shift and change in the plus-size market,” agreed Nicolette Mason. “It has given a way not only for consumers to talk to brands, but also to talk to each other; to band together, form alliances, speak as a formerly disenfranchised community within fashion and really have a voice where there haven’t been many speakers or many people with a platform before. It’s absolutely one of the biggest influences in this industry.”
Navabi and Eloquii share a familiar formula for success: trend-led inventory, updated regularly. (The Navabi website has new styles every other day; Eloquii aims for once per fortnight). “None of us come from backgrounds in plus, which I actually think is part of our success, because there are no pre-conceived notions,” said Carnevale. According to Carnevale, body-confident styles like crop tops are amongst Eloquii’s top sellers. “Buying the product, I’m listening to what the customer is saying. I’m reading style reports of what’s good and bad and the other half of me is looking at trends — that’s definitely how I would do it straight-size.”
“A lot of brands think that plus-size customers are different,” said Dehnadi, who happily notes that Navabi’s colourful styles — not plain black basics — sell best. “Fashion is a language and this does not change when you have a bigger size. Often, it is even more so that if you are a bigger size, you want to show that you are really fashionable.”
Representatives of both brands are quick to caution against making sweeping assumptions about the plus-size consumer — for example, the notion that plus-size women do not have the means or the inclination to invest significantly in style.
“Actually, this customer is willing to pay much more to ensure that she gets the right quality,” said Dehnadi, noting that plus- size shoppers tend to spend more money per transaction than the straight-size consumers.
Navabi’s prices range from $30 for a t-shirt to over $1,000 for a Roberto Cavallidress. Eloquii, whose product is generally made in fabrics like polyester and viscose, edges up to $200 for its smartest evening dresses.
Unsurprisingly, the biggest difference between plus- and straight-size fashion is fit: larger sizes mean new proportions and body shapes and, thus, creating plus-size clothing can be more complex — and more expensive — than simply scaling up a pattern from size 8 to 18.
Making decisions on how much to produce can also be problematic, in part due to the lack of available market data. “At the beginning, we bought many items and would run out of stock and it was very hard to restock,” said Bahman Nedaei. To avoid the cost and complexity of trying to accurately predict demand, Navabi’s garments are produced in the brand’s European factories after an order is placed and shipped to the customer within a week. According to Dehnadi, the system is unique and achieves “unlimited inventory” without the upfront investment required to manufacture and manage product.
But the burning question is this: if 65 percent of US women wear a size 14 or higher, why are more companies not seizing the plus-size opportunity?
“It’s a confluence of factors,” said Mariah Chase. “If they’re in the straight- size business, they believe that launching plus-size is going to cannibalise that. Also, it is like launching a new business. They have to put investment dollars up against it and so that’s something every business needs to weigh and understand.”
According to Bahman Nedaei, plus-size is still stigmatised. “When this changes it will be much easier for brands to venture into plus-sizes, because they won’t need to fear the negativity that is attached,” he said. “But it is the best investment to be part of this movement now.”
Nicolette Mason, who describes her Marie Claire column as an “anomaly” in fashion media, says the lack of plus-size coverage can also turn brands and retailers off: “Because there are so few media outlets consistently showing the market, there aren’t many opportunities on a very large scale that provide adequate press and promotion for a lot of the [plus-size clothing] lines that are emerging.”
But for Navabi and Eloquii, the lack of plus-size media was an opportunity: Navabi publishes a biweekly online magazine “similar to the [online] Net-a-Porter magazine” as well as fashion advice from a “style council” of plus-size bloggers, editors and models. Dehnadi claims conversion rates “rocket” after consumers visit this part of the website, though he declined to offer specific metrics.
“Usually, when a customer goes to a retailer, she has been inspired by the media. There are style icons she’s seen on TV, she’s looked at magazines and she goes knowing what her style is and what she wants. The plus-size customer doesn’t get any inspiration,” he said. “What we found is that if you offer that kind of great fashion, what you also have to do is offer a lot of inspiration.”
The fashion industry is changing, though not at the same rate as our waistlines. In 2012, the last year for which figures were available, overweight and obese people constituted about 70 percent of the US population, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Retailers such as ModCloth, Target and Old Navy have made forays into the plus-size market, while the last year has seen more plus-size models on the covers of fashion magazines than in the past entire decade. Brands like Calvin Klein have also featured fuller figured models in their recent campaigns. And, according to Zahir Dehnadi, a growing number of straight-size brands are contacting Navabi: some to sell their collections on the site; others, with questions about how to actually break into the market.
But for now, Eloquii and Navabi have something of a first-mover advantage. “Most brands don’t see that this is the future,” said Dehnadi. “But there is no way around it. This is the future. It’s where we have to go.”
A version of this article first appeared in a special print edition of The Business of Fashion, which highlights ‘7 Issues Facing Fashion Now,’ from sustainability and the human cost of manufacturing clothing to untapped business opportunities in technology, Africa and the plus-size market. Join the discussion on BoF Voices, a new platform where the global fashion community can come together to express and exchange ideas and opinions on the most important topics facing fashion today.
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