When I was chief creative officer for Liz Claiborne Inc., I spent a good amount of time on the road hosting fashion shows highlighting our brands. Our team made a point of retaining models of various sizes, shapes, and ages, because one of the missions of the shows was to educate audiences about how they could look their best. At a Q&A after one event in Nashville in 2010, a woman stood up, took off her jacket and said, with touching candor: “Tim, look at me. I’m a box on top, a big, square box. How can I dress this shape and not look like a fullback?” It was a question I’d heard over and over during the tour: Women who were larger than a size 12 always wanted to know, How can I look good, and why do designers ignore me?
I love the American fashion industry, but it has a lot of problems, and one of them is the baffling way it has turned its back on plus-size women. It’s a puzzling conundrum. The average American woman now wears between a size 16 and a size 18, according to new research from Washington State University. There are 100 million plus-size women in America, and, for the past three years, they have increased their spending on clothes faster than their straight-size counterparts. There is money to be made here ($20.4 billion, up 17 percent from 2013). But many designers — dripping with disdain, lacking imagination or simply too cowardly to take a risk — still refuse to make clothes for them.
I’ve spoken to many designers and merchandisers about this. The overwhelming response is, “I’m not interested in her.” Why? “I don’t want her wearing my clothes.” Why? “She won’t look the way that I want her to look.” They say the plus-size woman is complicated, different and difficult, that no two size 16s are alike. Some haven’t bothered to hide their contempt. “No one wants to see curvy women” on the runway, Karl Lagerfeld, head designer of Chanel, said in 2009. Under the tenure of chief executive Mike Jeffries, Abercrombie & Fitch sold nothing larger than a size 10, with Jeffries explaining that “we go after the attractive, all-American kid.”
This a design failure and not a customer issue. There is no reason larger women can’t look just as fabulous as all other women. The key is the harmonious balance of silhouette, proportion and fit, regardless of size or shape. Designs need to be reconceived, not just sized up; it’s a matter of adjusting proportions.
Based on my experience shopping with plus-size women, it’s a horribly insulting and demoralizing experience. Half the items make the body look larger, with features like ruching, box pleats and shoulder pads. Pastels and large-scale prints and crazy pattern-mixing abound, all guaranteed to make you look infantile or like a float in a parade. Adding to this travesty is a major department-store chain that makes you walk under a marquee that reads “WOMAN.” What does that even imply? That a “woman” is anyone larger than a 12, and everyone else is a girl? It’s mind-boggling.
This problem is difficult to change. The industry, from the runway to magazines to advertising, likes subscribing to the mythology it has created of glamour and thinness. For decades, designers have trotted models with bodies completely unattainable for most women down the runway. First it was women so thin that they surely had eating disorders. After an outcry, the industry responded by putting young teens on the runway, girls who had yet to exit puberty. More outrage.
But change is not impossible. There are aesthetically worthy retail successes in this market. When helping women who are size 14 and up, my go-to retailer is Lane Bryant. While the items aren’t fashion with a capital F, they are stylish. And designer Christian Siriano scored a design and public relations victory after producing a look for Leslie Jones to wear to the “Ghostbusters” red-carpet premiere. Jones, who is not a diminutive woman, had tweeted in despair that she couldn’t find anyone to dress her; Siriano stepped in with a lovely full-length red gown.
Several retailers that have stepped up their plus-size offerings have been rewarded. In one year, ModCloth doubled its plus-size lineup. To mark the anniversary, the company paid for a survey of 1,500 American women ages 18 to 44 and released its findings: Seventy-four percent of plus-size women described shopping in stores as “frustrating”; 65 percent said they were “excluded.” But the plus-size women surveyed also indicated that they wanted to shop more. More than 80 percent said they’d spend more on clothing if they had more choices in their size, and nearly 90 percent said they would buy more if they had trendier options. According to the company, its plus-size shoppers place 20 percent more orders than its straight-size customers.
Despite the huge financial potential of this market, many designers don’t want to address it. It’s not in their vocabulary. Today’s designers operate within paradigms that were established decades ago, including anachronistic sizing. (Consider the fashion show: It hasn’t changed in more than a century.) But this is now the shape of women in this nation, and designers need to wrap their minds around it. I profoundly believe that women of every size can look good. But they must be given choices. Separates — tops, bottoms — rather than single items like dresses or jumpsuits always work best for the purpose of fit. Larger women look great in clothes skimming the body, rather than hugging or cascading. There’s an art to doing this. Designers, make it work.