A number of things feel off about the fashion industry's supposed movement to embrace and glorify women who are bigger than a size 2. Something we've bemoaned repeatedly on this blog is how plus-size models are routinely shot nude, as if for shock value. Perhaps magazines were trying to re-create the sensation Lizzie Miller made when Glamour shot her nude a year ago. Out rolled Glamour's expanded coverage of plus-size naked models, then came V's size issue with shot after shot of plus-size model in states of undress — seemingly more scantily clad than the straight-size models in any typical issue of the magazine. However, The New York Times Magazine offers one possible answer to why these women are always shot naked, aside from shock value and bragging rights: There simply aren't very many great clothes made to fit them.
The plus-size clothing business accounts for only 18 percent of total revenue in the women's apparel industry, even though 64 percent of American women are overweight. Designers shy away from making clothes considered plus-size because doing so is just difficult.
The most formidable obstacle lies in creating a prototype. If you already have a line of clothing and a set system of sizing, you cannot simply make bigger sizes. You need whole new systems of pattern-making. “The proportions of the body change as you gain weight, but for women within a certain range of size, there is a predictability to how much, born out by research dating to the 1560s,” explained Kathleen Fasanella, who has made patterns for women’s coats and jackets for three decades. “We know pretty well what a size 6 woman will look like if she edges up to a 10; her bustline might increase an inch,” Fasanella said. “But if a woman goes from a size 16 to a 20, you just can’t say with any certainty how her dimensions will change.”
Thin people are more like one another; heavier people are less like one another. With more weight comes more variation. “You’ll have some people who gain weight entirely in their trunk, some people who will gain it in their hips,” Fasanella continued. “As someone getting into plus-size, you can either make clothing that is shapeless and avoid the question altogether or target a segment of the market that, let’s say, favors a woman who gets larger in the hip. You really have to narrow down your customer.” A designer must then find a fit model who represents that type and develop a pattern around her. But even within the subcategories, there are levels of differentiation. “Armholes are an issue,” Fasanella told me, by way of example. “If you have decided to go after the woman who is top-heavy, well, some gain weight in their upper arms and some do not. There are so many variables; you never win. It’s like making computers and then deciding you want to make monitors; a monitor is still a computer product, but it’s a whole new kind of engineering.”
However, attitudes toward fat may be shifting. More fashionable non-muumuu clothes for plus-sizes are hitting the market, especially in trend-driven plus-size chains like Torrid, for example. "The number of skinny jeans we sell would astound one," Torrid's president told the Times. Because the thing is, plus-size women don't want to wear muumuus: Statistics show that most plus-size clothes sold in stores like Saks are figure-hugging styles.
But one hardly needs to point out that the entire fashion industry isn't embracing the plus-size and everything that goes with it. While Saks also announced this week it would start carrying designer clothes by the likes of Chanel in sizes up to 16 or 18 up from a max size of 10, the store seems to be doing everything it can to avoid elaborating on the decision. We reached out to Saks this week to find out what prompted the move to up their sizes and which labels' offerings would be expanded, and after a couple of days, were told the store isn't "able to answer specifics," and given instead this statement:
After recent review, we concluded there are customers who desire designer clothing in sizes that are not currently available in our stores. To meet her needs, Saks Fifth Avenue has worked with certain well-known designers and for fall 2010 we will offer for some designer brands up to size 16 or 18 in select Saks Fifth Avenue locations.
We are especially proud to be leading the way in meeting the needs of this valued clientele. Saks Fifth Avenue looks forward to the expansion of our designer product offering, which will enable more of our customers to look and feel their best.
Oh really? The market for designer clothes stems past size 10 wearers? It's amazing it took this long and a "review" to figure that out.
Plus-Size Wars [NYT]