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Is the fashion industry living up to promises of size inclusivity?

This edition of the "Better Beauty" explores why the fashion industry seems so slow to reflect a wider range of body types in clothing sizes.
Posted at 6:04 AM, Feb 09, 2023

In recent years, there have been tons of promises from the fashion industry about being more size-inclusive. Companies started being more diverse in modeling and advertising, and a lot of major retailers are tackling a huge rebrand to widen their size range.

It's not a stumper why all this rebranding has been happening: The plus-size market is increasing. It reached a little over $600 billion globally last year and is expected to become a trillion-dollar industry in the next decade.

Men continue to make up a majority of the market. In the U.S., nearly 70% of American women are considered plus-size, but a study from 2016 found just 18% of clothing sold here caters to them.

Across body types, many Americans still feel like shopping for clothes can still be needlessly hard. To really understand why, it starts with how our clothing gets made and the design process beforehand.

Fashion education has been criticized for its lack of training when it comes to designing garments for larger sizes. Oftentimes, students are working with skinnier mannequins — around a size 4 or 6. A huge part of the problem involves something called "pattern grading:" the process of turning a sample size into smaller or larger sizes, without changing the style. It's not as simple as adding or subtracting inches; fabric will look or fit differently on someone who is a size 2 versus a size 20.

But instead of paying for refitting and grading work to accurately make plus sizes, companies will often just scale up the smaller sizes, use outdated data on body shapes to size up or just won't make plus sizes at all.

Gianluca Russo is the author of "The Power of Plus" and has written about the lack of plus-size representation in fashion education.

"That's an entire conversation that's left out of these design schools. They're told to just grade up," Russo said. "So it's not as easy as adding two inches of one inch per size. You really have to figure out if more weight is added here, how does that impact the overall shape of this body, and how do we take this into account? Where does there need to be more fabric? Where does it need to be more stretch? And what I found here was not only was there an overwhelming amount of area for improvement when it comes to inclusive fashion education, but there was an overwhelming desire for it."

While some major fashion schools have been slowly responding to criticism and expanding their curriculum, it's still the norm for plus-size design to not be required, even if it is taught.

It's not just a problem for the design. These problems also carry over into manufacturing.

Manufacturers typically have "minimum order quantities" to help meet their bottom lines, so smaller merchandise orders or personalized garments made-to-order from scratch are naturally more expensive. Those minimum quantities have even gone up since the pandemic, as manufacturers struggle with their own labor shortage and other financial hits.

This makes it especially hard for smaller brands, even those that prioritize popular larger body types, to find a manufacturing partner. Some small business owners have found this not only keeps their prices high, but it sometimes means operating at a loss when expanding their size range.

"One of the most challenging things about being a retailer is inventory, right? Retailers are making bets all the time about exactly what styles are going to sell," said Nadia Boujarwah, CEO and co-founder of Dia & Co.

Boujarwah's Dia & Co is an online store and subscription service focused on plus-sized collections and brands. She used Old Navy as an example for when expanding to a larger plus-size inventory can have its issues. She said the brand's Bodequality campaign was "the first of its kind" but that around three-quarters of the way in, it made mistakes on the strategy.

"How many of the larger units they're buying versus the smaller units and where in the stores they were going and what that meant about overall how successful they'd been in planning their inventory — that it was a bigger challenge for them than they anticipated," Boujarwah said. "The fundamental challenge that we hear time and again with brands is that if a large investment is going to be made, a large return has to be realized quickly, and that equation just never pans out. You cannot overcome 30 or 40 years of customer expectations in two quarters. While they give this a year or two for women to come and shop the sizes, they spent 30 years telling them to stay away. So how can you course correct that in just a year or two?"

A lot of criticism gets directed at the biggest brands themselves, since they have the most resources to really bring about change. Without putting resources into proper sizing and manufacturing, including plus-size numbers on the clothing rack can only go so far.

Overall, clothing sizes can be a confusing minefield. Sizes can vary a lot between each brand, and that can take a huge toll on a customer's self-esteem.

Things get even more confusing with the practice of "vanity sizing" where brands intentionally set the sizes for clothes incorrectly. This usually involves calling a piece of clothing a smaller size than it actually is, and it began as a way to tap into biases against fatness, making shoppers feel happier and more willing to buy when they see they fit into a smaller size than they thought.

"What I realized in writing my book is that sizing has become such an emotional thing for so many people because of how it turned them away from so long," Russo said. "So when you go into a store, there's nothing awful than finally seeing your size offer, going into the tiny fitting room, trying it on and realizing that while it says a size 18 on the tag, it still doesn't fit."

But the numbers are also changing to try and reflect the shifting average American body type. It's clear in measurements for women's sizes how they have been steadily rising since these systems started being used in the mid-20th century. A size 12, which would now be about 32 inches in the waist, used to be just 26 inches, and there wasn't even a size 0 or 00 until the late 2000s.

The calls for more inclusive sizing in fashion have been going on for years. It can be frustrating when it seems like the industry takes two steps forward and one step back. From design and education to what the clothes customers are trying on in fitting rooms, it's going to take an industry-wide reckoning to normalize and prioritize the most common body types and clothing sizes and truly become size-inclusive.

"I think that the reality is a plus-size customer, which I've been since I was 14 years old, is that it's just really hard to overcome how discouraging it can be to have to navigate all of these challenges that really are unique to to our space," Boujarwah said. "But we have to recognize how much extraordinary progress there's been even in the last three or five years, the number of brands that have extended their sizes. I actually think the brands deserve an enormous amount of credit in the amount of investment and in how they have responded to the desire and the social pressure, honestly, to be more inclusive in their offerings. And now the key is just not flipping back."