Some $12 billion to $14 billion worth of business is lost each year due to not servicing the full-figured customer.
That’s the estimation from Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst, of The NPD Group, who participated in the “Fashion Without Limits: Changing the Face of Fashion” media breakfast panel last week. Sponsored by Syracuse University at the Fisher Center here, the panel was moderated by Emme, the plus-size fashion model and entrepreneur. The panel also included Aimee Cheshire, cofounder and president of heygorgeous.com; Liz Black, who writes a blog called P.S. It’s Fashion; Susan Moses, celebrity stylist and designer; Todd Conover, fashion design program coordinator and assistant professor at Syracuse, and Jeffrey Mayer, fashion design senior faculty-associate professor at Syracuse.
The theme of the discussion was the ongoing problem of how the full-figured woman craves fashionable clothes, yet not enough department and specialty stores, nor manufacturers, are addressing her needs.
“Department stores can’t change their direction. They’re like a big cruise line,” said Emme. “If you tell a department store, ‘We want extended sizes, we want size 18,’” you can’t get them to change by one or two people talking. Amplified by social media, the consumer today is using her voice in a powerful way and wants change. “I feel we are at an incredible precipice and tipping point, of sorts, that we are about to see a change on who’s driving the decisions within boutiques and design schools,” said Emme.
According to The NPD Group Inc., the women’s plus-size market accounted for $17.7 billion of the $116.2 billion women’s apparel market for the 12 months ending September 2014, and grew 1 percent from a year ago. Cohen noted that 37 percent of U.S. women say they wear at least one full-figured garment. About 68 percent of the U.S. female population is size 12 and above.
“This is a huge opportunity to serve the most underserved fashion business in all of the fashion markets,” said Cohen. Designers today are still under the impression that they don’t want to market to the plus-size customer, he said. “That’s a mistake.”
Many retailers are carrying their plus-size fashions online only, he noted. Stores say that they don’t get the same return in plus-size fashions as the accessories business. “My comment to them, do you really believe the full-figured woman doesn’t buy accessories? She doesn’t shop for other items in the store and doesn’t buy for other people in her family? Why are you telling her to leave?” he asked.
Interestingly enough, he added, “Online is proving its value in this market.” Cohen stressed that full-figure isn’t a Baby Boomer business or an age segment issue. He said the growth in the women’s market is coming from the Millennial and the Boomer female in plus sizes. “This is a worldwide opportunity. It’s one of the most loyal consumers you will find,” he said.
Moses, the celebrity stylist, said she would like to see more full-figured women get contracts to promote beauty. “Our eyelashes have no size,” she said. She noted that Queen Latifah is the only curvy woman who has a beauty contract. “We all wash our hair, we all wear makeup. Our lips have no size. Why don’t more [plus-size women] have contracts? I would love to see Adele have a contract,” she said.
When Moses walks through the stores, she said she sees how beautiful the contemporary and misses’ departments look. “You get to the ‘women’s’ department, the full-figure merchandise is horrible. The mannequins are dressed horribly…the offerings are so bad. We should not be relegated to online shopping. I have to wait for the package, pay for the shipping. That’s not fair,” said Moses.
“I know a lot of curvy women who love clothes. But some of them have given up. They don’t even want to go into stores, because the offerings are an insult,” Moses continued. She said she started designing because her clients couldn’t find what they needed, and that she is grateful to the designers who are open to doing custom designs for plus-size clients, such as Carmen Marc Valvo, Tadashi and Bryan Bayou.
Cheshire’s Web site, heygorgeous.com, provides contemporary clothing from size 8 and up. She carries lines such as Hanky Panky, Yummie by Heather Thomson, Lucky Brand Denim Collection, A.B.S. by Allen Schwartz, Adrianna Papell, BB Dakota and Jessica Simpson. As for her customers, she said, “They are not my stepchild, they are my lady,” she said. Her business has grown more than 500 percent in the last year.
Black, who blogs about plus-size fashion, said she attends about 60 fashion shows a season, and thinks things are getting better. “I have seen an enormous change,” she said. She attended her first plus-size fashion show in New York and one during London Fashion Week. “Things are improving and getting more inclusive. There’s still room for growth,” she said.
Emme has joined forces with her alma mater, Syracuse, and Wolf Form Co. on the “Fashion Without Limits” initiative, which will teach SU design students to create apparel for the size 12-plus market. An inaugural competition, open to students in their junior year, is to design a full-figured evening dress, and the winning design will be selected at the end of the spring semester. The winner will receive the 12+ Emme Award and $500, and Emme will wear the winning design at a red-carpet event. The student designers are working exclusively with dress forms donated by Wolf Form Co. The dress forms allow the students to design for sizes 16, 18 and 20.
After introducing the program to the students in August, Conover said he got a little pushback from some students. The students have an idea of what they’d like to do in fashion design school and for some of them, it was not something they wanted to partake in. He said he spoke to them and told them, “This is the first time in history you have the opportunity to do something where the consumer is actually driving the movement.” He encouraged them to get on the train, since there are so many big opportunities in this sector. In the beginning it was a mandatory project, but they decided to give them a choice. Some 90 percent have decided to participate. Emme said she will eventually present this program to the global fashion community.