So You Put a Plus-Size Model on the Runway, Now What?
In October 2017, Alexander McQueen did something the brand had never done before: put two curve models in its runway show. After much celebration by fashion press, it did the same thing the following season. Plus-size models are increasingly easy to find at off-runway fashion events, too: Designers Vera Wang and Adam Selman took Ashley Graham and Paloma Elsesser as their dates to the 2018 CFDA Awards, and Elsesser sat front row at a recent Helmut Lang show. The thing all these brands have in common (beyond their friendly relationships with one or two famous women with thighs) is that they don't make their designer label clothing in sizes those women can walk into a store and buy. Even while halfway heeding calls for representation, plenty of big names in the fashion industry aren’t including plus-size women in any meaningful way. And while those brands and designers collect positive press for deigning to let a larger woman come to their show or after-party, or doing a mass-market diffusion line here or there, entrepreneurs and indie brands are playing an ever bigger role in filling the retail gap that the high-end fashion industry itself created, and continues to ignore.
VIDEO: Christian Siriano: The Man Who Dresses Everyone
At a certain point, most traditional fashion brands have to admit what’s always been clear to the relatively small number of plus-size women who work in fashion: They don’t make plus sizes because they don’t want to. And if that seems a little too cynical, you only have to look at the biggest power players in the luxury industry for proof. Of the 84 brands showing at New York Fashion Week this season, only 12 actually sell clothing in a size 16 or above. No high-end apparel brands under the umbrellas of the two largest fashion conglomerates, LVMH and Kering, make clothing in that size range (save for a handful of Marc Jacob pieces that just went on sale at plus ecomm site 11 Honore). And less than one percent of stock at the internet’s biggest online luxury retailers is plus-size, according to Fashionista.com. There’s a huge discrepancy between that tiny fraction and the 68% of American women who wear plus sizes, as Racked reported earlier this year.
The gag of it is, most brands in this echelon make the majority of their money from accessories, like handbags, and beauty products, instead of the clothing around which they orient their public images. And those moneymakers all share one quality: they’re products anyone can buy and enjoy, no matter their size. Why isn't that inclusivity applied to apparel?
It’s nearly impossible to get representatives from luxury fashion brands on the record about these decisions anymore, likely because they know that even the most politically correct versions of their answers will play poorly to a consumer class that’s increasingly critical of how businesses treat women and their bodies. A closer look at the actual obstacles to expanded sizing is revealing, though, as is a close look at who’s finally stepping up to solve them.
Until relatively recently, the best (and most politically correct) excuse that luxury brands have had for excluding plus-size women is that, even if they made the clothes, there were no retailers to sell them; and if you make clothes knowing that they’ll never see a sales floor, you might as well just light money on fire. Brands have long relied on third-party retailers, like high-end department stores that devote little, if any, space to plus-size departments. This created a chicken-or-egg dilemma that let everyone off the hook by making the problem seem intractable: If there was no floor space, brands couldn’t make the clothes. If brands didn’t make the clothes, why would retailers set aside floor space? Everyone involved dodged the question for decades, until the internet made it undodgeable. Then they simply stopped answering press inquiries about it.
The rapid expansion of online luxury shopping should have theoretically helped alleviate the problem of floor-space allocation — in that there is no floor on the infinitely shoppable internet. But the ecomm situation at many traditional retail powerhouses is more of the same. Right now, for example, Neiman Marcus offers just over 1,000 pieces of plus-size clothing online, almost none of which come from top-tier luxury designers, compared to almost 23,000 pieces in straight sizes. At Net-a-Porter, which is online-only, there are no plus sizes to be found at all. (Don’t be fooled by the occasional sighting of an XXL; luxury brands generally correspond those letters to a size 10 or 12, with top-tier European brands often cutting their clothing on the smaller end, and American ones erring only slightly larger.) At the same time, many of these brands now do all of their apparel sales through their own boutiques and websites (Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior, and Hermes, to name a few). Brands now control more of their own sales than they have in decades, and in most cases they aren’t seizing the moment to extend sizing.
Instead, indie designers are stepping up. High-end swimwear line Chromat, for example, has been a leader in runway and editorial representation, showcasing its designs on models of a range of sizes, ethnicities, and gender presentations. For years, though, founder Becca McCharen-Tran couldn’t find stockists interested in selling bigger sizes. “We were so surprised when we took the curve samples to market — they got no response! None of our retailer partners or wholesale stockists were interested in buying over a size large for their stores,” she told Mic in February. It wasn’t until this year, when Nordstrom placed a wholesale order up to a 3X, that that the brand could afford to make plus sizes in any meaningful quantity, she told InStyle last week. “[Chromat] has been doing plus-size for years, but it was always custom, done in-house. It wasn’t until we could produce 100 of the same thing that factories were willing to go into production with us,” she said.
Along with scant retail options, designers have long cited other logistical concerns in extending their size ranges — plus-size pattern-making is more difficult on a technical level; plus-size fit models aren’t as readily available as straight-size ones; plus-size clothes are more expensive to make because they require more fabric and create more fabric waste during production. And while all of those are valid practical concerns on a certain level, for luxury brands that have considerable resources and vast manufacturing apparatuses already in place, they’re little more than convenient excuses. They look especially flimsy when you consider which luxury brands have extended sizes: They’re small labels, like Christian Siriano and Zac Posen, with smaller budgets, smaller staffs, and more limited access to manufacturing resources than the likes of a Gucci or Prada.
In an interview with Women’s Wear Daily, Gwynnie Bee founder Christine Hunsicker pegged the cost of developing plus sizes for a fashion brand to be around $500,000. That’s not chump change, but for brands that have previously imported a giant chunk of iceberg from the Arctic to Paris to adorn a catwalk, or flown dozens of editors and influencers to a remote area of Japan for a single fashion show, it’s a rounding error.
And those excuses are becoming less convenient by the day, as entrepreneurs like 11 Honoré founder and CEO Patrick Herning step up to help brands face the challenges they so often cite as prohibitive. Launched in August 2017, 11 Honoré is something of a one-stop shop for both brands and customers looking to get into high-end plus-size clothing. Herning tells InStyle that his company has found ways to assist brands with every step of the process of extending their size offerings. “We have a standardized size chart, we have standardized fit models on both coasts that we provide for brands to have consistency when it comes to fit. We have a consultancy that can get on the phone and answer eye-level production questions, and we can go as deep as creating the patterns with the brands and working in tandem with production teams.”
He says 11 Honoré also maintains a sample closet that helps pair plus-size designer clothing with fashion editors and stylists looking to feature it in magazines, or on celebrities on the red carpet, which fulfills an important marketing role for brands unsure of larger sizes’ sales potential. On the customer-facing side, 11 Honoré stocks a wider selection of plus-size luxury and contemporary clothing than anywhere else in the world — Herning says the company will close the year with 80 brands on board, up from just 16 at launch a little over a year ago.
One of those early brands was Christian Siriano, the American luxury designer best known for his embrace of extended sizing. Siriano, who crafts the kind of luxurious dresses and ball gowns that other designers have long protested were too technically difficult to make in larger sizes, dressed 17 women for the 2018 Academy Awards red carpet. (“Dior didn’t do that,” he tells InStyle’s Eric Wilson in the October issue). In an interview with BUILD Series in August, he was sympathetic to designers who haven't taken the leap to offer extended sizing, but he's just as quick to remind competitors that he's happy to pick up the business they're leaving on the table. “There is, obviously, time and money and things that go into making custom clothes. You can’t do everything for everyone,” Siriano said. “Yes, it was really hard and a lot of work, and every single one of those actresses was a totally different person and size. But who cares?”
Siriano’s continued success is perhaps the best and most public rebuke to those more-monied brands that continue to insist that they just can’t make clothes for people who wear larger sizes. “I can’t imagine saying no,” Siriano tells InStyle, of designing inclusively from the start. Herning, too, echoes the idea that extended sizing has always been possible for brands that are genuinely interested in it. “The designers we launched with — Zac Posen, Monique Lhuillier, Brandon Maxwell, Baja East, Tanya Taylor — they all figured it out internally, with no support from us.”
Mara Hoffman was one of the designers who first launched extended sizing with assistance from 11 Honoré, and although she acknowledges that creating the new line was a significant amount of work, it has turned out to be worth it. “We took almost a year to research and talk it out and work on strategy, so there were definitely obstacles, but they felt manageable," she says. "Pieces for extended sizing need separate fittings, patterns, and more fabric, and I don’t think we could have anticipated the true scope of that undertaking.” But having an experienced partner in 11 Honoré “really helped take us from internal conversations to actual production.” The first line, for spring 2018, only included five styles, and Hoffman says her current collection has about 40; “Spring 2019, coming out in February, will be our first season with swimsuits over a size XL.”
A lot of people treat the fashion industry — and, by extension, the complaints of those whom it treats poorly — as frippery or foolishness, a fundamentally unnecessary distraction for the shallow and vain. What’s actually foolish, though, is pretending that people aren’t judged by their appearances in ways that make real differences in their lives. Access to clothing matters, and anyone who’s had to wear an ill-fitting suit to interview for their dream job, or been preoccupied with pulling at cheap polyester during the funeral for a loved one knows it. Fundamentally, being plus-sized means you often walk through the most important moments of your life feeling a little ashamed — not because of your body, but because of the limited and generally low-quality options you have for presenting it in situations where presentation absolutely matters.
Fashion is an industry that deals in fantasy, and none is more pervasive than fashion’s own mythology of itself — as a creative, progressive, and welcoming world of fabulous eccentrics and misfits. In reality, it’s an industry that centers itself around the thin, white, and rich, and if you exist outside that category, then its contempt for you and your desire to participate is palpable, still. The death grip of that old, tired attitude is starting to loosen ever so slightly, but when a brand says it's impossible to let go of it entirely, or that we should be happy with what they’ve done so far, don’t believe them for a second. They don’t deserve full credit for partial work.