Why Are Plus Sizes Always the First to Go?
It was the Instagram comment heard throughout the plus-size community: In a sly and under-the-radar move, LOFT announced via social media that they would be discontinuing sizes above a 18 come this fall. After launching their extended sizes online and in select stores only back in 2018 — calling on top industry names like CeCe Olisa to promote it — the retailer blamed financial struggles for its decision to scale back.
"Unfortunately, due to ongoing business challenges, we have had to make some difficult decisions, which does impact our plus collection," LOFT wrote on Twitter. "Come fall, our size offering will be 00-18/XXS - XXL. We sincerely apologize for any disappointment."
But the plus-size community wasn't having that. Like LOFT, many brands — including Ryllace, which seemingly disappeared from the internet overnight without so much as a statement, as well as M.M.LaFleur — have gone the route of eliminating plus-sizes when funds get tight. While it's not financially feasible for every brand to be size inclusive, it begs an important question: How can plus-size women, who make up a majority of the US population, not be profitable? The issue, as made clear by the thousands of unanswered and ignored comments left on LOFT's social media pages, is rooted far deeper than the plus customer not wanting to purchase yet another basic floral print sundress.
For model Hunter McGrady, the situation couldn't be more frustrating, especially considering that plus-sizes sell out first with her QVC line All Worthy (available in XXS‒5X/0-36) upon every new drop.
"We need to give the plus consumer time to shop and time to know that they exist in these stores," McGrady says. "A lot of brands will cut plus-sizes before consumers even know that they exist at these brands. So there needs to be some patience behind it, too."
McGrady has tapped into her engaged digital community to determine what exactly her customers want, and she stresses how crucial that is in developing a successful — and profitable — size-inclusive collection.
"It's not what I want or what my team wants, it's about what you want to see out there," she explains. "How can we cater to you? What patterns really make you excited? What is something that you've never had before?"
Maintaining a level of transparency on her social media has allowed McGrady to create trust with her audience. Because without trust, the savvy plus consumer will be weary to spend their money on an inauthentically inclusive brand.
In 2021 and beyond, what designers and brands must begin to realize is that the plus-size market is about infinitely more than just clothing. To impactfully engage with this marginalized community who, for decades now, have been demanding change, one must understand the transformative power that comes with inclusive fashion. More than a financial investment, expanding your collection to include plus-sizes requires an emotional attachment, as has been made clear by McGrady's All Worthy line.
Additionally, eliminating plus-sizes in the manner LOFT has seems like a bad business move on numerous levels. Plus-size women make up nearly 70% of the US population with a spending potential of $24 billion dollars, according to Statista. To completely ignore this majority of the population drastically cuts your revenue potential. (LOFT did not respond to request for comment at the time of publication)
And so, the question arises: Are plus-sizes not as popular as they're made out to be, or are brands failing to adequately give this customer what she really wants: true fashion, the same that her thin-counterpart has access to?
"When we buy an item, we buy it for the full size range. If we can't purchase it in the full size range, we just don't do the style," says Rachel Ungaro, VP of apparel at QVC/HSN. "So we don't look at our Misses customers (XXS-XL) and plus customers differently — we look at the style and make decisions more about whether or not it would be acceptable for all body types."
LOFT — alongside sister brands Ann Taylor and Lane Bryant — has publicly struggled financially over the course of the past year, filing for bankruptcy in June of 2020 before being bought by Sycamore Partners for $540M last November. Three months post-acquisition, it appears the first cost-cutting measure was to eliminate plus, seemingly (from a customer point of view) without properly valuing how influential this customer could be.
Because despite financial difficulties, LOFT remains among the nation's top mass retailers. And so, if smaller designers and indie brands can find financial success in extending sizing, why can't they?
The key, according to designer Tanya Taylor, is injecting inclusivity into the core of a brand.
"We're a really small company — we are 25 people — and we launched extended sizing over four years ago," Taylor tells InStyle, "and it's always been such an important part of what we do that it's not an option to stop doing it."
Like McGrady, Taylor has found it beneficial to connect with her customers at the beginning of the design process rather than the end. This allows not only for feedback to be implemented from the start, but allows customers to see the different additional steps — from fit to technical design — a designer is taking to ensure that their demands are being executed.
Taylor says that LOFT's decision to do away with plus signals that it was never made a core value for the brand, and rather served as a rare added bonus to the customer in their minds, capitalizing off of a performative inclusivity mindset.
"It takes time to educate and attract women who haven't been included in fashion for so long," Taylor adds. "So for them to spend the time on marketing and customer acquisition and creating the right environment for someone to be able to walk into their stores and feel like they were going to have a great experience probably would take more than two years."
Behind the scenes, Taylor describes the situation as a "chicken and egg scenario." Designers like her are seeing a healthy demand for extended sizes on their websites, but that is not always reciprocated on the wholesale side of business. If big retailers choose not to prioritize size-inclusivity, then, from the designer's perspective, those demands from customers are difficult to meet.
That's not to say, however, that bigger retailers don't face their fair share of unique challenges. It may be harder to enact change at a larger company where your overhead is 100 people, rather than two dozen. Additionally, for brands like LOFT that still operate physical stores, stocking an extended size range in-person at every spot is a large financial strain while also raising space issues (imagine stocking jeans sizes 00-26 on the small racks available now).
All of that is understandable. But to ignore and eliminate the plus customer who, in these times of distress, could very well be a brand's saving grace, fuels that notion that plus is secondary, and that curvy women are easily disposable by the fashion industry.
Nick Kaplan, President of Fashion to Figure, says that while the pandemic has obviously caused financial challenges, the past year has been the best for the inclusive brand, pushing them to be more innovative in connecting with their customers. And that connection, in turn, boosted revenue. Kaplan has seen firsthand that brands who simply extend sizes of preexisting styles often fall flat, while those who focus on expansion and investment grow exponentially.
"We as an industry are still sort of looking at plus-sizes as just size, when it's not; it is a customer," Kaplan explains, signaling why diversity of style is so desperately needed in the curvy market, just like what is found in straight-sizes. Because "plus" is not a style. It is a spectrum of bodies that represent a spectrum of aesthetics and possibilities. Fashion to Figure has tapped into who exactly their community is within the plus-size world, "and it's just a small part of the community, but it's our community."
Kaplan goes on to state that expanding into plus may not be the best fit for every brand and designer. As made clear by the universal frustration with LOFT, to see a brand attempt plus-sizes and then quickly scrap it often hurts more than if they hadn't strayed into the community at all.
"Know what you're signing up for, because this consumer is super smart," Kaplan adds. "She has options today that she didn't have yesterday, but still wants more and she still needs more. But if it doesn't fit and you can't establish that fit, then don't commit."