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Fresh push for ‘plus-size’ cloth­ing as the seg­ment grows

What was once con­sid­ered a sec­tion to be dis­played at the back of the store, with few items to se­lect from, has fi­nally gained pride po­si­tions at stores with re­tail­ers...

What was once con­sid­ered a sec­tion to be dis­played at the back of the store, with few items to se­lect from, has fi­nally gained pride po­si­tions at stores with re­tail­ers ac­knowl­edg­ing that plus-size is not an ex­cep­tion, but an in­clu­sion to the wom­enswear cat­e­gory. The most re­cent stamp on the grow­ing im­por­tance of plus-size is the re­nam­ing of the seg­ment by Kmart to ‘Fab­u­lously Sized’. In fact, the seg­ment has been among the few that has es­caped the mar­ket slow­down, reg­is­ter­ing growth of 6% to US $ 21.4 bil­lion in 2016 – dou­ble the growth rate of the over­all apparel sales – which to­talled US $ 218.7 bil­lion at the year end, ac­cord­ing to data from mar­ket re­search firm NPD Group.

The re­al­iza­tion has fi­nally seeped in that any brand or re­tailer look­ing at growth in the wom­enswear cat­e­gory has to think ‘big’. “Brands that fo­cus on only the S-M-L-XL con­sumers will never win the women’s busi­ness,” said NPD’s Apparel, Sports and Footwear In­dus­try An­a­lyst Matt Pow­ell in a post pre­dict­ing 2017 sports busi­ness trends, adding that NPD re­search shows the most com­mon size in women’s apparel is 16 and over 67% of Amer­i­can women wear size 14 and above. The re­search also shows that growth is not only in the women’s cat­e­gory but the per­cent­age of US teens pur­chas­ing plus-sized cloth­ing has al­most dou­bled to 34% in 2015 from 19% in 2012.

All re­tail­ers/brands have gone af­ter the seg­ment and many are look­ing at it as a growth driver. Even as sales at JCPen­ney strug­gle, its CEO Marvin El­li­son ad­mits that plus-size is one of the com­pany’s ‘strate­gic growth ini­tia­tives’ for this year and be­yond, adding the ‘plus-size com­mu­nity re­mains un­der-served’. “We want to be­come the des­ti­na­tion for pro­vid­ing style, value, and an ap­peal­ing shop­ping en­vi­ron­ment,” El­li­son said, adding the com­pany’s first-ever plus-size pri­vate la­bel fashion line Bou­tique+ in­tro­duced last year ‘con­tin­ues to res­onate’ with its plus-size cus­tomers. The re­tailer is ex­pected to fur­ther in­tro­duce swimwear and other ac­ces­sories un­der the la­bel, which it said tar­gets ‘fashion-minded mil­len­nial shop­per’. JCPen­ney said it has a ded­i­cated de­sign and prod­uct team to make sure colours, prints and fab­rics fit ‘curvy silhouettes’.

Kmart cre­ated a stir by chang­ing the name of its plus-size cloth­ing to ‘Fab­u­lously Sized’; the sec­tion in­cludes ex­tended sizes from

Kmart la­bels in­clud­ing Ja­clyn

Smith and Ba­sic Edi­tion. Two other Kmart brands, ‘In­ti­mates’ and ‘At­ten­tion Plus’, now come in a wider range of sizes, up to 4X/5X.

“The av­er­age Amer­i­can woman is

a US size 16 to 18. Of­ten, it’s hard for women to find ex­tended sizes, and even harder when these op­tions force women to choose from cer­tain styles, pat­terns, and sizes,” says Kelly Cook, Kmart’s Chief Mar­ket­ing and Dig­i­tal Of­fi­cer. Yet, chang­ing the name has not re­ally gone down well with ev­ery­one. Plus-size Su­per­model Ash­ley Gra­ham has spo­ken out against the term, call­ing it ‘di­vi­sive’, and model Kate Up­ton has also re­jected the cat­e­gory, ar­gu­ing that “no one should be la­belled by their body size at all.”

The fact re­mains that plus-size is no longer an af­ter-thought and Kmart is the lat­est ma­jor re­tailer to of­fer a more in­clu­sive range of sizes, with­out a clear sep­a­ra­tion be­tween the plus and non-plus de­part­ments. As of to­day, among the re­tail­ers, Wal­mart sells the most plus-size apparel. Fol­low­ing the di­rec­tion, Tar­get ear­lier this year de­buted ‘A New Day’, a cloth­ing line that caters to sizes XS to 4X, while Nike launched a new col­lec­tion of ac­tivewear sizes. And re­cently, Joe Fresh ex­panded its lines to in­clude sizes up to 3X. The change in mind­set is im­per­a­tive, es­pe­cially for those seek­ing to win over the mil­len­nial and Gen Z con­sumers.

The role of so­cial me­dia is chang­ing the per­spec­tive of the re­tail­ers, many of whom al­ways wanted to be as­so­ci­ated with the fash­ion­able women whose pro­por­tions were in re­al­ity far from the ‘real Amer­i­can woman’ that can­not be un­der­mined. On In­sta­gram, there are

5.3 mil­lion posts in­clud­ing the hash­tag #plus­size. A search of ‘plus-size fashion’ on YouTube yields some 1.6 mil­lion re­sults with top searches, in­clud­ing var­i­ous plus-size fashion “try on haul” videos. One video, ti­tled “Women Break Plus-Size Fashion Rules” by Buz­zFeed’s Boldly chan­nel gen­er­ated al­most 3.9 mil­lion views.

The ris­ing clam­our to hear plus-size women has be­come so strong that for the first time ever Vogue mag­a­zine made news this year by fea­tur­ing Ash­ley Gra­ham on its March cover along­side other mod­els. Up­ping the game, tra­di­tional plus-sized re­tail­ers such as Lane Bryant, owned by Ann Tay­lor with over US $ 1.1 bil­lion in fis­cal 2016 sales, have in­tro­duced ex­clu­sive col­lec­tions in part­ner­ships with de­sign­ers from Is­abel Toledo to Pra­bal Gu­rung that fea­tures model Gra­ham in some of its mar­ket­ing cam­paigns.

The race to get a big­ger share in the plus-size mar­ket is heat­ing up as NPD’s forecast in­di­cates that the plus-size women’s apparel mar­ket would grow by an an­nual av­er­age rate of 4% to US $ 24 bil­lion by 2020. Nonethe­less, de­signer brands still hold back as it is con­sid­ered a risky cat­e­gory. Some brands, such as Michael Kors, do sell plus-size ranges but do not ad­ver­tise them or dis­play them on web­sites. For those who are will­ing to take a chance, sev­eral in­ter­net start-ups that de­liver per­son­ally styled out­fits to in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing plus­size women, of­fer data to ‘straight-size’ de­sign­ers. Gwyn­nie Bee, Stitch Fix and Dia & Co, for ex­am­ple, share in­for­ma­tion with de­sign­ers on pre­ferred styles and fits.

There is still a lot to be done to cap­ture this grow­ing seg­ment of women who are fi­nally dis­cov­er­ing fashion that looks good and fits nicely on their curves.

Many plus-size cus­tomers still feel that many up­mar­ket depart­ment stores keep their cloth­ing sec­tions poorly or­ga­nized, badly stocked and dimly lit, if they stock larger clothes at all.

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