Clothing brands that overlook the plus-sized market risk harming their company’s image – and profits
Last September a dispute broke out on social media between ethical clothing brand Lucy & Yak and a group of influencers and writers. Among the charges levelled against the company was an accusation of fatphobia, with critics accusing it of ignoring its plus-size fanbase.
A PR disaster followed for the multimillion-pound business, which has cultivated an image of inclusivity and sustainability. This included a tearful video on social media by Lucy & Yak’s founders, Chris Renwick and Lucy Greenwood, and subsequent rebuttals labelling their behaviour disingenuous.
The pair took steps to address the issue, extending their range up to a size 32, among numerous other changes. When contacted, Lucy & Yak said it had found the experience positive overall, and that it had allowed the brand to reach out to more customers.
This experience should serve as a cautionary tale for other brands looking to operate in the plus-size clothing market, which is forecast to reach $697bn (about £510bn) in value by 2027, according to a recent report by Allied Market Research. One thing is clear: for Gen Z and millennial shoppers, inclusivity is important.
So what are the risks and rewards of embracing (or avoiding) size inclusivity? And what can brands do to ensure that customers believe their efforts are genuine?
The plus-size opportunity
According to Stephanie Yeboah, a plus-size writer and influencer and author of Fattily Ever After, there is simply no excuse in 2021 for excluding fat and plus-size people from your brand. “The last ten years have shown there’s a strong interest and huge market in fat people wanting to dress stylishly,” she says. “Certain areas of the fashion industry are missing a huge trick by constantly refusing to add more sizes or use plus-size women to model their clothes.”
Sustainability writer and consultant Aja Barber believes that when brands ignore the plus-size market, they lean into fatphobia. “You either want people to wear the clothes or you don’t,” she says, attributing the hesitancy to a legacy idea in fashion that “plus-size bodies are not aspirational”, which continues to permeate the industry.
As for cost being a barrier, the bigger risk is missing out on the potential financial rewards. Sophie Slater is owner and co-founder of Birdsong, a made to-order sustainable clothing brand that’s included up to size 30 from the beginning.
While there may be an initial cost in terms of creating patterns, paying size graders and finding appropriate fit models, opening yourself to a new market of potential customers pays dividends.
“Plus-sizes are really popular,” she says. “It has cost us money to do it properly but it’s increased the market, too.”
It just doesn’t make good business sense to ignore the fastest-growing segment of the market, she says, though there’s also a moral imperative to being inclusive. “If you have money to spend and are a for-profit business, then there’s simply no excuse.”
Doing it right
Brands that want to extend their range must do it properly. For Yeboah, a crucial step, though far from the only one, is getting the right people onboard. This means hiring talent – be they designers, fitters, PR and marketing professionals or models – who are plus-size and can understand the challenges faced by fat people on a daily basis, as well as what they need to feel included.
Otherwise, as Barber points out, you risk looking disingenuous, which could end up hurting your brand more, especially if you’re vocally supporting diversity as a means of gaining clout. “If you’re saying your brand’s feminism is intersectional, then your products need to be inclusive — so that includes all different sizes, abilities and all different colours of skin,” she says.
Yeboah warns brands against extending their range quietly. “Fat women want to be able to dress well — but we want brands to mean it if they’re extending their ranges.” If they’re hiding their plus-size clothes in their marketing, she says, then this might suggest they aren’t being genuine in their efforts.
Yeboah wants to see high-street names carry up to a size 26 at minimum, and cites ASOS as an example of a brand that’s getting things right.
A brighter, inclusive fashion future
Barber emphasises a need to supply well-made, sustainable clothes that will last, or risk worsening fast fashion’s high environmental toll. She also points to a tradition of brands offering only flimsy, poorly made garments to the plus-size market. “It sends a message that your body is temporary,” she says, “that the clothes don’t need to last because you won’t be fat forever.”
The demand is clearly there. In an industry that has historically been built around the concept of exclusivity, things are starting to change. This even extends to players at the very top of the game, with designers like Valentino adding to their size offering over the past year.
Fashion plays a hugely influential role in shaping the way we view bodies as a society, so the social imperative for inclusion is clear. But aside from that, it simply makes business sense to offer clothes that everyone can buy. There are significant opportunities ahead for those companies that genuinely pursue inclusiveness.
“The feeling you get as a fat person when you wear something you want to wear and not something you have to wear because nothing else fits is incredible,” says Yeboah.