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The Complicated Reality of Brands Expanding Into Plus Sizes

Fashionista logo Fashionista 2022/08/09 Gianluca Russo

In this excerpt from his new book, "The Power of Plus," Gianluca Russo delves into what constitutes an "inclusive" size range, how brands get there and why the way they introduce it matters.

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Gianluca Russo's new book, "The Power of Plus," from Chicago Review Press, available for purchase here. It has been edited from its original version, and reprinted with permission from Chicago Review Press.

The plus-size community is made of vastly different people, all with different opinions on what constitutes true inclusivity. Beyond the surface, the hems and the stitches, lie heated conversations on who's given a platform as a spokesperson and how they decide to use it.

Much of the problem lies in the term inclusive itself. While a brand expanding to a size 3X may double its original range of offerings, it still neglects a portion of the community who wear above a size 24. Influencers who promote and work with these brands are sometimes accused of selling out those larger fat people for a paycheck, capitalizing on "body positivity" as a trend or buzzword, while not actually moving the needle forward.

Frustrations have begun to bubble over in the community as, after a decade online, many advocates are simply fed up. Why are brands refusing to cater to all, not just some, plus-size folk?

Before jumping into the thick of it, it's important to note the various labels that fat activists have created to discuss the inner workings of the plus-size community as a whole:

Midsize: Those who fall below the size of an average American woman (16/18) but who, until recently, were never reflected in the fashion industry. Usually, they fall between a size 8 and 12.

Small Fat: Those who wear a 1X–2X, size 18 and lower.

Midfat: Those who wear a size 2X–3X, size 20 to 24.

Super Fat: Those who wear a size 4X–5X, size 26 to 32.

Infinifat: Those who wear a size 6X or 32 and higher.

When a sole individual is granted spokesperson status by a brand to speak for the spectrum listed above, chaos erupts.

In mid-2021, I embarked on my first fashion event since the start of the pandemic: an intimate dinner in Los Angeles to celebrate the launch of a new brand that, at the time, catered to wearers up to a size 22, with plans to expand quickly. I attended as a journalist, not paid influencer or guest, covering a story about the power of community.

As images and videos circled social media in the days following the event, some spoke out in anger that so many from within the community — particularly top industry names — publicly supported a brand that left out super- and infinifats (though guests did reflect a wide spectrum of bodies). They questioned the intentions and morals of the attendees. Was the paycheck worth ignoring those on the higher end of the size spectrum who still have the smallest assortment of brands to choose from?

What few understood were the behind-the-scenes logistics at play. Because, yes, while only offering up to a size 22 is limiting, the brand in question had major plans to center the community in authentic ways, including size expansion. Before a brand expands their size range, hundreds of conversations are held in private, not to mention limitless hours of work, planning and construction. To ignore that, to minimize that all by saying "it's easy, just do it," does a disservice to those who put in free labor to help designers truly understand why this customer and this community matter. We’re all a part of the system. Understanding that is crucial to determining how, on an individual basis, we can all make change.

The criticism directed toward those who support certain "inclusive" brands is often labeled as anger and jealousy, which falsely categorizes those speaking out. Especially as, more often than not, the ones who do risk their status to publicly advocate for change are Black women on the larger end of the size spectrum, those who are most marginalized within the community. To classify their concerns and frustrations as "anger" minimizes the point at hand. They simply want to be accepted within the conversation, a place they deserve to be heard.

Few brands get size expansion right on the first try. In fact, some of the most popular size-inclusive brands today sprouted from messy beginnings. Among them is Target.

In 2014, future cofounder of the CurvyCon Chastity Garner Valentine became increasingly frustrated with Target's fashion offerings. Like many women, the store was her go-to stop and shop for all things home and beauty. But the mere fact that she could knock off all her shopping minus fashion at Target didn't sit right in her style-focused mind. When the brand announced a major collaboration with Altuzarra with nothing in her size, she had simply had enough.

A few glasses of wine in, with no concrete intentions other than to express her frustrations, Chastity began typing. "For so long, I loved you," she wrote. "I always went above and beyond in our relationship. I'll visit you to get a couple of items and more than a couple hundred dollars later and a cart full of products, I have left giving you way more than I ever planned to. No matter how much I give, you never seem to appreciate me. All I want is the clothing you offer all your other regular sized customers, but you always leave me out. With that being said, I have to end this relationship. It's you, not me and for my own well-being and my self dignity I have to sever ties between us."

Posted to her Facebook page of hundreds of thousands of fans, the letter went unexpectedly viral. Soon enough, her message and voice were everywhere, from social media support to the headlines of major magazines. And when Target reached out personally, Chastity had no idea what was in store. The brand commended Chastity for her honesty, accepting their shortcomings and stating that they wanted to revamp their designs, making them more inclusive to the Target shopper. And because of her boldness, they welcomed Chastity onboard to help oversee and lead the project.

Chastity's letter resembled one by Marie Denee of The Curvy Fashionista a few years prior, in which she wrote, "Why do you ignore, shun, and sweep me to the side when I want to shop too? Each season, you skillfully and beautifully execute exclusive designer collaborations and partnerships with the leading fashion designers — all to make high fashion attainable to the American woman — yet you ignore me. As plus size women, we are often neglected, overlooked and always sized out of your collections."

The reaction to Chastity's Target takeover was mixed, however. While met with much support from the plus-size community, some felt that we shouldn't have to convince brands to cater to us. If they don't want our money, why get on our knees and beg for scraps?

For one, there's accessibility. At the time, clothing options for bigger customers were still scarce. With Target expanding into plus, a curvy shopper could get the well-fitting suit she needed for a job interview for well under a hundred dollars. It's a two-sided coin, a conundrum with no universally accepted answer.

When it comes to straight-size fashion, it's the job of a brand to market to the customer. It must, in whatever ways possible, convince customers that its clothes are worth the hard-earned money sitting in their bank accounts. It's the brand's job to put in the work. When it comes to extended sizes, however, everything is reversed.

"You have to appeal to this customer on an emotional basis," Chastity says. "Something that makes them feel good, that makes them feel included. There's so many parameters around being a plus-size shopper, and if you can't get that quite right, you can get roasted, and we've seen that many times before."

Another brand to make a splash was Old Navy. In August 2021 — seven years after receiving backlash for charging more for plus sizes and not carrying them in store — the brand reemerged with a new dedication: Bod-Equality. Years in the making, Old Navy announced that sizes up to a 28 would now be stocked in its over 1,200 stores internationally. Prices would remain the same across sizes, and every style would be sold in every size. Diverse mannequins were to be placed in each store, and the company’s website was to be reconstructed to do away with the plus-size-specific sections for women.

Old Navy's move was largely celebrated by the community at large, who finally felt like they were heard, even if it took many years to happen. There were missteps and rooms for improvement, however; the retailer announced that their biggest size — a size 30 — would only be sold online, making customers question why such a measure needed to be taken for only one size. Why not include all in stores if it's just one extra size? Yet despite that, Old Navy became the first major retailer to accomplish such a big feat, proving that it's both possible and financially sustainable for brands to follow suit.

The power of community is vastly underrated, despite the years of evidence showing how it is, in fact, the key to success in the plus-size space. The issue has become evident with brands like LOFT that, after less than two years of expanding sizes, shuttered plus in the midst of the pandemic to cut costs. It was a moment that enraged many, myself included.

Despite making loads of noise to celebrate their launch, LOFT never stocked plus-sizes in store. Online, its extended-size offering was laughable compared to that of our thin counterparts, and its marketing only reflected a very limited version of plus. It should have been no surprise, then, that our voices were never truly reflected behind the scenes.

One would think that in the midst of a pandemic where money is tight, leaning into plus-sizes, which make up 68 percent of American women, would be key to staying afloat. But this customer, this community, is too smart to fall for half-assed tricks. Devotion, trust, and authenticity must be centered for success to come. Differences and divides in the plus-size community may make it seem like everyone is on a different path, their hopes set on different missions and methods to get there. But ask any fat fashionista why they do what they do, and their answers will all align: They do it for each other. They do it for their younger selves. They do it for the next generation. But most of all, they do it for the community. Because without that behind them, nothing is possible.

"The Power of Plus," from Chicago Review Press, is available Aug. 16, 2022.

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