Plus-sized fashion is becoming a movement as of recently. As awareness about full-figured women is being raised through social media, retailers are playing catch up.
The category generated US$17.5 billion in sales in the US in the year ending April 2014, up five percent form the year previous.
Experts believe that this under-represents the opportunity for retailers, considering the average American woman is a size 14.
The average Kiwi woman is a size 12 to 14. In New Zealand, the adult obesity rate increased from 27 percent in 2006 to 2007 to 30 percent in 2013 to 2014.
New plus-sized retailers on the scene have released campaigns that haven’t shied away from hitting out at the industry’s ideals of beauty.
Plus-size retailer Lane Bryant had a campaign earlier this year that had the tagline “I’m No Angel” – in other words, a dig at Victoria’s Secret and its iconic “Angels”.
It followed this up with a #PlusIsEqual campaign recently, taking out a two-page ad in esteemed fashion magazine Vogue and hosting a rally in Times Square, New York.
The campaign went viral and was celebrated for finally including full-figured women in the conversation.
However, promoting body equality is complex territory for retailers to navigate.
Some felt like the campaign was still ‘othering’ a certain demographic and creating a divide between full and slim-figured women.
Others criticised Lane Bryant for not hiring models above a size 18 for its ads and not extending their campaign shirts to larger sizes.
The retailers in New Zealand carrying plus sizes we talked to wanted to promote size equality for all women rather than just focusing on one end of the market.
K&K Fashions national retail manager Rachel Korpus says the company doesn’t exclusively stock smaller or fuller figured clothes.
“If you’re size 10 or 26, at K&K you can just look as good with an on-trend look for the season whatever size you are. We’re not discriminating about size, our focus is on fashion and fit,” Korpus says.
Likewise, The Carpenter’s Daughter focuses on clothing for curvy women, stocking sizes 12 to 24. It was also the first plus size label to be shown at New Zealand Fashion Week in 2009.
Founder Caroline Marr first started the business in 1990 and says she has mixed feelings about the social media campaigning around body positivity for bigger women.
“I’m 51, I was 25 when I started [The Carpenter’s Daughter] and my body has worn down because of the weight I’ve carried and I’m going to suffer for it,” Marr says.
“I want these big girls that are young to get onto their health so they can have healthy, long lives. That’s what I’m pushing at the moment.”
Marr says her customers understand her perspective because they see her and read her blog.
“They know my journey and want to be a part of it as well. My passion is to make women feel good about themselves, that’s always been my thing. I keep it simple.”
Both The Carpenter’s Daughter and K&K Fashions were part of New Zealand’s first plus-sized fashion show Lovely Larger Ladies Fashion Event last month.
Marr and Korpus say the market has changed since they begun, with new plus size retailers from places like Australia coming here.
Other Kiwi retailers have extended their size range by going up to size 16 and 18s, Korpus says.
“It’s more of an awareness that Kiwi women are not all between a size 10 or 14.”
Demand for plus-sized clothing has increased, which she says is partly because of demographics.
“We’ve been in business for over 30 years and the country’s population is bigger than it was all those years ago, there’s simply more women in New Zealand,” Korpus says.
The shopper’s perspective
Plus-sized Kiwi style blogger Meagan Kerr says in the last five years, there’s been improvements with both retailers that specialise in plus-size clothing and stores that include it in their range.
However, she says demand for plus-sized retailing in New Zealand isn’t quite being met yet.
“I think they’re still playing on the safer side and could make some advances in terms of what they have to offer,” Kerr says.
She says a lot of women she knows shop online for plus sized clothing because New Zealand doesn’t have the same selection as the UK, US or even Australia.
Often, the clothes in the New Zealand market are “ageing” and not fashion forward.
“It’s very frustrating that we [the plus size community] keep crying out for clothes that are on trend and in line with current fashion, but so much of what I see in store and online is really dated,” she says.
“The reality is that plus sized women have disposable income and they want to spend it on clothes that are as fashion forward as what their straight size friends are wearing.”
Inclusive is the new exclusive
Many believe the progress being made with plus-sized fashion is actually happening across the board.
Retailers are eschewing being exclusive in favour of including every demographic.
This year marked the first year a model with Down Syndrome walked a runway, while fast fashion giant H&M debuted its “Close the Loop” ad, which celebrated different sizes, ages, genders and religions.
Korpus says this acceptance of differences is occurring in New Zealand, too.
“Thirty years ago, New Zealand used to be a nuclear family of two parents and two children, now traditional norms in New Zealand are being challenged about that and likewise women who don’t fit into that 10 to 12 size range are challenging the norm as well,” she says.
Marr says she’s focusing on equality across the board for The Carpenter’s Daughter.
“We all come in different sizes, colours and from different cultures. Don’t focus on the size, just focus on the human being, as we come in different packages,” she says.