A Bright Spot for Fashion? Plus Size

It’s no longer an afterthought for retailers

Author: Andria Cheng

May 2, 2017

As the fashion industry faces ever more store closings and bankruptcies and loses consumers shifting spending to purchasing experiences and services, there’s at least one bright spot of the market that’s shining in contrast.

US sales of women’s plus-size apparel, including those for teens, rose 6% to $21.4 billion in 2016, double the growth rate of the overall apparel sales, which totaled $218.7 billion at year end, according to data from market research firm NPD Group.

After long treating plus-size fashion as an afterthought, the mainstream fashion industry is hot on it these days and giving it dedicated design attention. The change is perhaps imperative, especially for those seeking to win millennial and Gen Z consumers. A separate NPD study released last year showed that the percentage of U.S. teens purchasing plus-sized clothing has almost doubled to 34% in 2015 from 19% in 2012.

After retailers such as Target in 2015 introduced their own plus sized collections with dedicated in house team, more brands and retailers made their own plus size collections. For example, Nike in March introduced an expanded plus size collection for sizes 1X to 3X, promising to deliver its “most robust ranges of sizes” in more colors and sizes. Nike Brand President Trevor Edwards in late March credited the company’s “popular” plus size line in helping to boost its apparel sales.

"Brands that focus on
 the S-M-L-XL consumers will never win
 the women’s business."

A “demographic trend the sports industry must embrace is plus sizes in women’s apparel,” said NPD’s apparel, sports and footwear industry analyst Matt Powell in a post predicting 2017 sports business trends, adding NPD research shows the most common size in women’s apparel is 16. “Brands that focus on the S-M-L-XL consumers will never win the women’s business.”

It’s not just the sports industry that’s trying to answer the market demand. JC Penney CEO Marvin Ellison said in February that plus size is one of the company’s “strategic growth initiatives” for this year and beyond, adding the “plus size community remains underserved.”

“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. Penney later this year will introduce swimwear and other accessories under the label, which it said targets “fashion-minded millennial shopper.” Penney said it has a dedicated design and product team to make sure colors, prints and fabrics fit “curvy silhouettes.”

Vogue magazine, for its part, made news this year by featuring for the first time plus-sized model Ashley Graham on its March cover alongside other models.

“This customer used to be arbitrarily told she can’t wear crop tops, stripes or oversized floral prints,” said Mariah Chase, a fashion industry veteran and CEO of plus-sized online fashion retailer Eloquii, in an interview. Thanks to social media, she “has a voice and demands to be heard. (Her) voice has become viral. We are finally starting to see brands react positively. In the past, a lot of what she was given was utilitarian to hide the body. Now we are trying to open up the fashion apparel market for her, leading with fashion and designing with what’s trendy.”

That voice is indeed well noted on social media. On Instagram, for instance, 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.

Plus Size Presence on YouTube

Ascena Group's Lane Bryant has amassed more than 20 million views of its videos on YouTube. Meanwhile, Ascena's dressbarn unit has 447,513 views, while its Catherines unit has just 2,596. 

Social media is so crucial to its growth and customer engagement that Chase said Eloquii responds to every single comment. “I don’t think people listened (to plus size customers) in the past,” Chase said, adding she also participates in responding to social media comments.

Eloquii also had a different first-hand experience when it came to the impact of social media. Originally started by the now defunct The Limited in 2011, the brand, targeting consumers in sizes 14-24, was shut down in 2013 as part of corporate restructuring before its loyal customers protested and called for its return on social media. The brand was relaunched online in 2014. It has attracted over $25 million in financing, Chase said, and counts among investors venture capital firm Greycroft Partners, also behind many other startups from Boxed to BaubleBar.

Chase declined to detail the size of the company, except to say the business, where customers skew urban and millennial, has “grown substantially” and is “pretty healthy.” Different from its traditional rivals, she said that Eloquii, which has been worn by celebrities including actress Melissa McCarthy, competes by having a fast fashion model like that of Forever 21 or H&M and works with factories directly to create products for sale in about five to six months, which she said is half of the time that it would typically take a traditional clothing retailer.

It also has opened a pop-up store in DC, on board the trend of pure-play online retailers going physical retail.

“If we aren’t fast, we won’t succeed,” she said. “Your response time to customer is your relevancy. You can no longer plan your inventory 9 to 10 months out.”


Ascena Group

Performance data for Ascena units including Lane Bryant, Catharines, dressbarn and others

As more brands like Eloquii or plus size rental services including Gwynnie Bee rise to garner a share in the growing market, large traditional plus-sized retailers such as Lane Bryant, owned by Ann Taylor parent Ascena Retail Group, have also had to up their game. Lane Bryant, with over $1.1 billion in fiscal 2016 sales, for instance, has exclusive collections in partnerships with designers from Isabel Toledo to Prabal Gurung and features model Graham in some of its marketing campaigns. Ascena also owns the Catherines plus-size chain targeting older shoppers. Plus size is also a key feature of its lower-priced fashion chains Dress Barn and Maurices.

“It’s very competitive out there,” said David Jaffe, president and CEO of Ascena, in a March call. “We have to work harder to earn the traffic and earn the (comparable) sales, but we’ve got a lot of initiatives under way and we are very bullish on the brands.”

Comparable sales at Lane Bryant and Catherines combined have declined, hurt by lower store traffic. Like other retailers, Ascena is also expanding in online sales. Ascena, with $7 billion in sales, counts itself as the third largest specialty US apparel retailer, behind only Gap and Victoria’s Secret parent L Brands.

Ascena, like others, sees major growth in the category. Noting NPD’s forecast that the plus size women’s apparel market would grow by an annual average rate of 4% to $24 billion by 2020 from $20 billion in 2015, Ascena said in a January investor presentation that the “true opportunity” is more than double that. It expects sales of $53 billion by 2020, including sales of “additional bridge sizes” and size 12. (Lane Bryant typically targets customers in sizes 14 to 28.)

“The average size of a women in 1980 was size eight. Today it’s size 16,” Eloquii’s Chase said. Over 67% of American women wear size 14 and above, she added.

“Retail is just catching up.”

Photo credit: ITAR-TASS Photo Agency / Alamy Stock Photo