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Why It’s Time for Denim Brands to Expand Sizes

As more plus size models walk the runways of major fashion weeks and high street brands like Monki, Gap and Forever 21 extend their marketing campaigns to feature people of more sizes, different ages and races in their campaigns, traditional ideals about beauty and size are giving way to new faces and shapes.

That mindset is also trickling into denim.

Whereas the bulk of premium women’s denim brands serve consumers up to size 14, new players like direct-to-consumer brand Warp + Weft, and Khloe Kardashian’s Made in USA label, Good American, launched with size inclusive collections that go up to size 24.

“You’re seeing full size as well as regular size,” said The NPD Group retail industry analyst Marshal Cohen. “It used to be one or the other.”

It’s a shift brands are eager to promote. Fast fashion retailer Forever 21 garnered online buzz for its new plus size denim line called 12×12 and the corresponding campaign designed to show-off women’s “assets.” NYDJ embraced “real woman” in its Fall ’17 campaign by scouting for models during a tour of U.S. shopping malls. Lane Bryant touted “the new skinny” this summer in a campaign starring ballerina Lizzy Howell, influencer Kelly Augustine and models Hunter McGrady, Bree Kish and Denise Bidot.

In contrast, Zara came under fire earlier this year for promoting its new denim line with slim models and the tagline, “Love Your Curves.”

Meanwhile, plus size retailer Torrid made its New York Fashion Week debut in September with a Spring ’18 runway show featuring nearly 30 plus size models. In fact, The Fashion Spot reported that 90 plus size models walked during the last New York Fashion Week, a notable improvement from the Fall 2017 shows where 26 plus size models walked, and just 16 in the Spring 2017 shows.

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“We have moved from brands wondering if it will hurt their brand to extend into plus sizes to now brands realizing that ignoring this customer is probably going to hurt their brand even worse,” said Jodi Arnold, VP of design and creative director at plus size brand Eloquii. “I’m quite sure just about every brand out there is at least having the conversation around extending their size range, and to me that’s great progress.”

It makes good business sense. According to The NPD Group, 17 percent of total women’s apparel sales stem from plus size purchases—a number that could only grow if more brands catered to more sizes.

“It’s not surprising that a report from McKinsey & Co. indicates the number of mentions of ‘plus size’ in the fashion press tripled in 2016 compared with the previous year,” said Alice Rodrigues, senior consultant at Alvanon, an apparel product development consulting company.

The need for more plus size options in fashion and denim is evident. Data from retail analytics company Edited shows that 67 percent of women in the U.S. wear a size 14 or above. The company found just 0.1% of all premium and luxury apparel identify as plus size, meaning curvy consumers are painfully underrepresented in the marketplace.

“At a time when the luxury retail sector is already embattled with sluggish growth, investing in plus sized apparel items–an obvious market opportunity–is a no-brainer,” said Katie Smith, Edited senior retail analyst. “While brands like Asos cater to a variety of price points and sizes, premium and luxury-focused retailers still lag in appealing to the plus size shopper.”

At Denim Première Vision, Pascal Montfort, founder of REC Trends Marketing noted that premium and luxury brands have been slow to adapt to younger generations’ new perception of beauty and fashion.

“Gen Z believes it’s old-fashion to think there’s only one size and only one recommendation. They believe it is important to take care of all sizes,” Montfort said. Instead, brands with an open mind and that deliver strong content across social media channels—like Diesel, Levi’s and Monki—are gaining market share.

Arnold attributes a changing society to the growing online conversation regarding plus size apparel.

“Many improprieties and inequities seem to be coming to the forefront and getting much needed attention,” she said. “Plus size women (over 60 percent of the population) have been excluded from participating in the fashion conversation and with the rise of social media they finally found a voice to express their desire for the same fashion options that everyone else has.”

Social media helped boost size 16 model Ashley Graham into super model territory. Graham touts plus size brands and shares her journey of self-love and body positivity to her 5.7 million followers on Instagram. Social media has also kick started the career of plus size influencers like Margie Plus, Calie Thorpe and Mayra Louise, each known for their modern and unique personal style.

Style influencers are inspiring plus size women to seek on-trend designs and brands are slowly moving the needle, but many plus size consumers still gripe that there’s a lack of fashion-forward denim options for their size.

Cohen says an issue many plus size consumers find is the lack of variety, style, comfort and overall innovation in the category.

“[Plus size consumers] don’t want to keep buying the same thing over and over again. In many cases it’s the same styles that just keep re-emerging because they have some success with it,” Cohen explained.

As with any apparel category, the key to satisfying the plus size denim market is fit and style.

“Plus size customers have similar denim shopping griefs—they can’t seem to find jeans for their proportions,” Rodrigues said. “Some additional challenges are ankle lengths that will not ride up and become too small on the calf. Straight leg or skinny styles that are not skin tight are appealing, yet there are so many loose, boyfriend style jeans targeted to the plus category,” she added.

Rodrigues reported that plus size consumers want denim with “just enough stretch” to fit curves and contours, a comfortable waistband and a hem that ends just below the ankle. “And of course, once a great fitting pair of jeans is found, we all hope that it’s durable enough to last,” she said.

Torrid’s collection spans high-rise skinny jeans and three-button flare jeans, to a rotation of seasonal updates like jeans with lace insets, beaded embellishments, prints and patches.

“We sell an exceptionally well-rounded assortment… literally, there is a jean for everyone,” Torrid’s SVP of design Liz Munoz, said. “We know the options we deliver in style, fit and wash are the broadest [the customer] will find. We swear by the fit and we know [the shopper] does too,” she added.

Edited lauds British online retailer Asos for its Curve line for women size 14 to 24, which has come out on top in this market. By offering a dedicated plus size line that include trendy jean jackets, overall jean dresses and shredded knee skinnies, the e-commerce company has seen less need to discount items than other retailers. Edited data shows that Asos’ Curve has experienced a 119 percent increase in new sku arrivals over the past two years.

Similarly, Eloquii has found success in catering to sizes 14 to 28 by offering fits and trims that are popular among traditional size denim brands. Standouts include ruffle and feather hem jeans, wide leg denim trousers and skinny jeans adorned with pearls, racing stripes and patches of sequins.

“Overall, [our customer] has a feminine and polished aesthetic—which has definitely not been offered to her in the past,” Arnold said. “Whatever is trending in fashion is what resonates with our customer.” She added that the Eloquii consumer is no longer afraid to show off her figure. If consumers have the confidence to show off their curves, brands should too.