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As Athleta Goes Size-Inclusive, One Plus-Size Label Abandons Traditional Manufacturing

“Pandemic pivot” has become as hackneyed a term as “unprecedented,” but brands have indeed made significant, course-altering changes to their operations over the past year. And prioritizing inclusivity has become an area where brands can’t afford to skimp on effort.

On Thursday, Gap Inc.-owned label Athleta announced that it is bringing its sport and lifestyle garb to a broader demographic with a new move toward size equity throughout its product range. The activewear titan is extending its sizing to include sizes 1X-3X (equivalent to sizes 18-26) across 350 styles in its collection—starting immediately.

This spring, 70 percent of the brand’s overall line will be available in the expanded size range. The brand estimated that by March, the number of styles available in sizes 1X-3X will exceed 500, with new offerings added each season. By the end of 2022, Athleta has committed to offering extended sizes across all of its product categories.

Athleta says its technical designers and product development team have spent two years working to re-engineer the brand’s popular styles to accommodate a more size-diverse audience. The team collaborated with active women of all body types to test each garment, ensuring that a style’s fit and functionality held fast across the new size range, it added.

“We spent two years fitting and wear-testing with women sizes 18-26 to ensure performance and comfort,” Jana Henning, chief product officer for Athleta, told Sourcing Journal. “As a customer-led brand, it was important for us to listen to feedback from women to fully understand their needs.”

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Henning added that shoppers will be able to browse the assortment both online and at the retailer’s 200 stores, where plus-size mannequins will be incorporated into store displays, and that starting now, shoppers can purchase both lifestyle and active apparel in plus sizes.

“Our extended sizing expansion brings to life our mission of inclusivity and empowering a community of healthy, active and confident women and girls,” she said. “We can now welcome more women into our community and offer her a lot more choices that fit her lifestyle.”

Fostering an “inclusive shopping experience” through extended sizing was “a key pillar” of the company’s goals for growth, said Mary Beth Laughton, Athleta’s president and CEO. The brand has created a seamless, omnichannel journey for plus-size shoppers, she said, with 1X-3X products merchandised alongside the store’s regularly available sizes. What’s more, Athleta’s store associates will undergo mandatory inclusive sizing training to better serve shoppers.

The e-commerce team has also revamped Athleta’s digital channel, highlighting various body types across the site. The movement toward inclusivity will allow the company to “invite even more customers into our community,” Laughton said.

Later in the spring, Athleta plans to launch a brand campaign dubbed “All, Powerful” across its stores and online platforms. The billboard that crowns the Gap flagship in New York’s Times Square will be emblazoned with new imagery featuring women styled in the extended size range. The active apparel label has also conferred with a range of personalities from the plus-size community to form a consultant collective of brand influencers. The group, which includes entrepreneurs, authors, social advocates and fashion insiders, will be charged with wear-testing new collections and hosting virtual community events, Athleta said.

For New York inclusive luxury women’s wear brand Henning, the challenges of 2020 prompted positive revisions and a return to the values that brought it success in the first place. Founder Lauren Chan—a former plus-size model and fashion editor—said that the Covid crisis illuminated the industry’s shortcomings. Last year’s events strengthened her resolve to address the needs and values of a broad audience. “It really has devastating mental effects to be excluded from fashion,” she said during the virtual NRF Big Show, speaking to her own experience navigating the industry from a plus-size perspective.

Henning's full-length wool, camel-colored coat retails for $995.
Henning’s full-length wool, camel-colored coat retails for $995. Henning

Chan was “very concerned” at the height of the pandemic that independent plus-size brands like her own would be “wiped out,” and that the fashion industry would “lose a decade of progress in size inclusion in fashion.” But even as the retail landscape grew harsh and uninviting, savvy shoppers began using their dollars as ballots in 2020, casting votes for the labels that aligned with their world views.

Chan maintained her confidence in Henning’s appeal for plus-size shoppers, but as the crisis progressed, she also began thinking about the industry’s role in promoting a degree of consumerism that was unhealthy for the environment. “Look at the way the world healed when fashion and other industries stopped,” she said. “Look at how we slowed down, and we didn’t really need all of the things that fashion at large tries to sell us, season after season.”

Chan found herself taking time to try and regain clarity about the values of her own business, which was built on quality and inclusivity. “We decided to double down on our messages of ethics, increased sustainability, timeless essentials, quality work, and things made locally,” she said. Chan, who was forced to put her PR agency on hold as she could no longer afford their monthly retainer, penned her own missive to editors about the company’s future plans, both as a means of promoting the struggling business and creating a source of accountability.

While Henning’s garments have always been made in small batches in New York City, the brand has begun to revise its upstream supply chain, as many materials and inputs come from overseas. The company is also transitioning to an on-demand manufacturing model wherein garments are only made after they’ve been ordered by shoppers, and pivoting to incorporating a significant amount of deadstock fabric.

“I think what the most exciting thing for myself and heading this next year is the way that we’re making products,” Chan said. Buying up more existing materials and only producing product to demand is “more sustainably minded, both for the earth and for our business,” she added.

Henning's Hudson leather jacket retails for $1,595.
Henning’s Hudson leather jacket retails for $1,595. Henning

The evolution will not only give Henning a chance to strengthen and showcase its core values—it will also teach the brand more about what its shoppers want to buy, especially in an era where needs could change on a dime. “It’s much less of that old-fashioned model of ‘We made this collection and now we’ve got to sell it, talk about it, and push it down people’s throats for four months,’” she said. “We’re going to be more agile, we’re going to be smarter, and we’re going to be more data driven. If the jean or the sweater doesn’t sell, you move on.”

Chan is proud to tout the on-demand, wholly U.S.-made strategy that was borne of a year of setbacks. “I’m re-energized to get on the attack, keep talking about it, and be excited about it again,” she said.