Would you use the word “luxury” to describe the apparel assortment at Banana Republic?
Probably not—especially when compared with the truly lavish wares concocted deep inside the storied couture houses of Paris. But according to Universal Standard co-founder and creative director Alexandra Waldman, her shoppers think of the size-inclusive startup’s thoughtfully crafted sweaters, coats, culottes, dresses, overalls and more—similar in price point to the Gap Inc.-owned brand—as a luxury-like offering, simply because larger-sized women have for so long encountered severely limited options in a fashion industry that marginalizes the rubenesque 67 percent while exalting those with more reedy frames.
Then, factor in the tropes that many brands—typically fast-fashion firms—use to pander to the plus-size shopper. More often than not she’s infantilized. Waldman dared the audience at the Decoded Future conference in New York City last week to find a plus-size T-shirt that doesn’t have a kitten, or “terrible French” or a flower splashed gaudily across its front. Or she’s oversexualized and offered tight, loud clothing that puts “all her assets on display,” she added.
There’s a stereotype that larger-bodied women don’t care about fashion, but if brands don’t offer great options, then how is this customer supposed to care about investing in high-quality style-forward clothing? Waldman described this pervasive thinking as a “vicious cycle” in the industry.
“This consumer is not taken seriously, as someone with taste and someone who is willing to spend the money,” she continued. During the few years it’s been around, Universal Standard has expanded its size range to now service 00 through 40 in a new long-term pop-up SoHo store flanked by Hermès and outerwear popup The Arrivals.
Emma Grede, founder and CEO of the Good American apparel startup fronted by Khloe Kardashian, emphasized that the plus-size customer is interested in exactly the same choices as the ones available to her straight-size peers, not a one-off capsule or some other half-hearted attempt to pay lip service to this chronically ignored consumer. Size-inclusive from day one—and with a launch that cracked $1 million in sales on day one—Good American sees its “racy, daring” styles sell out in sizes 18 through 24, Grede said, because “there’s such a lack of options for her.”
Continuing, she added, “If you give her a bodysuit with rhinestones and the back cutout, it’s gone.”
As a brand that was socially native from the start, sifting through follower comments on platforms like Instagram often yields valuable learnings for Good American, which offers sizes 00 through 24. “You can get such rich insights if you just stop and listen because in this day and age she is telling you whether you ask her or not,” Grede said.
Looking at data on returns helped the brand launch a new size—15—once unusually high return rates of sizes 14 and 16 became apparent. Customers complained that a 14 might be just a touch too snug but the 16 didn’t fit closely enough, and Grede discovered that this likely happened because at those sizes, technical designers switched over from a missy size pattern to a plus. So the solution was to whip up a size 15 to bridge that gap and fulfill a customer opportunity.
“You have to have a nimble enough business to take in [that feedback] and change what you’re doing,” Grede explained. “It wasn’t my intention to stop production and create a new size. It wasn’t on the product roadmap. But it was important enough that we said, ‘let’s give this a try.”
Though Grede and Waldman would love to see other brands become size inclusive, they warned of the dangers of not properly investing in larger sizes. Without naming names, Grede spoke of the “pitiful attempt” some fashion brands have made in the plus-size arena where their lack of technical development became obvious. “As soon as the garment goes on the body, you’re shown up,” she said. “You can’t dip your toe in the water.”
As fashion retail struggles to regain its footing in a changing market, Grede questioned why more merchants don’t follow Nordstrom’s lead of filling in the size gaps between plus and missy by ordering a few extra sizes. “That’s not strategic vision—that’s just sense,” Grede said.
Waldman concurred. “Anyone who’s not trying to think in these terms is just not thinking about surviving the future,” she said, noting that the Seattle-based retailer carries both Good American and Universal Standard in both the missy and plus sections of its stores.
What’s more, she continued, worrying about what to wear should be the least of the problems facing larger-sized women, who typically earn $9,000 to $19,000 less than their peers, per Refinery29. “Your clothes are the armor you wear into the world,” Waldman explained. “When you’re not given the opportunity to present yourself in the way that you would like, it’s painful. It has a knock-on effect to your whole life.
“It’s very important that we start thinking about women holistically,” Waldman said.