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Why We Shouldn’t Be Talking About “Plus Sizes” in Five Years

If we’re still having the plus-size conversation in five years, the fashion industry will have failed.

That’s at least according to Universal Standard co-founder and CEO Polina Veksler who spoke At Coresight Research and Alvanon’s joint Trailblazers event in New York Thursday.

Sharing her insights on the business of inclusive design, Veksler said that at launch, Universal Standard carried sizes 10 to 28, but it recently expanded its range to span sizes 6 to 32. The brand’s vision has always been to enable women to to shop together and access the same styles, regardless of their size. The days of relegating larger-bodied women to some dark, unappealing corner of the store would be over, if Veksler has her way.

Retailers and brands have been paying more attention to plus and extended sizes in recent years, and that’s partly driven by declining same-store comps prompting businesses to seek out new opportunities to boost sales, Coresight Research CEO Deborah Weinswig said. With the plus-size apparel market growing 3.6 times faster than straight sizes, there’s plenty of opportunity to be had.

On Wednesday, intimates brand ThirdLove became the most size-inclusive undergarments label in the business by adding 24 new sizes to its range, which now spans band sizes of 28 through 48 and cup sizes from AA to H. ThirdLove said more than 1.3 million signed up for the waitlist for these expanded sizes.

Cultural factors are playing a role in the size-inclusive movement, too.

Though older women typically had just accepted that plus sizes were just a “different market,” millennial women are having none of it, said Jessica Kahan Dvorett, vice president of merchandising for clothing rental subscription service Gwynnie Bee, citing a “generational shift.”

“The millennial customer does not view the world that way,” Dvorett said. “She sees a world of fashion and she wants the same styles that are offered to her friends who happen to fall into a size that’s considered to be the straight-size range.”

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Social media, especially Instagram, has blown up the notion of gatekeepers in fashion, said Becca McCharen-Tran, founder of the size-inclusive bodywear and swimwear brand Chromat. Today, anyone with a smartphone and a social media account can be a curator in this space, she added.

Alvanon’s executive director Don Howard, who moderated the discussion, pointed to his own 20-something daughters, for whom “diversity and inclusivity are simply an expectation.”

Just 20 percent of American women are a size 10 or smaller, Kahan Dvorett noted, which conflicts with an industry “conditioned” to think of sizes 2, 4 and 6 as “sample size.” That’s why Veksler’s Universal Standard is “trying to shift to what the true middle is.” For the brand, a size “medium” represents a size 18/20.

The brand also practices what it calls “micrograding,” or fitting each size on a live model. Veksler credits the brand’s tactic of not using a “formula” with helping to focus on a particular fit that drives conversion and repeat purchases, while keeping return rates low. However, the co-founder noted that in honing in on fit, the brand never could be everything to everyone.” Instead, it decided to pick a lane and stick with it, she said. “Fit is our No. 1 priority.”

Designing for extended sizes requires a different approach, as McCharen-Tran discovered. After realizing that she had been sketching only on straight sizes dress forms, the designer knew that she needed to evolve the creative process and brought size 22 Alvaforms into the mix.

“When ideating you see how drastically different it is when there’s just more real estate,” McCharen-Tran said, of the challenge posed by larger body morphologies. “Prints looks different. Now we’re sketching for two different sizes and I think it’s really opening up what we’re trying to focus on: interesting designs.”

Though the plus-size industry traditionally has shied away from giving the customer interesting designs, fun prints and eye-catching colors, Gwynnie Bee said those are exactly what its customer is looking to rent. “We assort for color, we assort for print—we assort for those statement pieces that are actually very unprofitable for traditional retailers,” Kahan Dvorett explained. “Women of all sizes want to buy the clothing that makes them stand out.”

For Chromat, which offers sizes XS to 3X, plus-size women might enthusiastically support the brand’s embrace of size inclusivity on social platforms and other channels, but McCharen-Tran said the full-figured shopper might not be accustomed to buying a swimsuit, for example, at the brand’s $200 to $300 range. “I think we’re still finding that luxury brand plus customer,” she admitted. “They’re not buying at that price point for a variety of reasons.”