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From Nordstrom to Nike, Brands Are Paying Attention to Plus-Size Shoppers

Underserved.

That’s one of the terms most often tossed around when talking about the plus-size market, which accounted for $21 billion in revenue as of 2016, or 10 percent of the total market.

Depending on the source, data shows that the average U.S. woman is a size 14 or 16, and yet many fashion brands overlook this valuable market by exclusively creating for smaller sizes.

In department stores, plus-size clothing is often tucked away in less ideal areas, by the furniture section, in the basement, or generally in some sort of no-man’s land. Plus sizes, goes the conventional wisdom, are not desirable, not a priority.

Things have gotten better in recent years, thanks in part to the rise of e-commerce and the attendant ease of birthing new brands without the back-breaking burden of brick-and-mortar CapEx. Eloquii, reborn in 2014 after a doomed 2011 launch from The Limited, has quickly become a favorite among full-figured shopper seeking runway-inspired, trend-led fashion. Dia&Co. offers subscription boxes curated by in-house stylists just for plus-size consumers and has taken out full-page New York Times ads during Fashion Week calling on the industry to address the larger-sized customers. Its message: “Fashion she can’t wear is becoming a bit unfashionable.”

Project Runway caused a bit of a stir in 2015 when plus-size designer Ashley Nell Tipton bested all of the competitors on her season with a mid-century Mexico City-inspired collection built for curvy figures. Then, in 2017, the fashion-design program featured models ranging from size 2 to 22 and host Tim Gunn said the show was committed to using models of diverse sizes and body types going forward.

Though there’s still plenty of room for improvement, a number of recent developments point to an industry that’s waking up to the potential that the plus-size shopper presents, especially as fashion retail struggles overall.

A common plus-size gripe is that clothing created for full figures is outdated, too sexy, too kitschy, or too “workwear.” Where can they get the same effortless, downtown-cool garb their slimmer friends are wearing?

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Universal Standard launched online a few years ago with a simple goal: to create for plus-size women the same kind of minimalist, well-designed, clean-line clothing in sizes 10 to 28 that’s widely available for straight sizes. The modern-takes-on-a-classic, the elevated essentials, the wardrobe staples she reaches for regularly.

Then, it made waves in 2017 with Universal Fit Liberty, a program that allows customers to receive within a year of purchase a replacement item at no cost if their size fluctuates (clothing that’s sent back gets donated to charity). The goal, founders Alex Waldman and Polina Veksler told The Business of Fashion, was to alleviate the consumer’s emotional and financial anxiety around “investing” in high-quality apparel when maybe she’s not 100 percent happy with being that size. It’s a smart move when the Dani sweater dress goes for $190, the Seine jeans are $90 a pair, and the Kanda puffer coat will set customers back $230.

All of this seems to be resonating with Universal Standard’s shoppers, so much so that the direct-to-consumer company just raised $7 million from a group of investors including Gwyneth Paltrow, Tom and Ruth Chapman of MatchesFashion, Toms founder Blake Mycoskie, Elizabeth Cutler of SoulCycle, and Sweetgreen co-founders Jonathan Neman and Nicolas Jammet. Venture capital firm Imaginery led the round, which also included Red Sea Ventures. To date, Universal Standard has raised $8.5 million.

According to The Business of Fashion, Universal Standard plans to use this injection of resources to become more size inclusive (sizes 6 to 32 is in the works), design for new categories and incorporate innovative new fabrics. It also wants to increase its physical presence; currently, Universal Standard hosts appointments in its Garment District headquarters’ showroom but plans are underway to replicate that showroom experience across the country so customers don’t have to rely on the e-commerce channel as their single means of transacting. Because that’s long been a complaint among plus-size women: sure, online shopping unlocks a greater world of possible style, but it comes with all the risks of not being able to touch, feel and try on before buying.

Breaking from its usual mold, Nike just partnered with Welsh model, blogger and influencer Callie Thorpe. She’s signed with MiLK Model Management and has been featured on Vogue’s website. What’s unusual here is that Thorpe wears a size 20.

Thorpe shared on her Instagram account that she’s the new face of Nike Women’s plus-size apparel and will be trialling the brand’s in-the-works update of active and lifestyle collections designed for sizes 18 through 32. Nike has not publicly announced the collaboration.

To be fair, a quick skim of the Nike Women Instagram account and e-commerce site shows a few curvier bodies popping up in their posts and marketing over the past couples years, though none nearly Thorpe’s size. Nike does carry plus-size apparel, but the assortment isn’t comparable in depth or breadth to what’s available for straight sizes.

Even Nordstrom is breathing some fresh air into its plus-size offering. Chromat designer Becca McCharen-Tran told the audience at an FIT symposium, as reported by Fashionista.com, that Nordstrom placed a “game-changing” large order from the swimwear and bodywear brand up to size 3X. Though Chromat has been size inclusive, it produced additional sizes as its own expense. “No one has ever bought above a size large for us,” McCharen-Tran said, according to Fashionista.com.

From Nordstrom to Nike, Brands Are
Photo credit: Sika Collection

Plus-size fashion sales have been outperforming women’s apparel in general for the past three years, and shows no signs of slowing down. While some legacy brands and retailers are getting the message that plus-size women want high-quality style, startups like 11 Honoré aren’t waiting around to fill in clear gaps in the market, such as the dearth of luxury apparel in larger sizes. The company offers curated collections of high-end brands not typically known to produce for plus sizes, such as Marchesa Notte, Adam Lippes and St. John, with the price points to match. Elbowing into the higher-end space, newbie Sika Collection launched at New York Fashion Week a range of dresses in sizes 10 to 22 priced between $250 and $395.

And it’s this kind of take-matters-into-your-own-hands attitude that will help to bring parity to the size curve.