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Can Tech Help Demystify Sizing for Plus-Size Fashion?

Once upon a time, designing plus-size fashion was an afterthought at best, with few brands taking the time to explore and understand the demographic. Times have, thankfully, changed, and consumers are no longer willing to accept unflattering garments stuck in the back of a store—much less shell out extra money simply because it’s an extended size.

And while brick-and-mortar shopping is still very much the primary destination for consumers of plus-size fashion, as a recent study from Proper found, online sales are growing. As such, it’s not only paramount that apparel designers and retailers employ accurate sizing strategies, but they must also ensure they’re being accurately communicated.

Some companies are turning to 3-D technology as one way to help them develop more accurate designs and samples.

“If one of our goals is true sustainability, we have to understand the consumer’s body shape to eventually achieve full mass customization,” said Ryan Teng, CLO Virtual Fashion’s VP of business development. “Fit is what builds loyalty to a brand, and if we can solve the question mark surrounding [the] customer’s shape, we’re well on our way to revolutionizing the entire industry.”

The avatars in CLO’s software can be adjusted to match most body shapes, according to Teng. Users can create or import patterns in the software, and then arrange and virtually sew them together on the avatar, applying simulation and gravity for a virtual garment.

The technology is primarily built for cut-and-sew garments; fully fashioned knits can be visualized but not used for an accurate pattern, said Teng, as the technology isn’t exported to knitting machines at this time.

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CLO’s technology also features an API that lets shoppers on its clients’ websites input their measurements to receive fit maps and view draped garments.

Fit Analytics, meanwhile, incorporates data from body modeling, sizing, and purchase and return transactions to help manufacturers refine garment specs and size charts, culled from over 17,000 brands and 20 million items. The technology, which provides a “Fit Score” generated by response comparisons, is particularly valuable for high-volume brands designing and making their own clothing, as well as multi-brand retailers, said CEO Sebastian Schulze.

It’s important for companies to understand that they can’t simply scale existing apparel specifications to create plus-size garments.

“It’s no secret that plus-size fashion is one of the fastest-growing verticals in the apparel industry,” Schulze noted. “In general, there is a trend for more beautiful, bespoke clothing, with a greater variety of garment types, styles and fabrics, including a boom in swimwear, lingerie and formal wear.”

According to Fit Analytics data, plus-size customers shopping online are well distributed across age ranges, with shoppers between 25 and 45 years old making up a slightly larger percentage than other age groups. “Some interesting things we’ve seen have to do with fit preference: For upper body items, plus-size shoppers prefer an average to slightly loose fit, while for lower body items they prefer an average to slightly tight fit,” he said.

When it comes to fit, brands also need to clearly indicate to these consumers that products have been developed for their body types and will provide a quality fit, said Alice Rodrigues, senior consultant at Alvanon, a provider of apparel fit technology and training. “The sizing of plus products in the market is all over the place,” she noted. “For example, a 2X might align to an 18W in one brand and a 22W in another … so the brands need to communicate accurately how the clothes will fit so as not to disappoint or frustrate customers.”

Fabric characteristics play a particularly important role in this messaging, she advised. “For example, tell her that something is super stretchy, so she can decide what size to buy based on how she wants it to fit her—down a size if she likes it close to the body, or up a size if she prefers the fit to be easy. Conversely, if a fabric has no stretch, make sure she understands that as well.”

Brands and retailers that are successful with this will face fewer returns, she noted.

Sharon King, senior director of technical design, compliance, testing and quality at Lucky Brand, agreed that fit is absolutely critical for this group, and said that some brands don’t grasp the significance of this. While Lucky currently employs 3-D technology solely for missy fitting, it’s moving its use into size sets for extended sizing, as avatars for both missy and plus can be used for intended fit and balance, she said.

The only limitation with the technology thus far has been the learning curve and having the team embrace looking at an image vs. fitting apparel live on a body, she said. “It takes time, practice and understanding fabric in 3-D form.”

King said she’s been receiving pushback from vendors on denim and 3-D, but said she looks forward to proving the they’re wrong. “It’s the same mindset of doing a pair of leggings for Under Armour,” she said, explaining that compression on the avatar indicates where designers should release or go tighter given the nature of the fabric being used in order to achieve the ultimate fit.