The Plus Side
Full-ﬁgured fashion gets a new look.
The Plus Side: Full-ﬁgured fashion gets a new look.
I attended a runway show at New York Fashion Week this year, and I managed to get a very good seat—in the front row, right where the models made their turns. As is often the case in fashion, the best part was not where I was sitting but with whom: two of the biggest players in the industry—the editor-in-chief of the leading magazine and a colleague, a former model.
Show time: the lights went up, and a model sashayed onto the runway in something that resembled Miami club wear, by way of an ashram. She wore black platform heels and short white harem pants with a white tailored draped top. A crackle of flashes came from the photographers. The clothes seemed to be a success. At a black-and-white wool herringbone suit, the editor exclaimed, “Yes! I love that!”
Then a model came down the runway wearing a skintight leopard-print dress with a V neck and a scandalously high slit up the front. There were gasps from the audience as the model narrowed her eyes and strutted toward us. The editor whispered, “That is an air-your-coochie dress!”
“Don’t look up!” the editor’s colleague joked, as the model pivoted on the runway.
This scene did not take place at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, where coochie jokes are about as common as last season’s sweatpants. I was at Full Figured Fashion Week, an independent event held this summer, in downtown Manhattan, to showcase plus-size clothes—14 and above. The editor-in-chief was Madeline Jones, of the magazine PLUS Model—an online-only magazine that is sometimes described as the Vogue of the industry—and her companion was Alexandra Boos, a former plus-size model who now runs the “curvy” division of TRUE Model Management and is the marketing and creative director for PLUS Model. For anyone accustomed to navigating the anxious crowds at uptown Fashion Week, Full Figured Fashion Week can feel like passing from a land of famine into one of plenty. The guests are more racially diverse—there were plenty of white people, but much of the crowd was African-American and Latino—and they come in every shape and size: short women with slim waists and enormous breasts, tall women with narrow shoulders and thick torsos, round women, pear-shaped women, and a few mesmerized men. The atmosphere is celebratory, rather than cutthroat. There were snacks, and buoyant music was playing. People referred to the “plus community,” and they wore T-shirts with slogans such as “Thick Girls Do It Better.”
Full Figured Fashion Week is the creation of Gwen DeVoe, a onetime plus-size model who now works in human resources at Scholastic publishing. DeVoe, a tall African-American woman with broad shoulders and prominent cheekbones, wears a size 18. She got the idea for Full Figured Fashion Week in 2007, after attending a Tracy Reese show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. Reese is one of her favorite designers, and DeVoe told me she’d been excited about the show. “My friends were texting me, like, ‘Oh my God, take a selfie!’ ” But after watching a procession of clothes she loved she had a sinking realization: “None of these things are for me. And not because I wasn’t a buyer—because I had the money. But because they didn’t come in my size.”
DeVoe is the take-charge type: “My motto has always been, if you don’t invite me to the party, I’ll have my own party.” She raised ten thousand dollars in sponsorship money and spent ten thousand of her own to host a plus-size runway show. This year, its sixth, the event attracted about a thousand people, from as far away as Japan and Germany, and featured events all over town—parties, trunk shows, panels—culminating in two fashion shows: an Indie Designer show, which displayed the work of eleven plus-size designers from cities around the country, including Portland and Atlanta, and a runway show, which featured larger companies, including Kiyonna and ModaMix. For people working in the often overlooked business of selling clothes to large women, “it was recognition,” Boos told me. “It was no longer feeling invisible.”
To understand what fashion for plus-size women is, it’s important to understand what it hasn’t been—which is fashionable. At Full Figured Fashion Week, people often asked me to imagine a typical department store. Upstairs, above cosmetics and accessories, is the elaborate layer cake of women’s apparel: juniors, sportswear, swimsuits. There are sections for “accessible luxury,” celebrity lines by Jessica Simpson and Kate Moss, power suits, ten-thousand-dollar wedding dresses, designer jeggings. But these clothes typically come in sizes 0 through 12. To find anything bigger, you have to go to the top floor or the basement, “a hidden little grotto,” as Boos told me. “Like it’s the dirty secret, hidden between the tire department and home goods.”
Historically, plus-size apparel has had a conservative look. Its unofficial name, I quickly gathered at Full Figured Fashion Week, was “fat-girl clothes.” The clothes were heavy on basics—items like plain T-shirts—in stretchy materials and dark colors. They usually conformed to a set of generally accepted rules about what plus-size women should wear. No one can decide who wrote the rules (perhaps it was the principal of a very strict all-girls school), but everyone could rattle them off: Nothing tight or body-hugging. No crop tops. No loud colors. No patterns. No horizontal stripes. As a result, the plus section became the land of the mom jean and the muumuu—of dresses that were less fashion statement and more “tent to hide your body,” as one woman put it.
In the past five years, however, things have changed. Fast-fashion outlets—H&M, Forever 21, Wet Seal, and Mango—have rolled out new, plus-size lines, forcing their more traditional competition to catch up. Macy’s is spicing up its “Woman’s” section. (This season, a representative told me, the store’s in-house line, INC, is focussing on “peasant tops, soft pants, and jumpsuits.”) And on the Internet a new generation of e-retailers—the U.K. brand ASOS and the plus-size-only brand Eloquii—have found success selling trendy clothes to a younger market. “Truthfully, it’s gotten better,” Boos told me.
The improvements in plus-size clothing shouldn’t come as a surprise. Consider the demographics: In 1985, the average woman wore a size 8. Today, she wears a size 14. The U.S. government considers more than a hundred million Americans—and more than sixty-four per cent of females—to be overweight. Plus-size apparel represents almost eighteen billion dollars of the hundred-and-sixteen-billion-dollar women’s-apparel business, and in the past year it has grown three per cent. According to Marshal Cohen, a former retail executive who is now an analyst at the market-research group NPD, “There is money in it, and there is big, healthy money.”
The question in the air at Full Figured Fashion Week was whether plus-size fashion can find acceptance in the high-fashion realm. Last fall, Lane Bryant—the brand that most people associate with the dowdy, conservative look of yore—announced a collaboration with Isabel Toledo, the designer known for her meticulous architectural clothes. In March, Lane Bryant and Toledo put on a plus-size show in New York that was attended by editors from Glamour and Vogue. The former Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley, who attended, told me that he was impressed by the show: “It was hip. It had today written all over the silhouettes, the casting, the shoes. Attitude. Everything.” Talley added that in the past three years he’s noticed a change in the women he sees on the streets. “The big girl rocks. The big girl is dope,” he said. “Walking down the street, all the big girls are looking and thinking fashion. They’re on point with the fashion trend.”
There’s a sense that the fashion world is on the verge of a change equal to the “democratization” that’s gained momentum in the past ten years—in which runway-knockoff chains like Zara and big-box designer collaborations like Vera Wang for Kohl’s have made high fashion available to the masses. This hope has been buoyed by the box-office triumph of female celebrities with non-Jennifer Aniston-esque bodies, who seem to be closing the gap between fashionable and “real” America. Melissa McCarthy, who starred in “Bridesmaids,” said that just two years ago she had trouble finding a designer to make her a dress for the Academy Awards. As Jill Herzig, then the editor of Redbook, told a reporter, “The second wave of this big style revolution . . . is that accessibility doesn’t just mean price—it means size.”
I first met Alexandra Boos on the Wednesday of Full Figured Fashion Week. Hundreds of full-figured women, dressed in white and showing skin, were lined up along a pier on the East River, waiting to board a party boat for an event called Curves at Sea. Boos is tall and voluptuous, with a bright, Midwestern disposition and a blond-bombshell look—flowing hair, pouty red lips, and a face that resembles Cindy Crawford’s. She was wearing an A-line dress from Macy’s and was shepherding a group of young plus models: busty twentysomethings of various races, in high heels. “O.K., girls!” Boos called out, lining up the models for a picture. One of them asked, “Have we got all the curves in?”
Boos, who is in her forties, has never had the mainstream recognition of famous plus-size models, such as Mia Tyler or Ashley Graham, but in the industry she’s a fixture. She came to New York from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in 1989, with plans to become an actress. People kept asking her if she modelled. She was confused: “How can I be a model? I’m a size 14.” Eventually, though, she became a plus-size Ford model, and shot campaigns for Lane Bryant, Catherine’s, and Ulla Popken, a German brand. Work was plentiful, but plus-size models didn’t have the same status as their thin counterparts. Major brands ordered them to show up for photo shoots at 8 A.M., in their own makeup. “The straight-size models would come and have pro makeup artists do their hair and makeup,” Boos said. “It was a blatant stepchild feeling.”
At Full Figured Fashion Week, people wondered whether plus-size designers could find acceptance in the high-fashion world. Alexandra Boos, a former model, described the shows as “recognition.”
CreditPhotographs by Pari Dukovic
Boos explained the rules of the game. Despite the aura of inclusiveness surrounding the plus-size fashion industry, its models are subject to many of the same forces as their thinner counterparts—including the need to appear thin. It’s not uncommon to find size-8 models in plus-size clothing catalogues. “There’s pressure to have an angled face,” Boos said. “What some models would do is they’d be on the smaller spectrum—normal weight—and they would get padding.” In her modelling years, Boos said, she always carried pads. “On top of that, if I was on the smaller side, the seamstresses would make me a fat suit out of pillow padding.”
There is also the matter of terminology: in the plus-size world, sizes 0 to 12 are generally called “straight”—or, occasionally, by department-store buyers, “missy”—never “standard” or “regular.” Terms for larger sizes keep piling up. “When I started, they called them ‘mama sizes,’ ” Boos said—an expression still used by some Chinese manufacturers. Then came “women’s” sizes, followed by “full-figured,” which was popularized by lingerie sellers. The more assertive “plus” arrived in the past decade. Lately, it has been losing traction to “curvy,” though some people think that favors an hourglass physique. An alternative movement has long pushed to reclaim the word “fat.” “It’s a big controversy,” Boos told me. “We haven’t landed on the word that pleases everybody, and, frankly, I don’t know if we ever will.”
Full Figured Fashion Week is as much a fashion show for the audience as for the models. “People have been plotting their outfits all year,” one blogger, Marie Denee, told me. Boos urged me to attend the Indie Designer show on Friday. The show was held in the Broad Street Ballroom, a bank building downtown, with classical columns. Club music played, the runway was decorated with paper butterflies, and, in a bar area, waiters served cream-cheese-stuffed strawberries and champagne.
If the cruise had tweaked the rules of “fat girl” dressing, the scene at the show ripped them to pieces. Instead of white, people wore eye-catching color: sequins, bodysuits, flashy headpieces. I chatted with an entrepreneur named Camille Newman, who went to Oberlin and lives in Brooklyn. She had a reverse-ombré hair style, with light bangs and dark hair extensions. Her outfit mixed high and low: hot-pink lipstick, dollar-store earrings, a tight pink top, and a shiny purple “skater skirt” from an independent designer named Youtheary Khmer. “We carry this on my site,” Newman said; she is the owner of a pop-up store and online designer shop called Pop Up Plus. “We’re trying to be the Nasty Gal of plus,” she said, referring to the fast-growing e-tailer.
I found Boos talking to the French plus-size model Clémentine Desseaux, who has brown hair and girlish freckles. Boos threw her arms around Desseaux’s manager, Becca Thorpe, another stately blonde. “Eee! Good to see you!” Boos said. She told me, “Becca and I modelled together back in the day.”
They posed for pictures, and Desseaux, whom Thorpe seems to be positioning as a kind of plus-size Gwyneth Paltrow—she writes a life-style blog called Bonjour Clem—said that she had recently moved to New York, and was finding the city “empowering and awesome.” In France, plus size is called grande taille, and is considered something of an embarrassment. Desseaux sighed: “It was not easy being curvy in France.”
I sat between Boos and Jones, the editor of PLUS Model. The lights went down, and a hush came over the room. Full Figured Fashion Week plays “a spiritual role,” Boos told me. Sometimes, the body-acceptance talk has an evangelical tone. Late in the show, a male spoken-word artist named Jamaal St. John*, invoking a preacher, delivered an ode to curvy women. Sample lines: “On the eighth day, God created thickness and saw that it was good!”; “Stop asking me if those jeans make your butt look big. No. Your butt makes your butt look big! And I love every inch of it”; and “I like my women the way I like my pancakes: hot, fluffy, and stacked!”
The lights went up, and the m.c. told us to greet one another: “Turn to your neighbor and say, ‘Girlfriend, you are beautiful!’ ”
It’s worth recalling that the very idea of “fat” is a fairly recent creation. For most of human history, as Amy Farrell, a professor of women’s and gender studies at Dickinson College, notes in “Fat Shame,” only the wealthy could have extra fat on their bodies. Most people worked too hard, had too little food, and were often too sick. Then came the Industrial Revolution: mass food production and more sedentary jobs meant that the new middle class, and not just the wealthy, became heavier. Once “average” fat people came on the scene, Farrell writes, “fat denigration” became more common: fat jokes proliferated in nineteenth-century magazines.
Clothing changed, too: with manufactured garments came standardized sizes. People used to sew their own clothes (or, if they were wealthy, hired tailors), so they made clothes that fit their body’s shape. But factory-made clothes came in predetermined sizes. (In 1939 and 1940, the U.S. Department of Agriculture conducted a survey of fifteen thousand women’s bodies to devise commercial standards.) Suddenly, it became important for your body to fit your clothes, instead of the other way around: it was possible to try on a skirt in a store and think, My legs are too short, or My butt’s too big.
Still, until the nineteen-sixties—with the brief exception of the Flapper era— the ideal body shape for women was curvy and feminine; Marilyn Monroe reigned. The Youthquake of the nineteen-sixties fuelled the ascent of teen-age beauty icons like Twiggy and Penelope Tree, and the ultra-thin body became the new ideal. The ancient equation was completely reversed: fatness became associated with low social status; thinness became a symbol of wealth and prestige.
But, as Full Figured Fashion Week demonstrated, class and racial politics complicate this narrative. “In the black community, there’s always been a celebration and a recognition of the fact that black women have thick, curvy bodies,” Tanisha Ford, a professor of women, gender, and sexuality at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told me. She pointed out that traditional African clothes were designed to highlight curves, and that hip-hop today embraces a wide range of shapes, including “thickness.” Nicki Minaj is a reigning beauty icon. Ford, who is the author of a forthcoming book called “Liberated Threads: Black Women and the Politics of Adornment,” noted that fashion shows have long played an important political role in African-American culture, starting with Sunday processions, when slaves walked to church, and extending through Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, which hosted beauty pageants and fashion shows with a Black Nationalist bent. “For me, it’s no shocker that black women would be leading the charge toward full-figured fashion,” Ford said. “Black people have always used clothing as a form of resistance.”
In the modern era, resistance tends to happen on the Internet. The plus-size fashion movement owes much to the emergence, in the past six or seven years, of a new generation of fashion bloggers, who challenge mainstream beauty standards using cheeky names: Plus Size Princess, Curvy Girl Chic, Stylish Curves, La Pecosa Preciosa, A Well-Rounded Venture, Chubble Bubble, Curves and Chaos, Hey, Fat Chick!
Many blogs grew out of “body acceptance” communities on the Web, like the Livejournal community Fatshionista, and they have flourished, in part, for practical reasons. Sarah Conley, a social-media consultant and the blogger behind StyleIT, told me that readers often follow bloggers whose bodies look like their own. “Take Chastity Garner,” Conley said, naming the blogger behind Garner Style. “Her readers follow her because their body is similar to hers—she’s more pear-shaped—so they want to know how clothes look on her, and what her tips and tricks are.”
Once in a while, a single post can spark a movement. In the summer of 2011, Gabi Gregg, who writes the blog GabiFresh, went on a quest to find a bikini; at the time, bikinis were hard to find in large sizes. When she found one, she posted a picture of herself in it, calling it a “fatkini.” (Gregg says that she got the word and the idea from a Tumblr user.) The picture, and a follow-up article for the Web site xoJane, the next summer, went viral, prompting a wave of copycat posts. Plus-size women took bikini pictures and tagged them #fatkini. Gregg ended up on the “Today” show, and the retail landscape changed. Gregg told me, “Out of nowhere, all these plus-size brands were suddenly making bikinis.”
The fatkini movement—and plus-size fashion in general—has occasionally sparked a backlash. “Being really visible when you’re a plus-size woman is not for the faint of heart,” Conley told me. Many blogs attract lewd and misogynistic comments, but the more mild-mannered critics cite health concerns. “There’s a fine line between anti-body-shaming and obesity-glorification,” one reader wrote, at the bottom of a Buzzfeed article about the fatkini trend. Another added, “Celebrating obesity seems a bit ridiculous.”
Obesity is a genuine health concern, but the connection between health and the wearing of crop tops is a murky one. “This should never be a conversation about health,” Madeline Jones told me. People become plus size for all sorts of reasons, not all of which involve life-style choices. And it’s not clear that shaming people—or requiring them to wear muumuus—is an effective weight-loss tool. (Most psychological studies suggest the opposite.) In general, the academics I spoke with argued that health-related critiques of plus-size fashion veil an age-old impulse: the desire to police the prevailing social order, in which fat women are inferior. Kinitra Brooks, a scholar of black women and popular culture, has a word for it. “That’s called concern-trolling,” she said. “It’s another tool of control.”
Being among the first to challenge the social order can be lucrative. Gabi Gregg, the blogger who started the #fatkini movement, now designs her own line of swimwear, called Swim Sexy. Her galaxy print suit, which she described as her “all star,” sold out in twenty-four hours.
In the world of plus-size fashion, activism and consumerism often cheerfully intermingle. Bloggers move merchandise. Raina Penchansky, the chief strategy officer of Digital Brand Architects, an agency that represents bloggers, told me that plus-size bloggers have the highest “conversion rate” in the business—meaning that their blog posts result in sales. Retailers are eager to get them on board, and bloggers often do double duty as paid spokespeople. One executive at a plus-size-clothing chain told me that winning “grass-roots” support was critical to any sales strategy. “Our market moves much more bottom up than top down.”
The rising clout of bloggers occasionally creates tension. The Italian brand Marina Rinaldi used plus-size fashion bloggers as models for a recent ad campaign, and some models, Boos told me, saw themselves out of a job. “The bloggers are becoming kind of industry celebrities,” she said. Gwen DeVoe, the organizer of Full Figured Fashion Week, said that she’d considered inviting a popular plus-size blogger, only to be told by the blogger’s booking agent that the fee would be three thousand dollars. “I’m not mad at her,” DeVoe added. “Do your thing! But I can’t afford her.”
At Fashion Week, I attended several events set up by brands to wine and dine bloggers, including a “pampering session” at the W downtown, hosted by the British brand Evans, and a “birthday party” thrown by Just My Size, an underwear company celebrating its thirtieth anniversary. The room was full of youthful women in dresses with loud patterns: the uniform of the new wave. I spoke to Karen Ward, a Toronto blogger and store owner who writes the blog Curvy Canadian, and several New York-based bloggers: Mellie Davis, from the Fat Apple; Ty Alexander, from Gorgeous in Gray; Beck Delude, a six-foot-three twenty-four-year-old who works as a social-media strategist and writes a blog called the Manfattan Project; and Chastity Garner, the thirty-three-year-old blogger behind Garner Style. Garner, who is African-American and from Georgia, wore a girlie outfit—a long dress with a black-and-white striped skirt and a black top with lace detailing—and had her hair in a chin-length curly bob. She started blogging in 2008, while working at a nonprofit. “Plus-size clothes were just getting good,” she said. She quit her job two years ago, and now lives in San Francisco, where she has a high-five-figure income, thanks to a combination of sponsored posts, advertisements, consulting for brands, and writing a column on plus-size fashion for About.com. She told me, “The crazy thing is, I think the reason I’m able to be a full-time blogger is because I’m fat.”
While plus-size and fast-fashion brands scramble to attract attention from the plus-size community, “straight” fashion brands are more ambivalent. At Full Figured Fashion Week, I heard people making reference to the fashion industry’s “closet” plus-size designers: accessible luxury brands with big licensing businesses—including Calvin Klein, Vince Camuto, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Michael Kors. All have plus-size lines that are sold in stores like Macy’s but are not advertised.
Some people in the plus-size fashion world have attempted to persuade them to be more vocal, to little avail. Jones told me that PLUS Model has remained online-only for eight years, rather than in print, because she can’t get fashion companies to buy ad pages. “I’ve approached INC, Roberto Cavalli, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors, Adrianna Papell,” she said. “They never buy ads.” (She has hired a new marketing director to approach the brands again this fall.) Nicolette Mason, a columnist for Marie Claire and a blogger, said that she had made it a mission to persuade Michael Kors to acknowledge his “beautiful” plus-size line, Michael. “I tried to get samples from Michael Kors, and they wouldn’t lend them to me,” she said. “They pretty much said that they would not publicize their plus brand.” When I contacted Michael Kors, a public-relations representative sent over a statement: “The MICHAEL Michael Kors plus size line launched in 2007. Michael prides himself on being able to dress women of all shapes and sizes, and making them feel and look good.”
The fashion world’s paranoia about associating itself with the plus-size movement goes beyond simple prejudice. Morty Singer, a consultant who works with luxury fashion companies, told me that retail executives constantly worry about maintaining “brand equity”—that nebulous commodity, beloved by marketers, which represents some combination of reputation and market share. Luxury brands aren’t just selling clothes, of course; they’re selling a life-style fantasy. Singer reeled off a few: “Gucci or Prada: luxury. Coach, Tory Burch, Kate Spade: accessible luxury. Tory Burch is the uptown-downtown, cool-chic girl. Michael Kors: Hollywood jet set.” In the fashion industry, Singer said, there’s a common (and, in his opinion, misguided) belief that associating one’s image with down-market things—like fat bodies—will result in mall-ification.
Even for brands that do advertise to plus-size customers, choosing what imagery to promote can be tricky. At Full Figured Fashion Week, TRUE Model Management sponsored a panel called “The Great Debate.” It was hosted by the actress and comedian Erica Watson, who played a small role in the movie “Precious.” (She also received the Full Figured Entertainer of the Year Award.) Participants addressed the question of whether “plus” had become a “dirty word,” and discussed their frustration at the tendency of brands like Macy’s to use size-12 models when selling clothing to size-24 women.
Macy’s—aware of the rumblings of discontent among its consumers—had sent word that its buyers were coming to the event. I sat next to the Macy’s representatives, and discovered that the buyers had actually sent their assistants: nervous—and thin—young women clutching notepads.
The blogger Marie Denee, one of the panelists, said, “The marketers still think that we’re in transition. They can’t accept a plus-size woman who isn’t waiting to be a smaller size.”
Madeline Jones turned to the audience with a rallying cry: “You know why the plus-size industry is the way it is? Because we have a voice! This is what we have to do. We have to say, ‘You know what? We’re going to write to Macy’s!’ ”
The Macy’s assistants kept their heads down and took notes, but Watson hadn’t forgotten about them. “Where’s the girl from Macy’s?” she asked. The assistants waved shyly. Jones said, in a sweet voice, “Hi, Macy’s!”
Watson cut in: “Put some fat girls in your advertisements!”
Not all brands are getting it wrong. One day during Full Figured Fashion Week, I stopped by a trunk sale at the London Hotel for the relaunched plus-size e-tailer Eloquii. Eloquii started three years ago as a “sister brand” to The Limited, the ubiquitous mall store, and it gained a small but devoted following for its workplace-centered clothes. In 2013, it was shut down amid a corporate restructuring by The Limited’s private-equity owners, Sun Capital Partners.
There was an outcry online: plus-size bloggers, including Marie Denee, wrote open letters to The Limited’s owners, asking them to bring the brand back to life. To their delight, an anonymous Internet mogul bought up all of Eloquii’s assets—technical specs, e-mail lists—rehired members of the original executive team, and, last February, relaunched it.
I showed up early at the Eloquii trunk show, and found the two-room suite decorated as if for a girlie carnival: vases of fresh flowers, a tarot-card reader, a photo booth uploading pictures to Instagram, and a salon area with manicurists at the ready. Along the walls and upstairs in the bedroom suites, racks of the bright new clothing line—skirts, dresses, and tops, in sizes 14 through 24—stood ready to be tried on by bloggers and fans.
Jodi Arnold, the company’s creative director, roamed around, making last-minute adjustments to the clothes on the racks. Arnold is a veteran of the straight retail world—she had her own line before being hired by Linda Heasley, who was then The Limited’s C.E.O., and is now the head of Lane Bryant. Arnold is not plus size, but she lets it be known that, at times in her life, she’s worn a size 12.
Arnold told me that the Eloquii woman is “a trend customer.” After years of being relegated to fashion’s sidelines, she’s developing a yen for of-the-moment items: animal prints, miniskirts. “At launch, the best-selling item was a crop top,” Arnold said.
Arnold aspires to make Eloquii into a “Zara for plus size”—a brand that sells expensive-looking clothes at affordable prices, with styles that turn over quickly. She approached a rack of clothes: their bright colors and horizontal stripes had a faintly revolutionary quality. She fingered a body-hugging, black-and-white striped skirt made of a thick, stretchy material. “This fabrication is called scuba,” she said. “It’s stretchy, but it’s also constructed.” The skirt had a short overlay called a peplum. Arnold explained, “The peplum has been a big thing in fashion, in general, but for this customer it’s been really good, because it feels like she covers something, but she can still show off her waist.”
The shoppers arrived: a giddy mob of women decked out in Eloquii-ish hues—black-and-white stripes, yellows, pinks. A collective squeal went through the room as they descended on the clothes. Sheri Atwell, twenty-eight, the blogger behind Shapely Chic Sheri, admired the cutout detailing around the neckline of a lilac-colored dress. “Anything unique is really hard to find for plus-size women,” she said.
She was accompanied by Georgette Niles, who was wearing an all-yellow ensemble. Her skirt, the Citron Midi Skirt, with pleats, had in the past week become an iconic Eloquii item: the company posted the piece on Instagram, and sold a hundred and fifty-eight skirts in five days. Niles, who is forty-two, is a fashion blogger and a social worker in Philadelphia. “I’m helping little children and being fashionable at the same time,” she said. She grabbed the black-and-white scuba skirt. “Oh my gosh! I love this!” she said. “I’m trying this on. This is going to be mine, in my house.”
“This one is mine,” Atwell said, holding a floral asymmetrical skirt up to her waist. “Look at this, right?”
There was something touching about the scene—and about the way the women were mobbing Arnold. Any revulsion at the unbridled consumerism was mitigated by the earnest joy of the customers. I couldn’t remember seeing a Zara shopper expressing this much appreciation for the designer’s work.
Atwell admired a white midi skirt. “Beautiful,” she said. “Look at that heavy material.”
Niles rolled her eyes. “A lot of times they give us cream, or off-white or ivory, because it’s supposed to camouflage you. Just give me white!”
“We want color. We want fun prints,” Atwell said. “We can be bold, it’s O.K.!”
“Give me some leopard print—I’m all right!” Niles said, before she was distracted by another dress. “Ooh!” she exclaimed. “Lace hem! Lace hem!” She seemed to be having an out-of-body experience. “This is happening! This is happening today!”
I spotted Alexandra Boos looking through the racks, fingering a studded ponte-knit skirt. “You know what is the best?” she said. “When a straight-size girl comes up to me and is, like, ‘Oh my God, I love your outfit. Where did you get it?’ And you’re, like, ‘I’m sorry, it doesn’t come in your size!’ ”
The longer you spend in the world of plus-size fashion, the clearer it becomes that self-esteem isn’t just a personal issue—it’s an economic one. People sometimes refer to the lack of clothing options for plus-size women as a chicken-and-egg problem. Designers don’t make the clothes because store buyers don’t request them. Buyers don’t request them because, when they do, shoppers don’t buy them. The blogger Nicolette Mason pointed to an “information gap”—the lack of media coverage devoted to plus-size fashion and the fact that, for the most part, fashionable plus-size women aren’t represented in the engines of mainstream consumerism: celebrity magazines and television. “Lauren Conrad drives so much in terms of fashion and sales,” she told me. “Kim Kardashian.” But it also has to do with people’s self-image. Marshal Cohen, the NPD analyst, told me that among retailers plus-size customers are known for being more “price sensitive” than straight-size shoppers. And it’s not merely a difference in income levels. “Half of the plus-size population doesn’t have a passion for fashion,” he said. “They don’t like the experience of going into stores and trying things on; they don’t like having to buy a size that they don’t fit into.” The other half are “just as fashion-conscious as anybody else,” and their spending patterns are the same. But, in an already volatile retail business, the plus-size market is extra volatile. “When it’s good, it’s really good,” Cohen said. “When it’s bad, it’s really bad.”
Cohen pointed out that the plus-size clothing industry is coming out of a rough patch. Saks Fifth Avenue stopped offering plus-size clothes two years ago; the plus-size brands Ashley Stewart and Avenue filed for bankruptcy. “A decade ago, plus size was hot, and it was hot for capital investment,” Cohen said. “2004 and 2005 was a real hot era.” Then the economy dipped, and many plus-size brands went under. Cohen predicted that plenty of today’s upstarts will suffer the same fate. Retail executives are business people first. “If the business isn’t big enough—no pun intended—to be able to sustain a profit, they’re going to walk away.”
If anyone can survive in the new era of plus-size fashion, it will probably be Lane Bryant. The company long ago solved the problem of how to make plus-size retail profitable, by acquiring a sturdy reputation and a loyal customer base. “It is the tortoise in the apparel tortoise-and-the-hare story,” Cohen told me. “It is slow and steady.” Yet, from a fashion standpoint, it has helped to solidify the frumpy look you envision when you think of plus-size clothing.
The company was started at the turn of the twentieth century, in New York, by Lena Himmelstein, a young immigrant from Lithuania who married a jeweller named David Bryant, and, within two years, found herself widowed with a baby. Lena could sew, and she moved in with her sister in Harlem and began tailoring lingerie for brides and expectant mothers. She opened a shop on Fifth Avenue, uptown. (Her business became Lane Bryant thanks to a clerical error made by the bank on a loan application.) One day, a wealthy pregnant customer asked for a dress that would hide her stomach, so that she could throw a dinner party—at the time, it was considered taboo for pregnant women to show themselves in public. Lena made a pleated silk underskirt for a dress with a slimming elastic waistband. The dress took off. Soon, with the help of Lena’s second husband, a Lithuanian engineer named Albert Maslin, Lane Bryant expanded into “stout sizes.” An early marketing campaign was titled “Calling All Chubbies.”
The company went public in 1928. In 1982, Lane Bryant’s heirs sold their majority stake to The Limited. By then, the company had acquired an uncool reputation. Two of Bryant’s great-grandsons, Michael and Nick Kaplan, have started Fashion to Figure, a fast-fashion chain for plus sizes. “We’re trying to be a fashion store, not just a size store,” Michael said. “And they were the quintessential size store.”
These days, that’s something Lane Bryant no longer wants to be. A few weeks ago, I met with Linda Heasley, who was hired to turn around Lane Bryant by the Ascena Retail Group, the corporation that now owns the brand. (Ironically, Heasley was the Limited executive who started Eloquii.) Lane Bryant’s headquarters are in Columbus, Ohio, but Heasley was in New York, interviewing to fill new executive positions. Heasley is straight-size and delicate, but, she told me, “that shouldn’t matter.” She wears her hair in a short brown bob, and she had on red lipstick. She was dressed in an edgy take on Midwestern corporate chic: black blazer, tweedy black-and-gray dress, and round Le Corbusier-style glasses.
She outlined her plan to turn around the brand. The first order of business: getting Lane Bryant stores out of strip malls. She had just come back from a trip scouting new real-estate locations. When I asked about the threat of competition from fast-fashion companies like H&M, she made a case for Lane Bryant’s technical know-how. She pointed out a dress in the fall catalogue. “Our denim has special fibre wrap that has incredible recovery and helps to lift and slim. It has tummy panels in here that give her a girdling effect. You can get this, or you can just get any old denim.” Heasley told me that Lane Bryant’s new motto is “We are ‘her’ size, we’re not plus size.”
But who is she? “That’s the hard one,” Heasley said. It can be difficult to imagine a customer who represents the majority of the country. “You can go into an Ann Taylor Loft and you say, ‘I know who their customer is.’ ” But in a Lane Bryant store, she said, “you see so much variety, it makes it harder to get a direction.” In Heasley’s ideal world, Lane Bryant would attract both the fashion-conscious bloggers I met at the Eloquii sale and women who are coping with post-pregnancy weight gain.
Heasley is trying to solve the problem of the divided consumer base by breaking Lane Bryant’s line into “sub brands.” Half are designed for a more conservative, self-conscious shopper, whom the company calls “Ava.” The other half are designed for “Jennifer,” who feels great about her size. The denim brand, Lane Bryant Denim, is broken into life-style ideas: “rocker cool,” “out and about on Saturday,” “great American sportswear.” The intimates brand Cacique has taken inspiration from the film roles of Angelina Jolie. Heasley said that her design team had put together a “tear sheet” with images. “We have her doing all sorts of things,” she said. “She’s Lara Croft, she’s Nina the nurse, she’s Adele the teacher.”
Heasley said that Lane Bryant wants to deliver a message to the straight fashion world: “We want to put the fashion industry on notice. There’s a new woman on the scene. Lane Bryant isn’t your mother’s plus-size brand, and it’s not your grandmother’s, either.”
The company’s new direction doesn’t thrill everyone on the grass-roots side of the movement. When I spoke to Madeline Jones about Lane Bryant’s rebirth as a fashion brand, she was skeptical. “The whole plus-size industry always wants to be legitimatized by the mainstream industry, and that’s never going to happen,” she said. She added, about Lane Bryant, “They’re trying to find that happy medium, where they’re marketing to the plus-size women but still being seen by Seventh Avenue as a viable fashion contender. But these plus-size women don’t care! They don’t give a flying fajita whether André Leon Talley likes Lane Bryant. They want clothes!”
There’s a paradox to the very idea of the plus-size-fashion movement. As with other civil-rights causes—feminism comes to mind—there are trade-offs inherent in the prospect of success. If plus-size fashion achieves its goal of mainstream acceptance, it risks losing some of its outsider energy and community.
One evening, I stopped by the Lane Bryant in downtown Brooklyn. The store looked slick and polished, and so did its saleswomen, who wore hip glasses and chunky jewelry. The “6th & Lane” display of runway-inspired clothes—black with shades of fuchsia—looked like something you might find in SoHo. The Isabel Toledo collection—with its feminine, textured dresses and hundred-dollar blouses in metallic colors—looked even better. It wouldn’t have seemed out of place at Barney’s. There was just one problem: there were no customers here. Everyone was upstairs, browsing the clearance racks.
“I’m just looking,” Deanna, a consultant, said. She wore a white cotton dress and had her brown hair in a long braid. She said that she’d noticed an improvement in Lane Bryant’s offerings. “I’ve seen a shift in the past six months. I bought these two cute dresses that I wore all summer long: a white, tight thing with a blue gradated pattern and a gray dress that had a high-low back.” She added that she was in a weight-loss program: “I hope not to be plus-size in the next couple years.”
I asked if she considered herself a follower of fashion. “Not really,” she said. “I wear what I like.” She’s not risqué, either: “I’m never going to wear a crop top.” She felt that Lane Bryant’s clothes, in general, fit better than those from other stores, but, she added, “there’s been ebbs and flows.” She turned to a wall of tweed biker jackets, in aqua, from the spring collection. “I tried on one of those jackets, and it didn’t fit at all—it’s really boxy,” she said. “Sometimes you wonder, What were they thinking?” ♦