When H&M's swimwear shoot went live on the retailer's site last week, it sent ripples of admiration round the internet. It wasn't that they'd featured 'plus size' model Jennie Runk, moreover that they did so without fanfare; no company comment, no online reference, just a 'here's our latest' nonchalance.
It highlights a shift in attitude towards the plus size industry, with magazines and advertising beginning to normalise the figures of real women. The media has benefitted from talented or fashion-loving females like Adele, Christina Hendricks, Lena Dunham and Kim Kardashian taking centre stage, with their figures varying from the atypical A-lister. Driving the change are the online communities formed by plus size bloggers and the democratisation of the fashion critic, with social media giving every consumer a platform to discuss their tastes. That allows brands and retailers greater access to their consumer, and enables the tangible measure of demand.
And it's about time too. The UK's National Sizing Survey revealed that 42% of women have a 35 inch waist and average bra size is 38C. Compare that to 1951 when only 20% of women had a 35 inch waist and average bra size was 36B...yet the sizing at apparel retailers hasn't shifted to reflect the changing shape of the nation. Brands and retailers should be embracing these stats or risk missing opportunity - sales in the tall and plus size market has grown by 40% from 2007. So, who's cottoned on to the potential in plus size and who's missing the boat altogether?
Plus sized retailers
Plus size specialists know their market, and their expertise ensures better fit, so mainstream retailers should keep an eye on what's working for them. At Lane Bryant last month, amongst the fastest sellers were a $68 embroidered tunic and $79.99 striped maxi skirt. Evans did well with their 3rd restock on a £40 Scarlett & Jo blue side panel dress and sold out of a £19.50 spot and stripe t-shirt in just 12 days.
Plus sized retailers can struggle to get the kind of publicity mainstream retailers enjoy and have fewer opportunities to drum up high demand for their product. A good way to tackle this is collaborating with high-end designers. Last year, Clements Ribeiro teamed up with Evans on their Swan line, sized 14-32. Their £115 beaded Gatsby dress sold out of 9 of the 10 sizes at full price last winter, and the £95 Onda prom dress held full price for its entire first drop of stock.
It was a good opportunity for the brand to introduce themselves to a more varied market, but unfortunately this didn't see them increasing the size range on their mainline collection.
Retailers tackling plus size
The most encouraging, and successful, developments have been seen from high-street retailers who have the manufacturing capability to offer their plus sized consumer trend-led, fast fashion product. Forever 21+ runs in sizes XL (UK 16) to 3XL (UK 22). Their £12 skinny jeans sold out 21 days after their 30th March arrival, a knitted tribal print dress at £14.75 sold out in just over a month and a £18.75 draped-back shirt sold out in 8 days.
ASOS Curve has been a phenomenally successful line, with garments repeatedly appearing in our monthly category-specific Retail Reports which document the global bestsellers, across markets. Trousers, outerwear and knitwear including peg leg trousers and monochrome striped leggings from the size 18-26 range are selling as swiftly as other mainstream trends. The same is true for New Look's Inspire range (also stocked at ASOS), with bomber jackets, collegiate t-shirts and jeggings flying out - all trends shifting well for the mainstream market too.
Looking at the pricing strategy of the two retailers' plus size ranges compared to their mainline, it's clear to see that New Look are pitching their plus size range identically, and it's working. With the same average price of £14.99, the lines have a similar sell through speed and rate, are restocked similarly and see near-equal amounts of discounting. Unsurprisingly, plus size consumers behave no differently to the mainstream consumer - they want the same trends, at the same prices.
Opportunities in the market
Undoubtably there's opportunities being missed here. In high-street retail, it's surprising that Topshop haven't upped their range beyond size 16, especially when many styles show size 14 and 16 selling swiftest, including recently a £28 horse print tube skirt, a £46 Branch floral tea dress and a £40 wrap twist dress. Certainly, these sizes sell out fastest because Topshop carry less stock, but they could be under-anticipating the demand for the upper end of their scale.
There's a big gap in premium retail too - with Reiss only stocking to size 14 (and selling through fastest on this size on items such as their £125 wide legged trousers and £225 olive leather skirt) and Whistles to size 16.
In luxury retail, Net-a-Porter sometimes stock their size 16's last, testing demand on the product before investing in the higher end of the scale. A £1,310 Biyan tulle dress was carried in XS, S and M and only available to buy in L upon sell-through of the other sizes. The same was true of the Collette by Collette Dinnigan cotton-lace dress at £295, yet at the same time Net-a-Porter were stocking (and selling out of) L and XL £74 Spanx thigh shapers - something doesn't add up! The retailer could reap the rewards of increasing their size range.
There's definitely some way to go, and whilst the promise of sales to this market may entice retailers, fit still needs to be carefully understood to ensure repeat custom. Image is also tightly guarded by the industry's traditionalists; certainly retailers will adapt, but often brands are slower to adjust their set vision of their consumer. Plus size is a commodity on the runway, and when naturally-figured women model, it's more often as a stunt than as unbiased inclusion. But as with every layer within the fashion industry these days, demand from consumer will action change.