Women’s fashion industry waking up to larger clothes sizes

More retailers expanding offerings to include plus sizes

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As soon as Heidi Zak studied the numbers, she knew it was time to sell a bigger bra.

Zak, founder of the online start-up Third Love, has spent three years building her line. The company now offers 59 sizes, and it is testing 15 more. But demand — especially for larger sizes — is only rising.

Consider, she says: More than 500,000 women remain on the company’s waiting list for bras in sizes like 44G and 46K.

“As soon as you look at the data, it’s clear: It’s a market that’s so underserved,” Zak said.

Zak is among online retailers who are culling customer complaints, preferences and measurements and arriving at the same conclusion: American women, who on average wear about a size 16, need bigger sizes.

Yet plus-size apparel makes up just a sliver of the clothing on the market. Internet start-ups, armed with reams of data and often more nimble than traditional retailers, are filling that gap.

Instead of creating “plus-size collections,” they are more often creating the same dress for every size — say, 0 to 36. They also are bucking long-held industry notions of what larger women should — and shouldn’t — wear, seizing on an opportunity that mainstream retailers have long ignored.

They’re clearly on to something: Sales of plus-size apparel have been on the upswing. They grew 6 percent, to $21.4 billion, last year, outpacing the 2 percent growth in the overall women’s clothing market, according to research firm NPD Group.

Stitch Fix, an online styling service, recently began offering up to size 24W across 90 brands. EShakti, which offers customizable clothing in sizes 0 to 36W, has been steadily increasing its range with promising results: Sizes 14 and up account for 52 percent of the company’s sales.

And at online retailer ModCloth, nearly three-quarters of clothing is available in every size from XXS to 4X.

“A lot of brands think very narrowly about who their customer is,” said Matthew Kaness, ModCloth’s chief executive. “There’s this belief that plus-size customers simply don’t spend as much — but that is only because of a lack of choice.”

A company survey, he says, found that 80 percent of plus-size women would spend more on clothing if items were offered in their size. His sales indicate that, too: Plus-size shoppers buy 20 percent more frequently than other customers.

“Women and men have been getting heavier, but manufacturers haven’t kept up,” said Marc Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School. “Most retailers don’t even go there — or if they do, they’re very inconsistent about their approach.”

Retailers have neglected those women for years, an oversight that many in the industry say comes down to discrimination. Designer Prabal Gurung, whose celebrity clients include Oprah Winfrey and Melissa McCarthy, says he has always offered up to a size 22, but most retailers “typically don’t buy beyond a 14.”

“Progress in the industry has still been slow,” said Gurung, who has partnered with Lane Bryant to create a line for women sizes 10 to 28. “For the longest time, they have been pushed aside.”

And, designers and stylists say, the industry’s sense of “normal” has long been skewed by runway shows and high-fashion magazines filled with rail-thin women.

“The fashion industry still considers a woman who’s a size 12 or 14 ‘plus size,’ ” stylist and TV personality Robert Verdi said. “I call that normal.”

Shopping together

It was by accident, Matthew Kaness says, that he realized the women’s apparel industry was in need of a shake-up.

Shortly after he took the helm at ModCloth in 2015, Kaness opened the company’s first pop-up stores. Every day, visitors asked the same question: “Where’s the plus section?”

“And the answer was, we didn’t have one,” Kaness said.

Instead, all sizes, from XS to 4X were grouped together, by style.

“People’s faces lit up when they heard that,” he said. “For a lot of them, that was the first time girlfriends, mothers and daughters, co-workers could shop together in the same store. That was the lightbulb for me.”

A few months later, he removed the “plus” section from the company’s website. In three years, Modcloth, which is now owned by Wal-Mart, has nearly quadrupled its lineup of larger sizes.