Why Community Should Be At The Center Of Plus Size Fashion
It’s time for brands to listen.
As the push for size diversity in fashion intensifies, few brands and designers have nailed down what exactly constitutes authentic inclusivity. The key, however, is far more simple and within reach than most would assume: community. Centering the customer within the scope and expansion of a label is a surefire method to meet the needs and desires of those women who will be investing in the product, and new plus-size fashion brands are making community support a priority right out of the gate.
“This customer has been let down so many times,” says Nicole Philips, Director of Social Media and Community for BloomChic. “We’re a savvy, resourceful shopper. For a brand, when you come into this space, you need to come at it very authentically. You need to come in being open to listening to feedback.”
Philips has spent the past 14 years working in the plus-size space for various popular labels, recently joining BloomChic to lead their community expansion. “There’s an experience that I have just as a customer that someone who has been a straight-size person their entire life will never truly understand the same way,” she says, speaking to the often limited options available for women who go beyond the “straight” sizing range. The new brand — which launched in sizes 12-22, with plans to expand quickly — has decided to put an emphasis on community engagement. That goes beyond simply hiring diverse influencers (and paying them fairly), but also by consulting with women of different lived experiences within the plus-size space, hiring a range of models and collaborations, and ensuring that every step and decision is driven by community voices.
To kick off their expansion, BloomChic held a dinner in Los Angeles last month, hosted by plus-size fashion leaders Nadia Aboulhosn and La’Tecia Thomas. In an interview with TZR following the event, Aboulhosn spoke about why she chose to align herself with BloomChic, and the importance of community in this sector of this industry.
“The only way to better yourself as a brand is to hear it directly from the people purchasing to know what they should and shouldn't focus on,” she says. “During the event, people from the brand actually pulled me aside and asked what they can do better, as they did a bunch of other influencers from this event. They're getting different takes from different people who will only better [their products]. Sometimes it's hard to get a brand to get on board, or extend their sizes, or just listen to us. The fact that BloomChic went out of their way to hear what we had to say was really special.”
Aboulhosn explains that the fashion industry can simply do better by being open to learning. “You'd find your answers if you just listened or asked instead of assuming your buyers and designers know it all.” She’s found that to be true in her work with plus-size brand Fashion to Figure. Together, Aboulhosn and the design team have developed a popular series of thigh-high boots that, while other labels thought wouldn’t be profitable, they’ve found to be a hit season after season.
And while listening is an important first step, for success, hiring plus-size folk behind the scenes is integral throughout the whole process. That’s what Renee Cafaro, a journalist turned designer, is doing with her own line, RCA Public Label, that launched this summer.
Throughout the design process, Cafaro dedicated a bulk of her budget to hiring fit models for every size up to a 28 (she adds that while it was her intention to find additional fit models for a size 30 and 32, she was unable to track any down in the New York area). It’s a method that’s largely unheard of in the industry — due to the high cost involved — but one that Cafaro knew would be beneficial to the customer experience, drawing on her many years of trying on ill-fitting garments.
“I’ve put my clothing on as many fit models, friends, bloggers, and anyone I can get my hands on because I wanted to make sure that everyone had an equitable experience,” she says.
Traditionally, designers will take a size 12 and grade up, adding an inch of material for every additional size while ignoring the sheer fact that women on the plus spectrum all hold their weight differently. It’s a problem any fat fashionista could explain in seconds, but one that those living in straight-size bodies may never understand without intentionally taking the time to learn. Few frustrations match that of a 3X fitting like a 1X, hemlines being so egregiously off, or arm holes so big you can practically swim in them.
By putting in the extra work, customer trust and loyalty is built, moving shoppers to spend more for garments they know will not only make them feel great, but fit and hug their curves perfectly. It’s how designers like Cafaro can operate and stay afloat at a higher price point. No savvy shopper will shell out $300 for an ill-fitting dress. But for one that fits and lasts a lifetime? That’s a home run.
Influencer Lauren Gray, whose line What Lo Wants drops later this month, utilized her engaged digital community in figuring out what exactly this customer lacks, and determined the clothing essentials she needs for everyday life. She frequently used her Instagram Stories to ask questions blatantly and openly, because what better way to ensure customer approval than to center their desires? For instance, she found through her questions that while some are over the crop top trend, many curvy women are just starting to embrace it, and wanting more form-fitting clothing that embraces and hugs their curves.
That community feedback is also what pushed Gray to make the line available up to a size 36 right out of the gate. In recent weeks, the conversation surrounding this issue has erupted online with Saucyé West’s #FightForInclusivity movement, amplifying the need for clothing that serves women on the higher end of the size spectrum. The #FightForInclusivity call aims to hold brands accountable that praise inclusivity but have not yet expanded their sizes high enough to serve bigger women. Those outside the plus-size community may believe that extending to a size 18/20 may be enough when, in actuality, it is just scraping the surface on true size equality.
“I still do acknowledge that 5X (or a size 36) is not enough,” Gray says, discussing the difficulties that come with a self-funded, small brand looking to tackle this market. “There is truth to saying you have to start somewhere and there are limits. Going up to a 5X is literally because of the financial strain for now, and I’d love to expand. But for bigger companies, I think there's definitely a responsibility to be as inclusive as possible, and you can afford to.”
While trends often take priority, authentic voices are what can make or break a brand, particularly in the plus-size fashion space where everything is about more than just clothes. Those who are able to fully understand the plus shopping experience and the transformative power that come with inclusive clothing are the ones serving this customer in the way she so desperately desires.
Community is not just another buzzword. It is the key to success — monetary and operationally — that all designers need.