(In Conversation)

Two Fashion Insiders On The State Of Plus-Size Shopping Now

What’s working and what still needs to change.

Defining and building a wardrobe around one’s personal style is rarely an easy thing. But it tends to be a particularly complicated endeavor for members of the plus-size community, who have far less choice — both in breadth of brands and aesthetics — when shopping. “It’s definitely been difficult for me, and I think I’m still in the beginning stages of my style journey also because I was thrown into this industry early on when I was still in college — I literally wore Old Navy to my first New York Fashion Week show,” says Gianluca Russo, a fashion journalist on the size inclusive beat, founder of The Power of Plus, an online size-inclusive community promoting respect, love, and style for every body, and author of a new book by the same name (you can purchase a copy here as of Aug. 16). “It’s hard. And I think people who have always had the options had their whole adolescence to figure that out: They got to go through the trends, they got to experiment. And [with plus-size people] it’s like, ‘OK, you don’t have that many options, but your mind is ready to finally try that [new look]. What can you make work?’”

It was personal experiences such as these, as well as a front row seat to the fashion industry’s persistent bias against larger bodies, that inspired Russo to write The Power of Plus, which chronicles the history of plus-size representation in the fashion industry through a series of interviews with prominent members, including Kate Dillon, Gabi Gregg, and Candice Huffine.

In honor of Russo’s forthcoming must-read, TZR asked one of its key contributors, style influencer, model, and writer Lydia Okello, to interview Russo on the state of plus-size shopping right now — what’s going well and what still needs to change. Keep reading for their candid conversation.

Lydia Okello: There is definitely more attention on plus-size shoppers and plus-size clothing right now, but still a lack of true luxury plus-size clothing. There aren’t very many designers we can really look to — I think most people would maybe [credit] Christian Siriano as a person who consistently creates luxury clothing for larger bodies. Why do you think it’s so hard for the legacy houses to actually get on board with making clothing for those customers?

Gianluca Russo: I think it’s because the luxury market has operated on the ideal of [thin] beauty for so long. Whereas it’s been easier for [mass] retail to open up to a spectrum of people. Because it’s something that everyone should have access to, it makes sense to have extended sizes. But when you look at luxury fashion, it’s historically been reserved for the affluent, white, rich customer. Designers don’t necessarily want to represent everyone there [all the time]. They might want to feel exclusive because that's how they’re able to charge so much money for their brand names. They don’t see bigger bodies being able to accurately reflect the messages they want to promote, and so they reject plus from there.

The other part of the issue is that the plus customer doesn’t necessarily see themselves as someone who can be part of a luxury space. Even when designers on the higher end do expand into larger sizes, the customer isn’t always there. We talk about the plus-size market being worth so much money and having so much potential. But at the end of the day, we have to remember that those shopping have been conditioned for so long not to even dream of wearing brands like, say, Valentino. So often, when a designer does expand, they’re not seeing that same return on investment because it’s just not something that the plus customers are really even open to. They don’t want to invest the money in there because they’ve been told not to. There’s so much conditioning here.

LO: For sure. I also think this ties into the high-end contemporary space, which of course, is a more accessible price point, but still quite desirable and elevated. In this case, there seems to be very few contemporary high-end brands consistently making clothing in that size range. But the ones that do, seem to be successful and sell through their collections. What do you think the dissonance is there, where there’s a demand for those pieces from a few offerings, but designers don’t seem to want to wade into the extended size customer base?

GR: Someone like Tanya Taylor is a great example of this [making clothing for all sizes] because she’s been able to meet the demand where it’s at. I think often what happens is a designer, if they try to do extended sizes at this price point, overestimates the demand. And then, when they don’t have that return on investment there, then they just cut it all out. What Tanya’s been able to do is really dig into the community. She sees how much of a garment to order and how many pieces will sell out, which is always the goal here. Then she can continue to restock and bring in new designs. I think she’s found the right cycle there. So many contemporary designers are still hesitant to jump into the space. That’s the area that needs to be tackled next because we have, of course, so many fast-fashion plus-size options. Now we need something that’s a little more elevated.

LO: I also think it’s really difficult to unpack the narrative that means that fatness is just a stop before you become a thin person. A lot of fat people who are working on their self-image and their confidence in their body image still hold onto that and still hold onto that feeling of ‘I know I’m fat right now, but what if one day I’m thin? Is it worth it to spend $200 on a pair of pants if I’m going to lose all of this weight?’

Additionally, it’s just really hard to find pieces that define your own style too. This ties into another question that I had for you: A lot of brands seem to fall into two specific aesthetics when it comes to approaching a plus-size customer: retro-girly or very trendy and sexy. Why do you think that retailers pigeonhole the plus-size aesthetic?

GR: I think a lot of it stems back to how plus-size women were viewed in the ’90s and the early ’00s as the space got bigger. And oftentimes, larger models on set would find that either they’d be shot in one of two ways: way covered up or totally naked. Model Emme [Aronson] tells this story of her first shoot in the first chapter of my book, where a photographer only would shoot her without clothes.

I think that has evolved into what brands think consumers want. Does she want something that’s super conservative and eventually has turned into this retro, dated time piece? Or does she want something that’s super sexy where she can show everything and be sexualized? And so that’s what fast fashion has really jumped on, the ‘we’re going to just represent those two [looks],” because they view plus as this monolith. It’s like, ‘We’re giving you two options here, depending on what brand we are. You’re either getting the Lane Bryant or you’re getting the Fashion Nova. Choose which lane you want and go down it and that’s it.’

What’s happened, though, is that through the social media revolution we [the plus-size community] have developed our own styles. We feel more comfortable in our clothing and how we want to express ourselves. We've started to gain access, not even through brands, but through designing our own labels. I always love the tweets that are talking about ‘Put a plus size woman in a thrift store and she will figure it out.’ And I think it’s so true. Growing up, when I couldn’t just walk into Zara and get what I wanted, I would go to Goodwill and figure it out.

We’re seeing more of a spectrum of extended size designs available through the indie labels, but I don’t think the mass retailers or fast-fashion places have really caught up. I believe they’re sticking very firmly to the boxes that they’ve developed. I think that comes from them being nervous they’re going to lose customers by expanding their range of designs because they’ve been so firm in it since their inception. And honestly, I doubt we’ll get anything different from them for the foreseeable future. But I think what we will get are indie labels that will finally give the customer the spectrum of design she wants. It’s just a matter of really elevating them to that point.

LO: I strongly agree. For me, in the past couple of years, the brands that have really allowed me to express myself fully or more fully in a way that I hadn’t experienced before have all been pretty much independent operations. Because that’s who’s making things that are very individual. I think, in that regard as well, the mass retailers are just like, ‘This is a sure bet; this is what we’ve been giving you. You can come here for this because you know we’re going to have it.’ It’s been really exciting to see a lot more small, emerging designers expanding into plus sizes.

For example, the shirt I’m wearing today is Wray NYC, a New York designer. And all of her clothes are bright and comfortable and very individual and specific. And she designs from an extra-small to 6X. And above that, she does custom orders. With her, I can also access these looks that I desire without having to cobble them together — like you said about going into the thrift store and figuring it out. It’s exciting to see more and more designers who make it easy. You don’t have to figure it out. You can just scroll and actually purchase it.

GR: There’s been Fashion Week, and I’m with the five plus-size people who go to fashion week. And it’s just like, ‘OK, we’re all wearing the same thing,’ like Anthropologie for that one season Anthropologie cared about plus-sized people. It’s embarrassing. Especially when you’re at a fashion event, that’s when people can tell: You show when someone else is wearing the same thing, because there’s only five [elevated options] available.

LO: Totally. And it’s like I said, I haven’t really experienced [any choice] until very recently in my adult life. And it’s been so exciting to be like, ‘I’m introducing you to a new designer you don’t know.’ It's not just Eloquii or Lane Bryant or the few plus designers that everybody is able to go to.

Honing in on your personal style is very much a journey — for everyone but particularly as plus folks. That’s something that takes a lot to figure out, especially when there isn’t stuff that is available for you. Can you share a little bit more about your own personal experience with crafting your look though a fashion system that was not set up to have clothing for you?

GR: I think I’m still working on it. Plus-size menswear, which is what I lean towards, doesn’t offer much at all really. I really am limited. I think in my mind, I’ve been able to figure out now what I gravitate towards and think, ‘If I had every option, how would I dress?’ And then it’s like, ‘I don’t have those options, so what can I make work in the meantime?’ So I don’t think I have it totally figured out yet. I wish I did because it’s annoying half the time to have to go back and forth and not be sure what I want to wear, or how this is going to look on me, or if I’m going to feel confident in this. But I think that’s all in the fun of figuring out how fashion fits you.

LO: I think so much of personal style is trial and error. And for folks who have had more access to clothing, they probably don’t realize they’ve been trying new things throughout their adolescence or for quite some time. Then as adults they’re like, ‘This is just my style.’ Whereas for a lot of plus-size folks, I think they have only recently broken away from retro-girly and the very sexy dressing.

I’ve been posing outfits on the Internet for a long time, and I very much had a retro-girly phase. There’s plenty of photo evidence of that time! And I really love vintage and secondhand clothing, so it tied in really easily. But over time, similarly, I’ve had those moments of ‘Oh, if I’m looking at straight-sized influencers who have that access, who do I actually want to dress like? Who do I want to emulate? What would my style be if I take away limitations? And then how can I access that with what’s in front of me?’

I find it frustrating that we have to work hard to find most things. We still can’t just go into most stores that fit our particular aesthetics and find our sizes. But I do think more and more of those options are available. And it really excites me because fat people are so great at making themselves look good. We literally have, what, maybe 10% of the options, if not less, than straight sizing has? And we’re out here showing up dressed to the nines, putting things together that we still feel expresses our own personal style. If we are able to do that much with that little, imagine what we are capable of with more.

GR: Exactly. I feel like that’s always so inspiring to me too. It’s the amount of work it takes to get here, that level of recognition for that work — it is always very appreciated. I think it’s a testament to how powerful we are and how powerful clothing can be. How we [the plus-size fashion community] can pull everything together so fast and make it look like as best a reflection of us as we can.

Looking on how far we’ve come and how we’ve been able to do so much with such little resources and build such strong communities based solely on personal experiences is the most motivating thing to me. And so that’s what I really wanted to do with my career: Yes, I’ll talk about the issues like I always do. Yes, I’ll make sure we find a new pathway forward. But we need to celebrate how far we’ve come, and we need to hold onto that because I think that’s one of the most important things we can do to propel ourselves into the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.