The surefire secret to a successful plus-size collection is fit. And still, it’s a concept that many designers — especially in the luxury world — have yet to fully grasp. Fitting for a diverse range of plus-size bodies is a challenge in and of itself, and one that can’t be overcome without data, research, and additional costs. But, if brands want to be more inclusive, the time has come to step up.
“My shoulders are broad, rarely fitting into standard women's clothing. My hips are narrow which makes it harder to fit into pants designed for the curvy figure,” says Chaya Milchtein founder of Mechanic Shop Femme, who wears a size 22 in pants and 26/28 in tops. “Tailoring is expensive, so that means that usually, I just buy things that can accommodate my unique shape instead of the things I usually want.”
The societal construct of the “acceptable plus-size body” has led many to believe that women above a size 14 hold just one shape: the hourglass figure. Top models like Ashley Graham are showcased as the blueprint, while their bodies are, rather, the exception. The high cost of fitting and designing for body types across the larger size spectrum has historically been put on consumers. Milchtein expects to add on an additional 20% cost because of tailoring, if not more, when the garments just won’t fit correctly.
“We like to joke, asking if clothing is made in ‘size fat,’ but in all reality, fats come in many different shapes and sizes. If you look at fat clothing through the lens of designing for slim bodies, and just scale that, you're going to end up with extremely poorly designed clothing. Fat bodies aren't just bigger skinny bodies. Our bodies are unique in our own right, and clothing should be designed with that in mind,” she adds (like many within the plus-size community, Milchtein is comfortable with the label “fat”).
Because of this, some have turned to custom clothing, succumbing to a higher price point for the sake of finding the perfect fit. However, while plus-size women have an enormous spending power — the industry is estimated to be worth $24 billion, after all — they can’t necessarily afford to purchase custom made clothing regularly. It’s because of this that when they do splurge for a higher price point, an expectation for better fit — and quality, of course — arises. When willing to spend $200 or more on a dress, they expect the fit to be better than a piece of fast fashion they buy. But from a business perspective, designers are tasked with making the cost worthwhile while still maintaining their budget.
“The costs associated with nailing fit are exponential,” says Lauren Chan, founder of Henning. “If you need to fit a garment again, you double the costs; if you want to fit it on another size range; you double the costs; etc. When additional fitting efforts are analyzed from a financial perspective, many big, corporate brands opt to skip them and prioritize the business' bottom line. I find that fit is typically better from small, independent brands because they tend to be controlled by people who care intently about fit and prioritize it from an investment point of view.”
To aid in this post-purchase process, Henning provides tailoring credit up to $50 in the form of a refund on full-price products like the brand's sell-out leather jacket (which is finally coming back to the site). It’s a give and take: There’s a possibility that tailoring may be required, but an expectation that on the design side, everything possible will be done to ensure fit is as best as it can be.
“Customers' bodies aren't flawed, the garment manufacturing process is flawed. Normalizing that logic will help us feel less devalued when clothes don't fit us off-the-rack,” Chan says. “In reality, clothes can — and should — be easily altered to fit bodies. Unfortunately, we live in a society where the media has convinced us of the former...but think about it logically: Garments are fit on one fit model, so unless you look exactly like that person, the clothes are going to need alterations in order to fit you.”
Because each woman can hold weight differently, it is impossible from a design standpoint to create a garment that will fit perfectly on every body type. Thus, tailoring is often an essential added cost, as unwanted as it may be. However, as Chan explains, designers can use a handful of fit tips to decrease the chance of this, like not automatically increasing length on the same scale as the waist.
Shanna Goldstone, founder of Pari Passu, a luxury plus-exclusive brand, has honed into details like these to try and alleviate fit problems for her clients. Pari Passu offers garments in three different fits: waist and bust are smaller than her hips; equal measurements carrying more weight in her belly with thinner arms and legs; and the modified hourglass, where bust and hips are roughly proportional with a smaller yet not overly exaggerated waist.
“We found a very large scale, anthropomorphic study of hundreds of 1000s of men, women, and children across the U.S.,” explains Goldstone. “And we were able to buy a slice of that data that represents women, over 30 and above a size 14, and then had that data analyzed. And from that analysis, three shapes became very prevalent in the data.”
She continues, “Honestly, it triples the cost. I make three patterns, I have to grade three patterns, I have to fit three patterns on three fit models, and then I have to hold 21 different views of inventory. But it really does make a difference, and the investment is worth it.”
At 11 Honoré, in-house designer Danielle Williams and her team have taken this process one step further, not solely fitting on a true plus-size fit model, but then pulling together a group of diverse women to try their designs on. This is not only more cost effective, but gives a broader perspective on fit for larger bodies that is unattainable without direct consumer feedback.
“We get a group of women of different sizes and shapes and height, and we kind of cross check different items on them,” Williams says. “You have to be able to wrap your head around the plus-size body in general as a technical designer. Some are scared of it if it's not a flat stomach or an hourglass shape.”
She adds, “We send packages out to all of their houses and they have a questionnaire to fill out about the clothes. They take pictures front, side and back, they tell us how the fabric feels, is it too long, is it too short, is the sleeve too tight — all of that feedback they give us so that we can understand what changes in our grade, our measurement, and our fit we need to make.”
The art of finding the perfect fit clearly is costly, from collecting data to the process of hiring fit models. As Chan explains, there is so much that goes into high-quality clothing that is often not discussed, from materials to labor to craftsmanship. While every plus-size body is different and no singular brand can provide the perfect fit for every woman, more and more brands — as made evident by the likes of Henning, Pari Passu, and 11 Honoré — are prioritizing fit in a way that’s never been done before. Because, while costly, one factor remains true: The investment is always worth it in the long run.