What Does It Take To Get Plus-Size Clothing Right?

Stephen J. Arias

After a long time of only being able to shop from low-quality, fast-fashion brands or even having to make their own clothes due to the lack of stylish and well-fitting options, the plus-size consumer is finally being recognized with a new crop of labels that offer trend-forward and quality plus-offerings. In part, this progress is because of the women working behind the scenes.

Former fashion editor and model Lauren Chan founded her contemporary womenswear brand Henning (available in size 12 to 24) a year ago, after being surrounded by designer fashion at her job at Glamour but never having access to it because of her size, which ranged from 12 to 20. “Instead, I wore fast-fashion pieces that made me feel less confident and look less capable. I was sick of being excluded and disadvantaged, as plus-size women have long been made to feel by fashion. So I quit my job to take matters into my own hands,” she says. Chan points out that the biggest myth about the plus-size customer is “that we lose our sense of style and self-worth once we’re above a size 12.” She rejects that: “That’s simply not true. We want the same designs and quality as our smaller peers — and we deserve to have those options.”

Danielle Williams Eke, 11 Honore’s design director who was behind the plus-size retailer’s recent in-house brand launch (size 12 to 26), echoes that statement. “The biggest misconception is that we, as plus size women, will just wear anything that is thrown our way since we have fewer options to choose from. That is not the case,” she says. “As our offerings increase within the market, it is important to recognize that plus women are seen and heard as consumers. Our opinions are just as important, if not more important, than straight sizing.”

Emma Grede, CEO at Good American, a fashion brand (size 00 to 24) which she co-founded alongside Khloe Kardashian, says that, thanks to her former career in fashion marketing, she “understood that most [plus-size] women were overlooked in fashion conversation.” She says, “I really wanted to create a brand that was not only about inclusivity when it came to diversity and representing more women, but that it would do the same when it came to sizing. And as I started doing the research, I actually realized how much of an opportunity there was because there were so few brands doing that.”

And while there are now more brands offering plus-size offerings than ever before, there are also many that still get the sizing and fit wrong when doing it. “You can’t apply the same metrics and ethos as you do to straight sizes. I think that’s really where people go wrong,” says Grede. Ahead, find out what it really takes to get plus-size clothing right, according to the experts.

Invest upfront

In order to be successful, before a brand can even start to consider a plus-size line or extending sizes, it needs to be aware of the upfront costs and the time it will take to build a team. When creating Henning, Chan went through several patternmakers before finding the right one. “It was difficult to assemble the perfect garment-making team for Henning because: (1) not many of the industry leaders have made plus sizes, and are therefore lacking that experience and expertise, and (2) because the garment industry is a secretive, hands-on one,” she says. “We found our team by some degree of research, but really, trial and error.”

Grede says that she, too, worked really hard to build a team of technical designers and patternmakers with experience in the industry when starting Good American. “You need to invest in that upfront, and I think a lot of brands want the accolade of being inclusive without putting in the investment and the legwork,” she says. And, according to Williams Eke, it’s when brands do not put in that time and effort that a plus-size product most often falls short.

Investing in good teams and practices early on though, according to Grede, will pay off. “My experience is that [a plus-size customer] is a really loyal customer, and when she finds her fit, she’s going to come back time and time again,” she says. “It’s really a self-fulfilling prophecy: If you put in the right amount of resources and energy and investment in, you get back tenfold from the customer.”

Consider the fabrication

Fabric and fit are the two most important things that need to be considered when creating plus-size clothing. The former is still, more often than not, overlooked by plus-size brands. “Fabric is everything!” says Chan. “As a plus-size consumer, I was mostly offered and fed up with cheap polyester, viscose, and rayon pieces from fast-fashion brands. I wanted to look as put-together and as chic as my peers who were wearing designer pieces made of silk and wool. That being said, I also wanted to have stretch in our Henning pieces to make them easier to wear.” That stretch is key when making larger sizes to help the garment have a better fit. “I think fabric choice is important for all clothing, but specifically for plus size because of our bodies,” says Williams Eke. “It is imperative that the fabric of a garment move, drape, and fold around our curves, and it is hard for that to happen with no-stretch fabric.”

If the word “stretch” makes you think of shapeless, frumpy garments, these brands have made it their mission to dispel that myth. Chan says it took her a long time to find quality stretch-silks, stretch-wools, and stretch-cottons when starting Henning, a collection that she now is proud of. Williams Eke agrees that it takes effort to find quality fabrics. “I think people assume stretch fabric means cheap fabric, and that’s just not the case. There has been so much innovation in fabric development over the years that you can find high-quality stretch fabrics like stretch-silks, stretch-linens etc.,” she says. “With that being said, it is not easy to find so you have to connect with the right fabric mills in order to find these fabrics or the alternative is to work with fabric mills to develop your own fabrics.”

Grede says that developing your own fabric sometimes is the only way to guarantee a good match. “At Good American, we are really looking for fabrics that are going to, first of all, work with the design. Then, for example, in activewear, we need performance-based fabrics, like they have to actually work,” she says, noting that, in swimwear and activewear especially, the material needs to accommodate movement and not stretch out with frequent use. “The rest of the line is really about finding the perfect match when it comes to price point. We’re also really looking for fabrics that last a long time.”

Fit (again and again)

A crucial part of the process, the fitting is also one of the most difficult. “The process of fitting is probably the hardest thing to get right, and that’s really where we spend the most time in the design process, around really getting the fit right,” says Grede.

According to Williams Eke, many brands still fit on dress forms, instead of hiring fit models, which can cause issues. “It was imperative that we fit on a real fit model,” she says. “Doing this allows us to really understand how fabric drapes, stretches, and moves with the body. It also allows for feedback from a real woman that undoubtedly improves the overall fit of our clothing.” Grede says that fitting on both fit models and women who are not models has been “hugely advantageous” to the brand, as models can provide feedback on the technicalities of the garment, while other women can give a more general critique of the style.

And it doesn’t end with one fitting — sometimes not even with two. “The fit process is laborious,” Grede says. “We probably do anywhere between five and six fittings. When working on a new denim fit, for example, that can be anything up to 10 individual fits just to get that denim shape absolutely spot-on.” Chan notes that while costs increase with every fitting, multiple rounds are the only way to get it right: “At Henning, we fit until things are perfect.”

This, of course, requires patience and can involve setbacks. “I’ve learned from personal experience that taking your time is a crucial element to getting the fit right, even if that means a slight delay in production. It is better to get it right the first time than rushing to get something out with a fit that is mediocre,” says Williams Eke. “I have seen a lot of brands claiming to go up to sizes 20, 22, 24, but often, a lot of these items fit one, two sizes too small, which means you’re really only going up to a size 20. To me, that is surface-level size inclusivity. A size 20 should fit a size 20.”

Account for different body shapes

Another mistake that brands make is only having one plus-size shape in mind, typically an hourglass. “Whether you are straight size or plus size, all women have different body shapes and types. If you are only designing for an hourglass shape, you’ll see fit issues with women that have other body types,” Williams Eke says, adding that 11 Honore uses a range of differently sized women with different body shapes to try their garments during the fit process. “Take the slip dress for instance. Most slip dresses are very straight which typically only works on specific body types. For the 11 Honore Nia Slip Dress, we made sure it was fitted in the bust but then flared out a bit towards the hip and down to the hem. Because of this shape, this dress is beautiful on women with varying body types.”

Chan says that one should consider varying body shapes early on. “At Henning, we start considering body shape within the design process. We pick silhouettes that will work for a number of body shapes. Then, when we fit the garments, we attempt to make every dart, seam, sleeve length, hem length, et cetera fit a diverse array of body shapes,” she says. “A good example of that is the double vent in the back of our bestselling Bank Blazer. It was designed as such to nicely fall over the wearer’s bum, no matter how far that projection is. Then, we adjusted the height of those vents given the average torso length of our customers.”

Understand the grade rule

Once a fit sample is finalized, it needs to be graded for other sizes. A grade rule, according to Williams Eke, is “how you scale a pattern up or down to get to the next size,” with each point of measure (bust, waist, hips, etc.) scaling differently, and each category of clothing (pants, tops, jackets etc.) having a unique grade rule. “It’s an extremely detailed process which is why it is so important to take the time to evaluate your grade rule, but the beauty is that once you have established your grade, you typically have it for years, which keeps your fit consistent and your customers happy,” she says.

With this in mind, the biggest mistake a brand can do when extending sizing is grading up from a straight size. “If a brand simply grades up their straight sizes to make bigger sizes — i.e. skipping the steps of redesigning, perhaps resourcing, refitting, and regrading — that cut corner is going to result in clothes that don’t fit people,” Chan says. “The math simply gives out after a certain point and grading needs to begin again, with say, a size 18 graded down to a 12 and up to a 24.”

Williams Eke says that 11 Honore’s technical designer “perfected” the grade scale by using women ranging from size 12 to 26 to try on the garments and give their impressions. “From that feedback, we were able to make necessary tweaks to our grade rule to make sure that our fit was consistent style to style regardless of size,” she says.

Think about the details

“I’ve had many buttons pop off my shirt and countless pants rip in the inner thighs,” says Chan. As a result of this, all of Henning’s pieces have hidden details like secret buttons in the chest plaques of button-downs to prevent gaping, reinforced inner thighs to fight against chafing and ripping, and elastic-back waist to avoid bunched-up panels. She is not alone in having an experience like that: Williams Eke says that she also had an invisible zipper split on her in the past, which is why 11 Honore uses reinforced, heavy-duty invisible zippers.

Good American is solutions-driven as well. For example, when debuting Good American swimwear recently, knowing that many people are not the same size on top as they are on the bottom, the brand made sure that bikinis were sold as separates, plus has adjustable components to further fit unique body shapes. When designing denim — another item that’s hard for straight-sized women but especially plus — there were details to consider. “Most women have a smaller waist than they have hips and bust, and for you not to get that horrible gap in the back, you need a technically superior waistband, and then there are things like reinforced belt loops and pocket placement,” Grede says. “All of those little things make such a big difference when you put the product on the body.”

According to Chan, no component should be left unexamined. “When I make clothing, I consider every detail, big or small, to have the utmost importance,” she says. “When I’m designing, that means paying special attention to creating silhouettes, picking fabric, incorporating fit details like hidden elastic waists, adjusting the fit… there’s a never-ending list of things to consider.”

Listen to the customer

That list, according to Grede, involves listening to the community’s feedback and taking it back into the business during the fitting but also after a product goes to market. “That’s a really important step because we don’t get everything right the first time, but I think we’ve been really good at re-engineering things when they don’t work and not giving up,” she says. “You learn a lot if you listen and take the feedback on. It’s not necessarily so difficult, it just takes a little more time, and that time and effort really ends up being worth it.”

Chan agrees that while making plus-size clothing isn’t easy, it’s also not as hard as many claim when trying to justify their lack of inclusive sizes. “Henning has taught me that what I had been demanding as a consumer — bigger sizing, better fit, quality garments, timeless styles, fashion-forward branding, et cetera — are all very doable. It just takes effort and the people making decisions to be extremely committed and bull-headed in their approach,” she says. “Of course, that also means it takes a significant amount of funding, but if the initiative is pitched with intense effort and received properly, the results can be profitable.”

Indeed, the numbers speak for themselves: With an average woman in the U.S. wearing size 16 or 18 and plus-size women representing 68% of shoppers, the buying power potential is large. “The more women you serve, the more chance you have of being a commercially successful business and profitable,” says Grede. “If you actually want to create a bigger, better business, then serving more people would actually get you there faster.” Still, some brands see it as a big cost upfront that may not garner a return on their investment, according to Chan. “Unfortunately, the failed plus-size launches of years past that have been botched by a lack of effort and funds in design, marketing, et cetera, have set a precedent that the plus-size category is an extremely hard one,” she says. “If I can tell all of those brands one thing, it’s to call me. The plus-size market is profitable and growing, and I can show them how we’ve succeeded — with pride!”

So what’s stopping these brands from picking up the phone so that we have more good-quality plus-size options? Grede says she thinks that the industry — that has long prioritized a straight-size body — still has some “snobbery” around the plus-size customer. “Fashion still has this huge stigma. I don’t think every brand wants a plus-size customer necessarily because, if they did, they would just do it,” she says. “There are lots of brands that are a lot better funded than Good American and bigger and have the ability to put that money and time upfront if they wanted. I think fashion is very very quick to change its clothes seasonally but very slow to change its habits.”

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