On a store visit in 2013, Charlotte Russe CEO Jenny Ming struck up a conversation with a store employee that ended up inspiring a new product category for the company.
“The store associate couldn’t wear our jeans because we only went up to a size 14,” Ming said. “I realized very quickly that this was true of many employees. We make it a goal to hire our customers, people who are passionate about and represent the brand, and nothing opens your eyes more than realizing your own employees can’t wear your store’s clothes.”
Two years later, in 2015, Charlotte Russe launched its first plus-size line, extending sizes offered from 0-14 to 0-26. Plus-size clothing now represents 25 percent of its online ready-to-wear inventory.
The teen clothing company, which was acquired by private equity firm Advent International in 2009 but is now privately held, is hoping that expanding its customer base to include plus-size women will pay off, despite the initial down payment. The company has teetered on bankruptcy in the last six months, facing financial woes familiar to fellow mall brands like Rue21 and Wet Seal.
As more fashion brands step into plus sizes, they’re bucking a common excuse that the industry has long fallen back on when defending their lack of plus sizes: cost and resources. It’s undeniable that the demand is there. According to NPD Group, plus-size apparel is a $22 billion industry and is growing at a faster rate than other apparel categories, at 6 percent year-over-year. And now that size inclusivity is trending, thanks to vocal customers, e-commerce’s limitless aisles and the industry’s upward growth trajectory, brands are finally putting dollars behind fashion that can work for 67 percent of the population.
Fit models, body forms and factory partners
While launching a plus-size category involved upfront costs as well as ongoing costs for fabric and manufacturing, Ming said she saw the writing on the wall. Not only would having more customers to sell to help the bottom line, but customers had more control over retail decisions than ever before. “Our customer is positive about her body. If we could serve her better, and we decide not to, what would that say about us as a business?” she said.
In the two years it took Charlotte Russe to launch its plus-size category, the company had to invest in new fit models, new patterns, more fabric and new body forms. Ming said the company decided to produce its own forms, which it then lent it to its vendor and factory partners, as most that were available above a size 14 were designed around an older woman’s body, and Charlotte Russe’s primary customer is in her teens and early 20s. The company also had to educate its existing factory partners on the new sizes, patterns and fit standards, which Ming said didn’t require financial investment, but time, which is an invaluable resource in factories. The company only sought out new partners for plus-size underwear; elsewhere, it kept the same partners so as to be consistent with the straight sizes.
Ming wouldn’t share how much it cost the company to launch the category. But Tanya Taylor, who launched extended sizes for her brand last year, said that the plus-size category cost between 30 and 40 percent more than straight sizes because of the fabric, fit models and patterns.
“At the beginning, it cost a lot to start the process, but once you start that process, it’s seamless,” said Taylor, who added that while you do have to pay for more fabric for larger sizes, it doesn’t amount to a significant increase, as the costs averages out across sizes. If you’re already paying to produce a 0 and a 10, going up to a 20 isn’t going to put you out of business.
When garments are more technical, there’s more investment involved. Iris Voltaire, the business and brand development lead at online lingerie site Adore Me, said that designing bras with sizes up to a 46I takes more money, work and time to get to market. As bra size goes up, more support is required for the wearer, which takes more technical skill, as well as more fittings. Voltaire said that while smaller bras can go to market in about three months, it takes a year for plus-size bras. The payoff has been worth it, according to Voltaire.
“Our plus-size customers return more than any other demographic,” said Voltaire. “The demand is out there.”
For executives at plus-size brands, time spent laboring over whether or not a company could ever account for bigger customers can seem foolish.
“It’s no different than launching any other category, like kids or men,” said Jodi Arnold, vp of design and creative director at plus-size brand Eloquii. “You see if there’s demand, you do the fit testing, you create new patterns, you manufacture it. It takes investment to launch any new category, but if a brand sees the customer as worth it, then they should pay for it.”
“The worst thing you can do as a brand is say, ‘You’re too big’”
While fit is the most critical factor in designing plus-size clothing, once it’s made, brands need to invest in marketing it. New e-commerce product page photoshoots, plus-size influencer contracts and models for editorial content are part of the ongoing investment for brands launching into the category.
“Part of what’s critical is not just that we make the product, but that we tell customers we’re there for them,” said Ming.
Arnold said that, for brands entering the category, how they position themselves to customers should be considered carefully, but not so much that they end up avoiding the category altogether.
“Plus-size customers are in need of fashion options. If it fits, and they know it exists, they’ll give it a try,” she said.
To get more of its brands to extend its size offerings, Nordstrom is promoting plus-size apparel and inclusive sizing in stores and online. Rent the Runway, meanwhile, includes size-inclusive product imagery on its website for brands that offer both.
Beyond just including more plus-size models in campaigns, a company has to invest in positioning. That means taking away space that has been allotted for straight sizes, giving it to plus sizes on the homepage of an online site and, most important, in stores.
At Nordstrom, Adore Me and Charlotte Russe, that meant not only giving up sales floor space to plus sizes, but changing the imagery and messaging framing the in-store shopping experience. In its first store, Adore Me chose to display quotes instead of images of models. Charlotte Russe built a shop-in-shop for plus customers. Nordstrom promoted brands’ extended sizes in signage and included the range in the main department, not a plus-size one. All of the brands had to buy bigger mannequins.
“We want to include this customer. We’re an inclusive brand — the worst thing you can do as a brand today is say, ‘You’re too big; we don’t have your size.’ That’s not who we are,” said Ming. “It’s not just a new category, it’s a new message.”