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The ugly truth behind luxury fashion’s enduring plus-size blindspot

Although luxury brands often cite the higher costs required to produce larger clothing, the reality is far more jarring: For most of the industry, plus-size just means “fat.”

“Being overweight is not very healthy, so it doesn’t matter how much of the population is fat; it’s not a healthy image to be putting out there,” said one executive at a luxury brand, who also equated having a plus-size line with promoting an “anorexic” look. Fashion no longer does that, either, she argued — though that is far from reality, given the prominence of uber-thin women we continue to see on runways and in advertisements.

Despite a few glimmers of hope, the majority of her colleagues seem to agree: The fashion research company Edited recently found that only one out of every 1,000 of all premium and luxury brands call themselves “plus-size” (which refers to size 12, 14, 16 or above — depending on who you ask).  That’s despite the 67 percent number of women sized 14 and up who live in the U.S., per a regularly cited study by Plunkett Research from 2015.

Even if more luxury brands expanded their sizing to be more inclusive, we’d be unlikely to see them embrace plus-size women in their marketing, she said. “Clothing doesn’t look optimal on women sitting on either end of the spectrum,” she argued.

What’s more, these brands — who often fashion themselves as daring artists in a more-formulaic world — are very prone to groupthink.

“Luxury brands, in general, are very hesitant to be innovative,” explained Camilla Walters, a luxury and lifestyle consultant, who’s had stints at Sergio Rossi and YOOX. “They’re not that daring.”

Prabal Gurung x Lane Bryant Spring 2017

At this point, their embrace of the market would simply be behind. Lower-priced fast-fashion brands like ASOS and H&M have been selling plus-size lines since 2010 and 2011, respectively, while successful companies like Eloquii and Dia & Co are dedicating their products to the oft-ignored sector.

But none of that matters to luxury brands, said Walters, as they care more about sizing up direct competition. “When someone else in luxury does [something], then it’s fine for them to do it, but if they haven’t, it’s a big risk factor,” she said of their shared thought process, noting that the first thing they always ask her is what other, equivalent brands are doing.

The cohort of high-end designers who have embraced plus-size shoppers — which includes Christian Siriano, Michael Kors and Prabal Gurung — is seemingly too small to convince them.

Unfortunately, even these brands that have embraced the plus-size category seem to do so with qualifications only.

Michael Kors, for instance, does not advertise his plus-size styles or sell them online. While Prabal Gurung has collaborated with the plus-size chain Lane Bryant and has begun regularly featuring plus-size models in his shows, his main collection stops at size 12. In the past, he’s blamed this on retailers’ unwillingness to buy bigger sizes, an excuse that doesn’t explain his plus-size deficient e-commerce site.

Walters also pointed her finger at retailers, specifically department stores. “I’ve never come across a buyer in this realm who is looking for the larger sizes,” she said. In a piece for The Cut titled “Plus-Sized Fashion Can’t Be Ignored Anymore,” writer Ashley Ford called out Bergdorf Goodman’s and Barneys’ lack of plus-size options for herself. On a recent shopping trip, when a salesgirl at Bergdorf Goodman guided her to the website, she came up empty-handed there, too, save for one bomber jacket.

This weak support for larger sizes — when there’s any support at all — has created the sense that luxury brands “look down on women and garments that aren’t within a certain size parameter,” argued Jim Fosina, chief executive officer of Fosina Marketing Group. “There’s this misconception that plus-size lines require a different narrative than that of the mainline collection, and even different products,” added Katie Smith, one of Edited’s retail analysts.

Candice Huffine in a Michael Kors dress, available at 11 Honoré

Indeed, many of those in the luxury space that Glossy spoke to either bristled at the subject or seemed to find plus-size clothing antithetical to the “dream” that luxury brands are supposed to create for consumers.

In July, the e-commerce platform 11 Honoré launched in an effort to dispel these ideas and help fill the market void. Selling luxury clothing for sizes 10 to 20, founders Patrick Herning and Kathryn Retzer called upon brands already producing plus-size pieces for private clients and trunk shows to bring their designs to the masses. They launched with designers like the aforementioned Kors and Gurung, as well as Marchesa, Badgley Mischka, Monique Lhuillier, Haney and La Ligne. The site was arguably the most significant step in the right direction for luxury’s embrace of the plus-size market, but whether it will be successful in courting more designers remains to be seen.

According to Fosina, designers who continue to resist the market based on old-school and backwards standards will only suffer for it. After all, these women have plenty of money they’re willing to spare: Plus-size apparel sales grew 17 percent, to $20.4 billion, between 2013 and 2016, according to the market research firm NPD.

“Not addressing a sizable market with the potential of driving new customers and profits will definitely hurt the bottom line of the brand,” he said. “Those designers who do will reap the benefits.”

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