At New York Fashion Week in February, there was a sense that any progress the industry had made on size inclusivity was regressing. But off the runway, outdoor brands like Columbia Sportswear are pushing the movement forward.
Oregon-based Columbia has been selling extended sizing for men and women for at least 20 years, but the brand’s newest collection, for spring 2023, will be the first offered at price parity, with all sizes from smallest to largest being sold for the same price. It’s been a years-long effort. Andrea Kelly, Columbia’s divisional merchandising manager for inclusive sizing, said that’s better than the zero-to-100 approach other brands have taken.
Kelly has worked at Columbia since 2011 and has focused on the company’s inclusive sizing efforts since 2015. Kelly said that, between 2015 and 2016, Columbia doubled the number of plus-size products it sold — prior, the offering had been limited to best-selling styles before. The company’s again doubled the number since then.
“The outdoor community has become a lot more vocal about what they want,” Kelly said. She credits groups like Unlikely Hikers, an organization with more than 150,000 members that organizes hiking and outdoors activities for larger-sized people, with helping make the demand for inclusive sizing in the outdoor category.
Data provided to Glossy by Tribe Dynamics supports the idea that there’s significant demand here. In 2022, online content related to plus-size, inclusive-size or extended-size clothing by Columbia and Patagonia drove $3.2 million in Earned Media Value (EMV), a term Tribe Dynamics uses for a combination of social buzz, searches and purchases, to measure demand for brands like Columbia and Patagonia. That’s out of a total of $37.8 million in EMV for both brands combined for the year, meaning extended size-related content drove nearly 10% of the brands’ EMV.
Kelly, like many who advocate for a more inclusive apparel industry, was frustrated by Old Navy publicly pulling back from its extended sizing play in 2022 only a year after launching it.
“I thought ‘This is not the press we need,’” Kelly said. “We saw how well it was received when they announced it. Not to exaggerate, but for a lot of people, it really was life-changing to see this big brand embrace it so fully.”
She said it’s important for brands to understand that offering vastly expanded sizing isn’t something to take on lightly. “It’s not easy, but it’s important,” she said. For Columbia, the hardest part of offering plus size is getting to price parity. It’s an unfortunate truth that making larger sizes is more expensive. More fabric must be used, fewer of the products can fit into a single shipping container and redesigning entire products is often necessary to accommodate the larger size.
Kelly declined to say exactly what costs had to be cut behind the scenes in order to sell all sizes at the same price. The global market for plus-size women’s clothing is around $200 billion and growing at a rate of almost 5% per year, according to Research and Markets.
Columbia has seen record revenue in the last three months, growing 11% from the previous quarter to reach $3.5 billion. That’s been driven almost equally by both direct-to-consumer and wholesale sales. Kelly said most of Columbia’s wholesale partners buy the extended sizing, with only a few abstaining.
“In 2017, when a lot of retailers started looking to buy more inclusive sizes, we were one of the few brands they could really buy into,” Kelly said.
One of those retailers is REI, which has also been a leader in pushing for more inclusive sizing in outdoor apparel. Earlier this week, REI’s senior manager of local and inclusion marketing, Nicole Browning, told Glossy that it’s important for outdoor brands to listen to the specific needs of their customers to build trust before tackling inclusive sizing.
“We launched a series of focus groups and community conversations, bringing people together from [groups like Unlikely Hikers and Adaptive Adventures] to ask what challenges they’re facing as customers,” Browning said.
Columbia took a similar approach, working with dozens of plus-size athletes, including influencer Marielle TerHart, by inviting them to advise Columbia’s product design and merchandising teams, seeding product to them, and doing social media takeovers on Instagram and TikTok.
“For larger bodied people, it’s hard to find gear, so you end up with poor-quality or poorly-fitting things, and people perceive you to be a beginner,” Kelly said. “You could be super experienced, and people will ask you if you should really be out there. Or they’ll tell you about a spot to rest. Talking to people gives us a better insight into what we can do better.”