As Tim Gunn says, plus-size fashion has a plus-size problem.
He’s not wrong. The fashion industry, to a large extent, is ignoring the plus-size market, which is estimated to be worth $20.4 billion this year. There are specialty retailers in the space like Lane Bryant and Eloquii, but when other brands offer larger pieces, they’re typically stand-alone collections, not an extension of sizes in styles they already offer. And to a large extent it’s not what people want to wear.
When it comes to high-end designers, the situation gets even worse. Only a handful offer a range of sizes that extends beyond size 10—among them are Michael Kors, Valentino, and Prabal Gurung. Lane Bryant is trying to bridge the gap through partnerships with luxury designers including Gurung, Christian Siriano, and Isabel Toledo. But, for the most part, the options are few and far between.
So one New York-based brand, Of Mercer, a three-year-old direct-to-consumer company, is doing something about it. As of Thursday, the women’s corporate workwear brand, which previously offered styles up to a size 14, will offer nine of its most popular pieces in sizes 00 to 20. The pieces include six dresses, a top, a skirt and a cardigan.
Three models wearing the Bowrey dress, in a size 14, 8, and 2; $175.
“We’ve had such a demand for it from our would-be customer base,” said Emelyn Northway, who launched the brand with her friend Dorie Smith. “We get emails all the time asking to expand sizes. We hear the options on the market are low quality and that there’s a lot of cheap options, but not great career wear.” Of Mercer uses Italian wool and Japanese fabrics and sells its pieces for under $250.
Being direct-to-consumer allowed Of Mercer to recognize that there was a demand. And because there’s no middlemen—buyers, suppliers, retailers—the company could move quickly. Of Mercer used a size 16 fit model and interviewed more than 50 women to figure out what was missing in the market. Interviewees shared some common wardrobe problems, including the fact that the arm holes and shoulders of pieces are often too tight. The brand answered by designing pieces around these issues—for instance, it made its Hudson dress with a sleeve stitch that can be adjusted for more room.
“If you think about taking a size two and turning it to a four, everything grows a little bit: shoulders, hips get wider, it gets longer, arm holes get bigger,” said Smith. “That only makes sense to a certain point, because you don’t keep growing in that way beyond a 12 and 14. It becomes a different fit: The bust grows bigger and faster than shoulders.”
The pair said it wasn’t easy or cheap. Using another fit model, cutting another round of patterns and creating more sizes means more money. Having a direct-to-consumer business model means it can be more nimble and react to changes quicker, something bigger brands don’t have the luxury of being able to do. Still, many brands who aren’t in the space refuse to openly say why.
Consumers in the industry have called Of Mercer’s move uncommon and are applauding its step.
“What’s really interesting about this line is that it’s not two separate lines. It’s truly just the size two wearing the same dress as the 18. To me, that’s what’s so special,” said Katie Sturino, the plus-size blogger behind The 12ish Style who helped Of Mercer move into extended sizes.
“The plus-size market is beginning to get examined,” Sturino said. “However, retailers are still scared to react because they’ve been told for so many years that a woman who is a larger size is not going to want to shop a print, a short skirt, a trend—that they want to hide themselves. I think we’re discovering this year that it’s not the case at all.”
Despite conversation stirring, it seems—in high-fashion especially—that there’s a long way to go. “Plus-size is still like a swear word somehow in fashion, especially in high fashion,” said plus-size model Clementine Desseaux, who has worked with brands from Calvin Klein to Levis and Michael Kors, and modeled in Of Mercer’s campaign.
Desseaux said a number of high-end brands do sell larger sizes, but they don’t go out of their way to advertise it.
“They never market it because it’s not their image. But they sell out. It’s not a money thing, it’s an image thing.”
Of Mercer’s Hudson dress $175.