Size Inclusivity: A Big Opportunity for Retailers?
By Amelia Curwen
Luxury fashion has an almost complete absence of size inclusivity, and while the high street offers broader ‘plus size’ ranges, it suffers a lack of size standardisation which, when coupled with poor quality mass manufacturing, has led to cripplingly high return rates for retailers and stark inconsistencies in sizing— all of which has left consumers baffled and frustrated.
Size Inclusion In The Luxury Market
Last month, Dolce & Gabbana made headlines when they announced themselves as the first designer to offer an expansion at the top end of their size break, now available in a European size 54 equating to a UK size 22. In terms of clothing size provision, this change made “it one of the most inclusive designer brands for women,” according to The Independent’s Olivia Petter; and this is very much the case, according to Fashionista’s deputy editor Tyler McCall luxury designer sizes “stop much closer to a size 10 [or] below that even.” The average UK woman wears a size 16 hence the majority of women will require a clothing size that is not catered for by most designers at all.
London-based brand RIXO made an even more recent announcement, speaking to the Telegraph Henrietta Rix, the co-founder at RIXO, said after “taking into account customer feedback and genuinely listening to the women who wear RIXO” they would be offering 3 additional sizes and altering the conversion of current attributed sizes, meaning the small dresses are now a 10 rather than an 8, medium a 12 and large a 14 and the newly added top end of the size spectrum, size 16, will be an will be an extra large. Rix continued to say:
“Our customers are at the centre of everything we do! We want women of all ages, shapes and sizes to be able to wear one of our pieces and feel amazing. Since we expanded the amount of sizes we were able to offer, it allowed us to re-look at exactly what we called our sizes and make sure they were true to size.”
Dolce and Gabbana and RIXO are the exception, going against the grain of the luxury fashion climate; a quick browse of luxury fashion e-tailer, Net-A-Porter reveals the true scarcity of available pieces in sizes above a UK 12. This examination of product on the Net-A-Porter website reveals that of the 8367 items of clothing available, only 67 products which translates to 0.8% of the total offering, are available in a size 14 or above, completely excluding at least 45% of British women who wear dress size 16 and limiting the choice to less than 1 in 100 pieces for ‘XXXL’ shoppers who wear a size 14.
Plus Consumer Spending Power
The continual shunning by designer brands of plus consumers is almost certainly a missed opportunity given estimations that £1 in every £5 spent on womenswear in 2017, was spent on plus size garments based according to globaldata.com. Further evidence provided in a report by PWC: The UK plus size clothing market review, states the plus size apparel market was £6.6bn in 2017 (of which women and men comprise £4.7bn and £1.9bn respectively), and has been outperforming the overall womenswear and menswear clothing market in the UK with an estimated growth of 5%-6% per year from 2017 to 2022 representing a vast opportunity for designers and retailers.
In spite of the concrete evidence of increasing plus consumer spending power, the argument that these consumers are unwilling to spend on luxury fashion has been a go-to line of defence for the industry’s reluctance to produce a more inclusive size spectrum. This was raised by 11 Honoré co-founder and CEO Patrick Herning, while speaking on a panel, Why It's Time for the Fashion Industry to Catch Up with the Plus Size Market:
"The question came up again and again when we were fundraising. This customer is spending money on Birkin bags; this customer is spending money on Cartier jewelry; this customer is spending money on Chanel shoes,"
With zero option to purchase luxury clothing in the past, there is no way of proving or disproving this, however it is highly unlikely the case would be, as stated by Herning, that we would see plus spending on luxury goods, bags, shoes, jewellery, and NOT clothing. Suggesting they ‘have the cash and the thirst to spend’.
Plus Inclusion on the High Street
The high street has a growing number of retailers that sell plus-size clothing or have extended their size ranges to do so. In the illustration below you can see brand positioning of selected plus size specialists and generalists.
Size Concerns for Plus and Straight Consumers on the High Street
However size and inclusivity issues still affect shoppers and the shopping experience on the high street regardless of the fact it visibly offers more plus size inclusion than it’s luxury counterpart, it harbours a different, but still problematic, relationship to size. When high street shopping and ‘fast fashion’ as we know it today rose to prominence in the 1990’s, increased numbers of retailers producing high volume garment production operated without regulated size specifications (which were abandoned in 1983); this led to confusing variations of sizes that could be completely different brand to brand. Over time, sizes were abstracted even further - made possible by the absence of a standardised system - and one reason for this was ‘vanity sizing’. Vanity sizing is the phenomenon of ready-to-wear clothing of the same labelled size becoming bigger in physical size over time based on the principle that smaller size labels increased the self esteem of customers.
Because of vanity sizing, on average a size UK12 in 1958 is now a size closer to a label size UK6, and because of a lack of sizing standardisation, ‘a woman might wear a size 4 in one brand and a size 10 in another. In a peice for the Huffington Post, Jamie Feldman writes “Clothing sizes are essentially meaningless, thanks to factors like vanity sizing. It’s impossible to ignore the differences in size and fit from brand to brand, or even between items of the same design; earlier this year an image taken by twitter user @chloemmx illustrating this disparity went viral.
The state of sizing on the high street has left shoppers in a purchasing minefield with particular difficulties shopping online where the option to try before you buy is removed. An astonishing 75% of product bought online is returned and according to research by barclaycard, one in five women say order multiple versions of the same item so they can decide at home, safe in the knowledge they can send back anything that doesn’t fit. These figures can cause catastrophic damage for retailers; missing sales opportunities when product is unavailable for large sections of it’s ‘sell cycle’; increasing it’s likeliness to go into markdown which raises the likeliness a product will end up as ‘dead stock’.
The problems for plus consumers do not stop there, low quality and lazy attitudes toward size and fit have left some high street retailers ‘named and shamed’ on social media. Kay Robertson, from Cumbernauld, Lanarkshire, was left ‘baffled’ following a purchase from online fast fashion retailer PrettyLittleThing. Robertson, who normally wears size 14/16 clothes had ordered three pairs of wide leg trousers in a size 16, claimed that the garments were "clearly for a size 26 woman who is 8ft tall” and went on to say in an article that appeared in The Sun newspaper:
“I will not be using their company again. This was my first time, however, since putting my images up on Facebook I have had a number of people comment saying they have had the same experience.”
Incoherent sizing does not exclusively vary from brand to brand, products from the same brand in the same style can differ greatly and due to lower quality production, even the same brand, the same product in the same size has been known to be different, an example of this was highlighted by shopper, Danu Deva Clyne, who took an image of three pairs of jeans all labelled size 14, that can clearly be seen to be different in the image taken last year. In an article by Fabulous Magazine Clyne stated:
"If someone had just picked them up without checking and then tried them on thinking they were the normal size it could set off a lot of body confidence issues.
"It would make people question why they can't fit into their normal size and make them think they need to lose weight to fit- despite the sizing not being right. Women don’t need the added pressure”
Sizing Up The Opportunities
A company offering solutions to the market shortage are Universal Standard, last year the brand increased its range to become the first clothing line to carry women’s sizes 00–40 in the world and this year they went one step further and announced that everything in their store is now available in sizes US 00-40. The brand will pay close attention to the size and fit insuring a collection that is inclusive range and accurately inclusive of size.
The shortfall in ethical shopping options for environmentally-conscious present a conundrum of how to support sustainable fashion in a climate where their choices are limited only to fast fashion. Last month this question was answered with the launch of Hours— a new plus label that only uses sustainable fabrication.
An explosive demonstration of inclusivity arrived this year when Rihanna launched her brand Fenty adorning mannequins that were ‘full chested, curvy hipped, had realistically proportioned waistlines and even a little belly’ and the range will be stocked in sizes up to a UK 18. Speaking to Vogue magazine, Rihanna said:
“I’m a curvy girl… If I can’t wear my stuff then it just won’t work. I need to see how it looks on my hips, on my thighs, on my stomach – does it look good on me or only on a fit model? It’s important.”
Sports brand Nike have also featured mannequins in store that are a truer reflection of the average sized 16 women alongside the more traditionally seen model proportioned mannequins. An intelligent move that would have required very little investment without the need to alter the range they offered - as Nike had a preexisting plus size offering - by diversifying it’s visual merchandising, proved a successful strategy to align itself with more body positive attitude and therefore more appealing to the underserved plus market.
The Future of Inclusive Shopping is Paved With Opportunity
Dolce and Gabbana, Rixo, Fenty, Nike, Hours, and Universal Standard make up the beginning of what is set to become more than just a trend for a more inclusive shopping experience. These brands barely make up the gap in the market and given the amount of data readily available for analysts to study, there is sure to be a continued surge of brands looking to capitalise on the abundance of opportunity attached to producing clothing that and properly catering the under-served plus consumer.
Retailers need to be considerate of the fact that because of the lack of inclusivity and vanity sizing melting pot of inconsistency, size has more of an emotional attachment than ever, but if handled delicately can create opportunities for existing brands or new ones.