I’ve resolutely tried to avoid pandering to the economic scare of 2009, not because it’s irrelevant, but becase I just don’t feel like I have all the information and I don’t want to fall into the blogger’s trap of writing about it just because it will get me hits. The sky’s been falling since 2000 – it just happened to land and bounce this year. The United States is a country of 300 million people, and 40 million of these citizens have been living below the poverty line for a lot longer than second quarter of 2008.
But last year and this year that financial faltering is starting to show in the apparel industry, and very much so in the plus size sector. The first warning sign? Possibly the sizing roll-backs – when Torrid,
Fashion Overdose and B and Lu looked into dropping their larger-end of plus clothing, the reason given was consistently lack of customers. Several other companies have attempted to rebrand plus sizing by including sizes as low as size 10 (and in one case, size 8!) most likely as an excuse to charge the plus size premium in an attempt to recover profits. While the customers for the largest of the larger sizes are most definitely out there, those customers are facing some obstacles, some put up by the businesses, some put up by themselves, and some thanks to a cultural milieu of information overdose along with zesty contamination with misinformation:
On the business side:
Marketing is expensive, and it’s the first place that most businesses will cut costs. Compounding this, I’ve yet to see a national ad campaign for plus size clothing, ever, not on television or in a magazine. Old Navy has gone so far as to take their plus size clothing online only, making their plus clothing a great big national secret. B and Lu to my knowledge has no retail location at all, not even in their home base of St. Paul (and I live in Minneapolis and would LOVE to shop there.) While lacking a retail location is not always a deterrent, it is something where customer resistance still needs to be overcome, which will be addressed shortly, and it’s curious to me that they’ve garnered so much national attention but don’t offer so much as a sample sale locally. Minnesota has a fashion week – that B &Lu has yet to participate in, and believe me, they’re needed.
The stores are not or will not let their plus size customers know they’re out there. I suspect this is because the human beings in management have some size-shame complexes they need to overcome in order to truly serve the plus market rather than just making money off of it.
This puts blogs like Fat Chic in business, since it’s up to bloggers to ferret out where the big clothes are hidden. It still astounds me that I meet people locally who think I’ve never heard of Lane Bryant.
There are too many good plus size clothing stores that fail or that have to cut back because their target customers just don’t know about them. In fact, Lane Bryant has become the only nationally recognizable brand of plus clothing, and while their resources are considerable, I have a hard time believing that there isn’t at least one other retailer with the resources to raise their brand recognition.
On the customer side:
While Internet marketing has its place in the plus size market, the target market so many stores have of 25-40 year olds lose out – most plus size women in this age range don’t follow fashion blogs and have become so discouraged that they don’t even try to seek out online sources intended for them. After years – usually a lifetime – of size-based marginalization, it’s my guess that the majority of the women who the plus clothiers want to dress don’t even try to look online for clothing sources. While I hear from plenty of great people via this blog, I have no illusions that they represent the majority of plus women out there.
Much of the media designed for plus sized women is at best thinly veiled marketing material, or aggressively political in nature and all too often shaming women for having an interest in fashion (while consciously or subconsciously gearing them towards an aesthetic that is fine for some, but like all things in life, isn’t suitable for everyone.) Politics affect and infect everything, but sometimes someone just needs to find some nice shoes and a skirt to go with them.
Research (rather than shopping) has become a rarified skill and most women of all sizes don’t have the time or interest to drill the Internet if there’s a mall store they can just walk into. Given the incosistency of sizing and the unpredictability of quality, if these women do venture onto the Internet for shopping, they almost have to go to third party sources to even begin to get the idea. Again, this puts blogs like Fat Chic in business.
To add to the above issues, there are two overarching issues:
Plus size clothing is expensive, and often priced at a premium. While some expense may be dodged by learning to sew, learning to adjust clothing from thrift stores and scavenging clearance sales, plus size women have to and do pay a much higher rate for their clothing. Sometimes this is fine, but then the following problem rears its ugly head:
Typically, women’s clothing – ALL women’s clothing, all sizes – is produced at a much lower quality than men’s retail clothing. The expectation is that women replace their wardrobes on a yearly and even seasonal basis. Even for a certified clothes horse like myself, this supposition is as ridiculous as the expectation that the American consumer purchase a new car every two years, especially when the vehicle costs more than two years of my annual housing costs.
All too often it comes down to endlessly bleeding money by replacing low-quality items that should have lasted longer, leaving women without the choice or funds to spend on higher quality clothing that will last longer. (Yes, I realize that personal choices in terms of finances are also a major factor in this.) Consumer culture critics, have at.
In the middle
Ultimately, personal feelings about body size from corporate level on down to the consumer have turned the plus size retail economy into a minefield. What can be marketed where, in a way that won’t offend anyone? Who on earth can buy it? Who will buy it?
The truth is, all marketing is offensive to someone so you might as well move forward and try to be positive and respectful. It’s contempt for the target market that causes trouble. However you feel about your customer, they need to know you’re out there – the customer certainly is.
There’s so much more to be said here, but I’ll have to put it out in dribs and drabs. There’s no way to nutshell this, since economy is one of those essential cultural pieces where there is no end to the discussion – and it affects absolutely everything.
For now, just know this: the economic downturn really is changing everything, and it is forcing people to reconsider ideas and attitudes previously dismissed or marginalized, whether it’s going green or dressing plus. I think that the coming year, as people scale back their entire lives and find their bodies may or may not scale back along with it, a lot of assumptions about what it is to be plus sized are also going to change – and that’s going to reverberate throughout western society.
Spend some time reading Junk Food Science. Then come back and think for awhile.