Before January, I hadn’t spared a thought for plus-sized women when promoting sustainable clothing. But then I got a couple of messages in quick succession. First, this one by email:
I stumbled onto your site and I’ve become extremely inspired. I decided that I wanted to make a change and the first change for me would be the clothing that I purchase. Do you know of any ethical clothing companies that sell plus sized clothing?
Then, another through Twitter:
— Eliz Roser (@elizroser) January 18, 2016
Oh. It turns out that while it’s gotten way easier to find beautiful sustainable and ethical fashion, it has not gotten easier to find it in larger sizes. And that seems unfair. Weight does not negatively correlate with caring about the planet.
I decided to find out why there isn’t more plus-size, sustainable fashion. (Bear with me, this is a topic with which I’m not familiar, so I may stumble a bit.) I emailed a bunch of my sustainable designer friends to get their take. The first thing I found out was that – rather than quietly suffering – women of the land of X are speaking up and asking for sustainable fashion in sizes that suit them. “We get almost one request a day for plus-size clothing,” Mark Spera of BeGood told me.
“We recently ran a Kickstarter and had many requests for larger sizes,” says Laura Moffat, co-founder and director of marketing for the new Brooklyn brand Kirrin Finch, which makes menswear-inspired button-up shirts in sizes up to 16. “We do plan to do it in the future, because the demand is there, but it requires a whole new pattern and new fit models. So if a brand is not solely focused on the plus-size market, it is hard to justify the additional development cost.”
That was a common refrain I heard. Many sustainable brands are already barely carving out profit margins, because of their emphasis on high quality textiles, craftsmanship, and paying a fair wage. Doing XL-and-up clothing (and doing it well) adds on another layer of challenges, unfortunately.
“We personally only have size 1 and 2 because we are a very small company still and we can’t afford to have more than two sizes right now,” Stefania Borras of Datura says. (Though she directed me to a shoot that showed plus-size model Naomi Shimada wearing size 2 (M) Datura clothing and looking fabulous.) “We do want to include a size 3 (L/XL) in a near future, but not immediately.”
“This is actually something we struggled with a lot internally, since our objective has always been to unite women who are conscientious and recognize what the fashion industry is doing to our planet, regardless of their size,” Germaine DeNigris of Arkins says. “It requires additional grading, patterns, and more fabric per piece. Straight designs become curved, cuts and fits do not follow the same guidelines, and body variations are greater. The unfortunate reality is that since it’s more expensive and difficult to produce larger sizes, it’s inherently riskier. A misstep in planning can put a small business in a hole it can’t climb out of. Some bigger brands have their own design teams and production factories just for plus size designs, but I don’t think most sustainable brands are in the position to do that and many designers don’t have the expertise.”
The zero-waste designer Daniel Silverstein, whose ZWD line goes up to XL and does made-to-measure pieces for clients of all sizes, agrees that there is a dearth in plus-size expertise. “Most designers are simply taught a certain way of doing things that the industry accepts as standard,” he says. “Though there are some cost differentials in producing plus sizes such as lower yield and higher material costs that keep ‘plus’ as it’s own category, I think the biggest problem is that it is not a standard part of education from schools like FIT, where I went. So it might be less a matter of people wanting to design in a larger variety of sizes, and more an issue of designers’ awareness or knowledge. It’s something we need to be thinking of at the educational level to make true industry reform.”
Eileen Fisher, which has spent the last few years heavily investing in becoming an entirely sustainable fashion brand, has carried plus sizes in its classic styles for twenty years. It represents about 10% of their business. “We offer the same collection for all sizes, but have a different fit process for each range,” says Tracy Breslin, Director of Brand Projects. “Our team of technical designers and a dedicated merchandiser work with a plus-size fit model to refine the fit. In many cases, the revisions are about reducing volume. For example, we use set-in sleeves where the original design might have had dolman sleeves, or we add sleeves to sleeveless pieces. We take into consideration how the plus customer would want to wear the piece differently (perhaps less layers or a flattering v-neck). Our fit model is critical to the process. She is candid about what’s working and what needs to shift. We listen to her experience, and our technical designers work out the mechanics on how to make it happen.”
But even Eileen Fisher, a large brand, runs up against limitations in promoting their plus sizes: Aside from three carousel pictures up top, all the photographs in the plus size section of the website are of sample-sized models. “We would love to have more plus images – it’s a subject that is discussed frequently within our creative center,” Breslin says. “Our sample line comes in one size – getting additional sized samples for photography can be a complicated undertaking that can involve teams in many factories, in many countries.”
“I think that is customers need and demand it, they can get it!” Silverstein, ever the positive thinker, said of plus sizes. But would those daily emails from curious customers translate to actual sales? That’s unclear. When Beth Ditto launched her ethically produced plus-sized line, many in her target demographic reacted with dismay at the prices, saying they couldn’t see themselves spending so much. According to a New York Times article Mark Spera of BeGood sent me, despite average being size 14 (plus size starts at 16), and about a third of American women qualifying as obese, plus-sized apparel only makes up 18% of total revenue in the fashion industry. With obesity in American women tending to correlate with a lower income, many plus-sized women have less disposable income to spend on clothing, and so do feel like they can spend extra money to ensure that their clothing was made by women paid a fair wage.
And one plus-sized Instagrammer Hello Giggles interviewed pointed out something I hadn’t thought of: Plus-sized women don’t want to spend a lot on clothing, because they’ve been trained to think of their size as a temporary thing. When one has this mindset, sustainable fashion advocates’ call to “invest” in a lifetime piece that you will wear over and over doesn’t seem helpful.
That makes plus-size clothing a niche within a niche. “Eco-friendly clothing is a rather small slice of the retail industry as well (1-3% depending on the source),” Spera of BeGood says. “It’s difficult for a retailer to financially justify taking those two cross-sections and melding them. To do so would leave you serving a fraction of a percent of the population with the line offering.”
Still, as a rule, sustainable designers care about doing fashion in a way that is helpful, not hurtful. So they’re working on making it happen.
“When we first launched, we didn’t have the budget to produce a lot of sizes so we tried to reach as many body types as possible with the standard S, M, L sizing,” DeNigris of Arkins says. “We didn’t have much room for error so we had to play it safe, grow our following, and get customer feedback to get to where we are. Once we produced a couple collections and talked to our customers about sizing/fit, we figured out how to change our production process to be flexible and give them what they wanted. As a petite girl myself and of course wanting to wear my own designs, we added an XS size the following season. We just now reached a point where we could add an XL size to our latest collection!”
Where to Get Plus Size Sustainable and Ethical Clothing
If you’re ready to give your plus-sized body the love and quality it deserves, I’ve rounded up some ethical designers and sustainable retailers doing XL/16 and up. (If you have more, please comment below!)