In this Man Repeller Round Table, Marie Denee, creator of The Curvy Fashionista, Lauren Chan, former Glamour fashion editor, Kaelen Haworth, founder of size-inclusive line Second Sight, and Mara Hoffman, designer, sit down to talk about size-inclusivity within the fashion industry: what kicked the change into gear, the challenges ahead, and how to continue moving forward.
Amelia: Let’s all introduce ourselves. I’ll go first: I’m Amelia, Head of Creative at Man Repeller.
Lauren: I’m Lauren Chan. I guess I’m a bunch of things. I started my career as a plus-size model, then was a fashion editor — I was at Glamour for the past handful ointef years. Now, I’m out on my own, exploring different spaces and working on a line of workwear for extended sizes.
Kaelen: I’m Kaelen Haworth. I have a clothing line called Second Sight, which is kind of like a second life for me. I had a previous line that was under my name, Kaelen. Second Sight is a womenswear brand that sells direct to consumer, online only, and we’re selling in monthly editions of five pieces that range in size from 00 to 24.
Mara: I’m Mara Hoffman, founder, creative director, jack of all trades of my clothing line, Mara Hoffman — it’s 18 years old now, which is wild. We’ve spent the last three years shifting the brand; our big focus is on sustainability, and in the past year, we baby-stepped our way into extended sizing. We’re setting strong goals to get where we need to be.
Amelia: There’s a shift happening in fashion: Size inclusivity is being considered more and more. Brands are extending their sizes, starting new lines, showcasing more body diversity. What kicked this into motion?
Lauren: I think that it all has to do with social. We’re kind of at the peak/tail-end of this whole shift. It started years ago, percolating in the plus-size market alone, and in the fat-positive communities alone, and now [those conversations have converged in the mainstream]. I really think it’s because the online communities have platforms where they can criticize and demand and celebrate.
Kaelen: I agree with that. I also think it’s dovetailed with the whole wellness phenomenon. It used to be about how to diet and how to eat for your body type; now it’s more about how to feel better. I think it’s a language shift that’s probably come about because of social. It’s a shift in perception.
For me, a big factor was the fact that our customers — when I had a straight-size line — were coming to us and saying, “This isn’t quite fitting,” and we found we had a different customer than we thought we did. They wanted things to fit a bit differently. It wasn’t necessarily that people were like, “I wear plus-sizes and this doesn’t fit me.” It was like, “Maybe I’m a 10, but I also sometimes wanna buy a 14 and tailor it because I don’t want it to be tight.” It was an evolution.
Mara: I agree with both of you, totally, on the social part. For us personally, we’ve always been a brand that’s tried to speak to diversity and inclusivity in our way. We were also being held accountable by our customers: How do you leave us out, but you’re a champion of women? That was always something that obviously wasn’t intentional, but people have a voice and they’re speaking out. Brands are being held accountable, which is awesome on multiple levels.
Marie: I would first preface that before social was the social that it is today, you had these pockets. Even before the fashion element took on, you had the body activists to lay the foundation for where we are today. You had your FATshionistas and other LiveJournal communities that don’t really exist anymore in the same way, but started the foundation for people to speak up.
My brand turns 10 in December. So much has grown and changed, and it’s been interesting to see how things have evolved. For the past four-ish years, mainstream fashion has been paying more attention. But the social element has given our group a voice to demand the change, hold folks accountable and call out things that have been missing. It’s interesting to see that after all of this time, folks are finally hearing us. The plus-size market is a twenty billion-dollar industry. Twenty billion-dollar industry! It’s very interesting to see how the narrative is playing out. It’s a very different conversation in the community and industry versus mainstream.
Amelia: This is something we’re seeing as a publisher as well. We are a platform with the intention of making women feel welcome — and that means listening when our readers say, “This doesn’t fit me. This brand doesn’t come in my size.” So it’s about finding [and showcasing] more and more brands that do, showing a variety of body types, having these kinds of conversations. The very real rub is that as a company founded and rooted in fashion, we still cover and shoot brands that are not yet size-inclusive. How do you figure out how to merge the ideal, what we’d like to move towards, with the — though I hope it is changing — current space of the industry reality?
And I’d love to talk about this: How do brands do just that authentically, without it coming off like box-checking?
Kaelen: It’s really hard to just check the box of going into extended sizing. You have to really want to do it.
Mara: It’s not a myth that it’s harder to produce.
Kaelen: If you’re offering sizes from 0 to 12 or 14, like we were with my line Kaelen, to then go up to an extended size range from there, you cannot grade from a 0 to a 24. Bodies change the whole way up. When you get to extended sizing, you need a new fit model and to repeat the process.
There are “barriers to entry” because — not that this should stop anyone — you cannot just say, “Okay, I’m gonna do it.” It takes a lot of thought, especially if you’re coming at from the right [angle], which is to make clothes that fit people and make them feel good. It took me two years after I closed my line [to start] this one, because we were having trouble getting it right. We had to bring a lot of different body types in. We had a lot of different women in sizes 4 through 24, and we had to listen to what their challenges were, what we could do differently. It is a business decision at the end of the day — a smart one — but it is not something you can step into lightly.
Maybe what we’re seeing is people behind the scenes taking their time, hopefully, to do it right, because it isn’t simple.
Lauren: Kaelen, Mara, what were your major roadblocks in designing for extended sizes? How did you overcome them? For people who want to know and want to do it.
Kaelen: The roadblock is basically you’re doing the same thing twice, and you have to be a little bit inventive. You have to think about the ways that clothes are going to fit a wider range of people, but look the same. A big thing for me is that since I’m doing a line that has to fit sizes 0-24, it can’t look different on the size 0 than it does on the size 24; that’s not the point.
But the reality is you have to change some seaming, put some darts in, you know, because shapes change. That’s a challenge, figuring that out. From a silhouette standpoint, people have body hang-ups, so we end up with people who say, “No, I can’t have a ruffle that far down on my shoulder, that makes me feel wider.” We’re learning as we go about what makes people tick when they’re wearing something.
Also, when you’re sizing a garment from 0 to 24, the yardage changes quite a bit.
Mara: This is an investment. Speaking from an independent designer’s perspective: We do not have investors, we don’t have backers, we’re people who figure out how to split pennies and figure shit out, to do this right, with intention, clarity and kindness regardless of the size. We made an oath to doing the least amount of harm, from fiber to fit and making clothes that last, that you want to wear for a long time. In order to do that, it’s a definite investment. A fit model [can be really expensive, and it can be difficult to find one] who can put the piece of clothing on and be like, “Okay, you need to move the arm hole up. The crotch isn’t right on this.”
For years, the collection was built on a size 2. Now it’s built on a 4. For our [collection of] extended sizes, we build from a 14.
Kaelen: But the thing is, your fit model is your fit model, it’s not everyone else’s. So sizing—
Mara: —is arbitrary! Women have such different shapes. You hold your weight in your hips or in your bust. It’s a complex thing. You want to do it and make women feel beautiful and give them the highest-end product that’s going to last for them.
Marie: To interject, I will say, and I do challenge both designers: You have more resources at your fingertips than you know. Especially within the plus-size industry, especially within the plus-size community, there are quite a few people — not just fit models — but people who are trained designers, who understand fit, who have the retail background that want to see you win. At the end of the day, when you win, we all win. There’s a lot of support here in the community and industry than it may seem like. The majority of the designers that we champion and rally behind within the plus community are indie designers. We understand the scrappiness. That’s why for me, I’m lending my platform to help announce and partner, because it’s to generate the awareness and the attention. If I am aware that on your site you have plus-size fashion, that means I can write about it, share it, speak to it and on the flip-side, give you feedback. It’s a cycle and it’s a circle. I challenge y’all. My email is very easy, seriously. I’m here as a partner.
Mara: It’s so exciting to hear that. When we put word out that we were partnering with 11 Honoré, [ed note: an e-retailer that sells luxury brands in extended sizes], Nicolette Mason [co-founder of Premme] reached out and she was awesome. She came to our studio and sat with us to go through all of the shapes we were working on. I hear you, and please send me your email address.
Kaelen: The plus-size community is so engaged and excited. If we get a return from someone in extended sizing, we get a note like, “Thank you so much, but here’s the problem: It’s not fitting me right across the chest,” or, “I wish it were a little longer.” And then at the end of it, “I love that you’re doing this, keep going. You need to keep changing it, but you’re getting there.”
Lauren: Mara, how did you decide, “I’m going to do this now” and extend your brand’s sizing?
Mara: We had been wanting to do it for a really long time. When 11 Honoré approached us, it was like the final push. They were like, “Look, we’ll have a uniform fit model, we can assist on patterns, if you need that, to keep uniformity across the fit for the designers that are going to make this move.” For me, that moved the needle. We were like, “Okay, we’re not moving into this alone. We have a team that’s on the other end, we’re working with a fit model that other brands are going to use…” That was really the push-off.
We’ve had two seasons of exclusivity with them and then for Pre-Spring, we opened it up to our wholesale. This is a big move for us, and they held our hands from the beginning. It was still an investment [on our end], but that gave us the hand-hold to get this thing rolling.
Being focused on the sustainability part in fashion means looking at the availability in extended sizing. I know it’s rad that Reformation just launched too, but really, we’re just two brands. If you want to care and spend your money on well-made clothes by a brand that actually cares and is doing the work, it’s hard. That was a big focus for us, because if we’re committed to this mission, we cannot not be completely inclusive.
Marie: And I would say, you have support. A lot of the time, it’s awareness. Oftentimes — I think Lauren and I actually had this conversation on the side — one of the biggest challenges is PR: Part of the challenge for you guys going into it, and as the plus-size industry grows, is there’s a lack of understanding that we have created our own media. We have our outfit bloggers; there are publications within the plus-size industry (Slink Magazine, FabUplus Magazine…). We have our own media because the PR people weren’t seeing us. Brands will do a show at fashion week but not include the plus industry. You have a plus-size brand launching a collaboration, but at their launch party there’s no plus-size media. Part of the onus is on the PR and the brands to make sure their PR includes the plus-size publications that want to share. I shouldn’t be chasing down a brand — hello! You’re catering to my audience. We’re here. I’m waving my hands. Awareness is important. It’s important that there are platforms in which the message can be shared, not just a traditional People Magazine exclusive.
Amelia: With [young] size inclusive labels, new plus-size brands and labels that are increasing their sizing when they previously were straight-size only, where does one parse out the authentic intentions versus the business-focused ones? Does that [parsing] matter, if more clothes are being made in more sizes?
Kaelen: To Mara’s earlier point about quality, it’s a very clear investment from a consumer perspective. Good clothes fit well; that applies to all sizes. If you’re not putting the time and effort into making these clothes the way they should be made in all sizes, that will be very apparent very quickly. So the question of if you’re doing this from an authentic place or to capitalize will be answered in sales and the response to the quality of the clothes.
Mara: We talk about this from a sustainability perspective: You want every brand to get on board. If you’re in this and doing it for the right reasons, you want every brand to have your sources to know they’re doing it in the best possible way so that we can shift an industry. You can feel your feathers go up when you hear brands speaking to it, like, “Are you really doing this? Okay, is this marketing?” But the other side is, you want everyone to do it. You want everyone to do it right, but you want everyone to do it. It can’t become, “Oh, this is my brand’s thing.”
Marie: Think about it as an accessibility issue. You have brands with brick-and-mortars that go into plus — but online only. So that person doesn’t get that in-store experience; some may be averse to online shopping — you create those additional barriers. There is something to be said about that in-person experience, or the option to have it. A straight-size woman can go into a store and try on 20 dresses to find that one. A plus-size woman might have to order 20 dresses to find that one, so she has to spend more.
Kaelen: From a brand perspective — I don’t wholesale, and that was a conscious decision because it means that I can retail my clothes for a lower price. I think it’s the onus of the brand to make the online experience more personal as well. I’ve been trying to follow up and ask for feedback and do some in-studio events to get a sense of who our customer is, what they like. It’s better for everyone to do things in person because you get a wealth of information — people are going to tell you how they feel in the clothes; you’re going to see their reaction. It’s helpful for everyone in person to get to try things on and communicate.
Marie: This is a total shameless plug, but this is also why I started the The Curvy Fashion Style Expo: The purpose is to bring most of these online shops into real life. People can have this whole shopping experience, at varying price points, with tons of different indie designers to cater to the plus-size shopper. Sometimes it’s about finding these different events that align with your brand.
Amelia: I think it’s an interesting way to exercise your transparency and say, if you’re a designer, “Hey, here’s why we are only online.” Every brand cannot be everything for everyone, but there are opportunities to be like, “You may have noticed we have extended our sizes; here’s why we don’t go up to a 30, but we do a 25.” Or, “If you are this size and you wear our brand, let’s talk.” That may be idealistic, but it seems like brands — and I include publications in that, us in that, people who participate in fashion week, editors — have an opportunity to have a two-way conversation here. That’s where the internet is really helpful.
Kaelen: To your earlier point about PR companies, Marie, I think it’s all just catching up. People need to pay more attention, but people need to get there. If it takes a year for someone to create a plus line; it might take a month for a PR company time to understand how to market that better. These things take time, but we’re at a point now where things are starting to become more in-line.
Amelia: The industry is behind and we’re playing catch-up to an old, long-standing demand. You know, I think about all the kids at FIT right now who probably have these conversations every day and who have already solved these design issues…
Mara: The idea of timing — I was excited just to start, and there were people who were excited to be included. Then you get the people that are like, “What took you so long? That’s good that you’re offering a few pieces, but really? Why aren’t you offering more?” I get both sides. I’m on the side of understanding how long it takes to get something, but I get the frustration. I hear you, and I cringe on that. It affected how much I spoke to it because our offering was so small, then in this snake-eating-its-own-tail way, I wasn’t communicating about it enough because I felt self-conscious I was only able to offer this small thing, a drop in the bucket. But it had to start. I feel and see both sides, what it means to do it and what it means to be on the waiting end of it. It’s been long enough.
Lauren: If we make the efforts to dig a little deeper in whatever you do as your craft, your businesses, and your work, we can move this conversation, this product, this content forward. Part of that is being really honest when people ask you for help or advice — honesty is really critical in this space.
Marie: For me, it’s important that anyone going into the plus-size space understand that it’s its own microcosm and that we are excited and engaged and ready to support someone who is ready to build that relationship with us. It’s important that you reach out and create that bridge. What you don’t want to have happen is like, “People said they wanted it, we created it, but nobody bought it,” because sometimes we don’t know. A lot of times we ask and demand for these things, but are unaware of some of these collaborations or exclusive runs because there isn’t an outreach or a pitch. We’re here as your ally to support and help amplify. I know because of the relationship I have with my readers, who have been asking for this. Because I’m a big business and marketing nerd, I’m a walking almanac — you have myself and others that want you to win.
Mara: I’m going to email you before launches!
Marie: Come on!
This Round Table has been edited and condensed.