27 Nov 2022

Fashion fatphobia: Why it's so hard for plus-size Kiwis to find good clothes

8:15 pm on 27 November 2022

First published on Stuff

Clothing on a rack. Plus size clothing.

Size 16 is often the most common 'larger size' available off the rack, which increasingly does not reflect an Aotearoa where one in three people have a larger-than-average body mass. Photo: Unsplash / Hannah Morgan

New clothes are flying off the rack as Christmas approaches and Kiwis hit the shops. However, for those who are plus-size, the search for an outfit comes with challenges. Stuff journalist Aimee Shaw investigates.

Jess Molina's all too familiar with the struggle to find clothes that fit.

She's a successful influencer and brand ambassador, but as someone who's larger than average she knows she's often not taken seriously.

"It all comes down to how we as a society view fat people," says Molina, who can fit clothes up to size 24.

"In terms of being fashionable, we are not considered worthy of that or feeling good about ourselves, or looking great in the clothes that express our style."

Molina describes how clothes for plus-size women are either black and floaty to hide the body, or loud and bright pieces that accentuate curves. Larger women, she says, are just expected to put up with those options.

"Fatphobia is one of the most accepted and normalised forms of discrimination," she says. "It's ingrained in society, so we don't even question or notice it because of how much it's part of our daily lives."

Intentional discrimination?

Molina believes the lack of larger-sized clothing at big-name retailers is a deliberate choice to exclude people who fit items above XL.

Size 16 is often the most common 'larger size' available off the rack, which increasingly does not reflect an Aotearoa where one in three people have a larger-than-average body mass.

The lack of suitable clothing has left thousands of Kiwi women such as Molina feeling shamed and left behind, which Manawa Udy describes as "discriminatory" and "stupid".

Udy, who heads social enterprise Ngāhere Ventures, says it can also become a race issue.

"In Aotearoa we have such a large Polynesian population with Māori and Pasifika people, and more curvier women as well, and we should be doing more to be inclusive and celebrating our women's bodies," she says.

Udy says retailers often hold a "Pākehā perspective", and risk missing out on a "big target market" that impacts both women and men.

"From a consumer perspective being able to identify yourself in a brand and its offering is important and can build confidence."

Frances Lowe, founder and owner of Auckland-based made-to-order fashion label Loclaire, agrees many retailers are stuck on historical "normalised standards of beauty".

"It is definitely wrong to focus on the smaller end of the scale."

Lowe explains this was the main reason Loclaire changed its operating model to focus on made-to-order clothes in 2020, moving away from pre-made garments in sizes 6 to 14.

"I got great feedback, and not just to do with plus sizes but from people who were never able to get clothes off the rack, and that got me on a roll of realising how much people were missing out on with the traditional retail model," she says.

"People can be all different shapes and sizes and heights," Lowe adds.

"I think it is up to fashion brands to be able to reflect the community we live in."

Commercial realities

Murray Bevan, owner of fashion public relations agency Showroom22, says the fashion industry had always produced clothing based on demand.

Bevan, who deals with high-end labels such as Gucci and Jimmy Choo, says New Zealand's top-selling sizes at most retailers are 8, 10 and 12. Brands usually produce more volumes in these sizes, with "a sprinkling" of smaller and larger sizes either side.

He says the availability of larger sizes often comes down to demand.

"I know from brands that I've worked with before, there has never been [intended] discrimination against making bigger sizes or dressing larger women - it is just the commercial realities say that 'we are going to make the most of what we know we can sell'."

Murray Bevan founder of Showroom 22.

Murray Bevan. Photo: Derek Henderson

Another challenge for retailers is that producing a wide range of sizes is complex and expensive, says AUT senior fashion design lecturer Lisa McEwan​.

"If you have a garment that fits a size 8, for example, you can grade it up to a size 16 and that will work, but if you try to grade it up using the same pattern and same dimensions and try to turn that size 8 garment into a size 22, then you need a completely different outlook," she says.

"When you design in the industry generally you design for a size 10, and then you go down and go up."

McEwan points out that people hold extra weight in different places, which makes it hard to scale up from smaller designs for garments such as jeans.

"Do you do the pear-shaped jeans as well as the barrel-shaped jeans once you go into the big sizes? So now you're not just going up in sizes, you're diverting into two different shapes. That's where the complexities happen."

She says lower-cost retailers often have a greater size range because poorer people are disproportionately affected by obesity, and beyond that she suggests "someone looking at plus-size would potentially need to specialise in that area".

Retailers respond

Caroline Marr is amongst the few retailers specialising in the plus-size market.

Marr, founder of Auckland clothing store The Carpenter's Daughter, sells garments from sizes 16 to 24, and says she understands why mainstream retailers shy away from plus-size options.

"They are old-school and they don't want to change their business model as there is such a big cost involved," she says, adding that her own store does not cater to women who fit smaller sizes.

Marr says there are now more choices for bigger people compared to when she launched her Point Chevalier store 34 years ago, with noticeable growth in the past five years.

"A lot of those mainstream retail outlets started way before there was a big girl outcry," she says.

"Maxx Fashions, for example, has always done a size 16, and they have never pushed it any further, and now that we are all about self-acceptance and normalising so many things we are trying to push these mainstream retailers to have larger sizes within their ranges."

So where do the major retailers sit?

The Warehouse has perhaps the biggest range of clothing catering to larger-bodied people, offering sizes 8 through to 30 - advertised as XS through to 6XL.

Australian-owned Postie​ offers a similar range of sizes for both women and men, as does Kmart and mid-market department store Farmers, which has its own plus-size fashion section.

Farmers has in the past said size 18 was a top seller, when previously it had been a size 16. Its size 18 and 20 garments have taken off in popularity in the past five years, with size 22 picking up as well.

Mainstream womenswear retailer Glassons' clothing range goes up to size 16 (L), while affiliated menswear retailer Hallensteins goes up to XXXL. Parent company Hallenstein Glasson did not respond to requests for comment.

Huffer's garments stop at size 14 (size 16 in some styles); it says its garments are "very oversized" and therefore cater to more people.

Fashion label Juliette Hogan increased its largest size to 16 in 2020 in response to feedback, says marketing and digital head Lucy Slater.

"We are open to offering more sizes as long as it is economically viable to do so," she says.

"It is not always possible to simply grade a style increasingly smaller or larger - entirely new patterns and design work are required as proportions change."

Retail NZ's Greg Harford says ultimately it's up to an individual business as to what clothing sizes they offer and "what market they were looking to serve".

"It costs money to manufacture things in different sizes, it costs money to hold stock and there will be some boutiques that choose to restrict their ranges," he says.

"Some, of course, specialise in larger sizes, so customers really need to shop around."

Should larger-sized clothes cost more?

One suggested solution for meeting extra costs is to charge a higher price for plus-sized garments.

Bevan, the fashion publicist, reluctantly agrees there's a business case for charging more.

"The purist in me says 'no that is not fair, why should you be punished financially for being bigger than the next person', but from a business and cost point of view, I can understand why that might be the case," he says.

"In terms of the materials that go into it, they could probably justify there is more fabric or additional fabrics, and therefore it should cost slightly more."

Kmart appeared to go down this route earlier in 2022, charging $1 more on some of its larger-sized items including women's underwear. It later reversed the price discrepancy, claiming it was due to an isolated labelling error that had nothing to do with size.

The Warehouse acknowledges it does cost more to manufacture larger-sized clothing, but the retailer has decided not to pass costs on to consumers.

"We don't think our customers should pay more for the same item, so that means our clothing ranges will be priced the same, no matter what size," a spokesperson says.

Most New Zealand retailers follow suit, with additional costs for larger garments averaged out across the full size range.

Plus-size dollar

Marr, the plus-size retailer, says there's plenty of room for improvement when it comes to acceptance of larger-bodied fashion.

"There's a lot of backlash from people, but it is not an easy thing to correct quickly. It will take two to three years [to change]."

She says retailers who avoid the plus-size market do so at their own peril.

"They have the same amount of money to spend as any other person regardless of their size."

Jess Molina, the plus-size influencer, says she'll gladly take her money elsewhere if clothing stores aren't welcoming.

"In 2022, surely they already know that people beyond XL exist," she says.

"Demand is clearly there. Everybody wears clothes. It's ridiculous when these brands still pretend otherwise."

Molina says while it's disappointing, it's also not surprising, and she's decided it's a waste of time trying to convince retailers to be more size-inclusive.

"When a brand shows me that they don't want my money, I don't spend time or energy trying to convince them of my worth any more."

* This story was first published on Stuff.

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