Why Do So Many Plus-Size Fashion Launches Fall Short?

On paper, Old Navy had done everything right with Bodequality, its 2021 plus-size initiative: The brand stocked up to size 28 in stores, created size-inclusive imagery and campaigns, reexamined its size chart to more accurately cater to customers with curves, and employed fit models and mannequins of various sizes. For many plus-size shoppers, it felt like a win in the fight for size-inclusivity in fashion. And yet in May, not even a year later, Old Navy scaled back Bodequality, citing that it had a low return on investment.

An update posted to Gap Inc’s FAQ page stated that extended sizes will be pulled from 75 stores in the United States and 15 in Canada: “Based on customer demand and supply chain challenges, we made the decision to remove select extended sizes from a small number of stores.” While this will still leave over 90% of the Bodequality-focused stores with the full-size range, it’s a blow to what many saw as the ultimate blueprint for other brands to follow. (The full-size range will continue to be available online.)

“We have not seen the expected demand for extended size products in our stores,” the brand wrote in a statement provided to Refinery29. “As such, [we] will be further realigning our in-store inventory later this year to better meet demand.”

In a time when the financial worth of plus-size fashion is thrown around with little context behind it — the most common being that the market is valued at $24 billion dollars — it appears Old Navy has fallen into a problem that predecessors like Loft have experienced as well: potential versus probability. With over 68% of American women wearing plus sizes, there’s no denying how widespread (and underserved) this market is but, as plus-size initiatives continue to fall short, there seems to be a disconnect between brand and consumer.

Old Navy did precisely what many in the plus-size community have long been asking for: It offered size equality and representation, from imagery to options offered in-store; it showcased extended sizes alongside straight sizes, rather than relegating them to the back of the store. The brand also garnered loads of press and national attention in the process. Which leaves the question: Why wasn’t Bodequality successful enough?

An inclusive in-store assortment is central to what fashion equality entails. The reality is, however, that plus-size shoppers have been conditioned for decades to buy clothing online as a result of stores rarely offering extended sizes in stores. (The pandemic has only pushed more shoppers to shop online.) “Old Navy had hard-core trained plus-sized people 10 years ago when they pulled plus sizes out that you have to shop online only,” says Marie Denee, founder of The Curvy Fashionista. “So to get [shoppers] inside the store requires more of a marketing lift.”

In a world where it’s all or nothing, too often, the outcome ends up being nothing. Because ‘all’ is just too hard.

Nadia Boujarwah, DIA&CO CEO and co-founder

Nadia Boujarwah, CEO and co-founder of Dia&Co — which acquired luxury plus-size retailer 11 Honore in June — explains that plus-size launches typically fail for one of three reasons: First, due to bad fit. Second, at the hands of poor marketing. And third, because of an obscene amount of time pressure to perform quickly. She places Old Navy in the latter group: “The reality is that [something like this] takes time, and that’s where it seems to have come apart.” Garnering a loyal fanbase of plus-size customers will take more than a campaign moment. In fact, it requires a movement.

That’s precisely how plus-size fashion was started back in the 1900s. “Plus [category] grew from grassroots up, not from top down,” says Denee. While early pioneers like Lane Bryant launched in 1904, it would take until the late 1990s for these brands to become household names with loyal followings. The instant gratification of social media has blurred many from understanding that slow, consistent growth is the only way to achieve long-term results. Much like the plus-size fashion movement itself, brands and businesses must take time to become truly inclusive. The rationale that small steps forward are “not enough” — while fair given the fashion’s industry’s slow embrace of size inclusivity — is limiting and damaging as it often prohibits brands from diving into the plus category out of fear of consumer backlash.

“Brands want to be able to kind of make big statements,” Boujarwah says. “And I think that’s partially because they feel like that’s what their customers want to hear. [But] in the desire to wait until there’s something very big to announce, we miss so many other opportunities for progress.”

She adds, “In a world where it’s all or nothing, too often, the outcome ends up being nothing. Because ‘all’ is just too hard.”

But slow and steady may, indeed, win the race. At least that seems to be the case for Rue21, which has also prioritized extended sizes over the past year. “With any new initiative, you take it in phases,” says Candace Kearney, senior director of plus merchandising of Rue21, which has been building its plus-size assortment in-store and online through the pandemic. The brand began by incorporating plus into a smaller percentage of stores, then growing it nationally as the demand grew as well. Now, more than 70% of its stores carry extended sizes. “We launched that [initiative], we learned from it, we’ve refined and readjusted, and then we rolled out those successes,” says Kearney.

That step-by-step process allows a brand more time to build out a customer base that previously didn’t exist while maintaining its existing customer base. “It’s most efficient to focus on customers you have rather than try to build new ones,” says Micki Krimmel, founder and CEO of size-inclusive brand Superfit Hero. “Expanding from a 2X to 3X is not necessarily the ‘revolution’ that the fat community is looking for, but it makes sense for [brands like] Athleta, for instance, that have built into plus slowly. They market their commitment to inclusivity while still focusing on their current customer.” (Like Old Navy, Athleta is owned by Gap, Inc.)

Despite the brand’s numerous controversies, Shein has become popular in the plus-size space for its array of options. In a statement issued to Refinery29 regarding the company’s approach to plus, a Shein spokesperson said that its business model uses “market demand to predict sales and control production… If the item doesn’t sell as expected, we stop the production process. Analyzing demand in real-time for items combined with our agile supply chain allows us to maintain a wide offering for customers seeking a range of sizes.”

Plus-size consumers have been perpetually let down by brands; our frustrations are warranted. But remembering that real change is never instant is an important mindset to maintain as more labels attempt to expand their size-inclusive offerings. The only way to ensure that a new size initiative succeeds is to build a strong plus-size customer base. However, what the history of brands like Lane Bryant has made clear, is that doing so requires time, effort, and commitment. A brand must convince its customers that it’s here for the long haul to ensure any loyalty in the future.

According to Old Navy, it’s readjusting its offerings to meet current demand and grow its plus-size market in the future. Time will tell what that means, but, in the meantime, plus-size customers will be watching.

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