Why Plus Size is Profitable
In this podcast, I ask curvy customer expert Holly Jackson what it takes to succeed in the plus-sized market.
Holly Jackson is a digital content specialist, well-known lingerie consultant and fashion expert. Her work has been featured in Vogue Italia, on The Toast, Buzzfeed and other magazines and fashion sites. She currently writes on a monthly basis for The Lingerie Addict, The Lingerie Journal, The Breast Life, and A Sophisticated Pair Boutique.
Curvy Market Extras
Why Plus Size is Profitable
Brandon: In today’s podcast I’m talking with Curvy market expert, Holly Jackson, on what it takes to succeed in this space. As long as brands are willing to do it the right way, this can be a very lucrative segment to tap into and there’s a very good reason why, as Holly covers during this conversation. The key, however, is to do it in the right way.
The trouble is, that’s not always obvious. It is quite easy to make mistakes, so we’re going to talk about the specifics of what’s needed to win here, some brands that are doing things really well and worth studying, and we’ll talk about one example of a brand that make a great effort, got close to the finish line and then stumbled and it led to a lot of negativity online.
We’ll talk about the biggest complaint the market has, and the totally counter-intuitive key to really understanding the current customer, so let’s jump in.
Brandon: Hello everyone. I have with me today Holly Jackson. Holly is a specialist content writer who’s been consulting with the lingerie industry, focusing on plus-size lingerie and fashion. Her work has been featured in Vogue Italy, on The Toast, Buzzfeed, as well as other magazines and fashion sites. Holly, welcome to the program.
Holly: Thanks for having me.
Brandon: To kick things off, could you give us a little bit of an overview on who the curvy client actually is and the market that she resides in?
Holly: I think both what confuses people and should make this easy for people when they’re marketing to curvy women is that if you think of all the curvy or, as I think we would say within the plus-size community, all the fat women you know, they are the curvy client. That can be stylish 30-year-olds, that can be your mom, that can be this huge range of women.
With the rise of Instagram we tend to now picture the curvy client as these really stylish Instagram influencers, but the community is much broader than that. It’s from people looking for high-fashion pieces to people who just want a nice pair of pants to wear to work. If you picture all the women you know in your life who are larger, there’s a huge variety of styles and ages and interests, and that means the community is actually really broad and diverse.
Brandon: I suppose carrying on that particular question, when brands are focusing on the plus-size woman, who is that exactly? If the market is so broad, who is this specific market that brands are focusing on?
olly: In North America I would say that it tends to be women who are looking for fashionable pieces, whether that’s lingerie or clothing. But I’ll also say in part that’s driven by a need to feel fashionable to offset plus-size-ness in public. If you hang out in the community there’s a lot of talk about how women try to be put together to offset this idea that they have a less desirable body type.
In part, I think the interest in fashion in the community, some of it is genuine interest and love of fashion and wanting to play around with clothes, and part of it is women who are just trying to look really nice so they can get ahead at work or not stand out so much, which I think is different than how a lot of other people discover fashion.
A lot of other people discover that fashion is fun, whereas I think a lot of plus-size women discover fashionable clothes as a necessity or an armor mechanism in life, which is a very different community that you’re marketing to in that case.
When you look in the community, when they’re talking about clothes they’re also talking about that kind of thing, kind of political stuff and political awareness, an awareness of how companies, especially clothing and lingerie companies, relate to plus-size bodies, which I think makes it a unique community to market to, but also from the brands I’ve worked with also sort of a scarier community to market to.
Brandon: In what way, would you say?
Holly: I think they pay attention. For instance, there’s a great example. Anthropologie just launched plus sizes, which people have been asking for for years. Everyone loves Anthropologie so they got a lot of good press.
They launched a great collection, a large collection actually, which was unexpected, and then a couple days later people found out they had put almost none of it in their physical stores. People got really upset because obviously the implication is they want fat women to buy these clothes, but they don’t want to see them clogging up the atmosphere of their stores, and people were understandably upset.
I’m not sure that’s something another community would have cared about or maybe even have thought about, so obviously that was all over social media two or three days later. It was an immediate backlash and people were on social media talking about it and writing articles about it.
I think that’s the kind of thing that makes people nervous sometimes about marketing to the curvy community. They are more aware. They are more likely to stick up for themselves and say, “No, you didn’t do enough. This isn’t enough,” and that can be very intimidating if you don’t understand the perspective and where people are coming from.
Brandon: That’s very fascinating. Obviously the plus-size market is much more empowered than previously. How has the market actually changed, to take a step back for a minute? How has the market changed in the last 5 or 10 years?
Holly: The market has gotten so much better. It’s still not what you can get in core sizes. I wasn’t always plus-size, but in college I became plus-size and really all I could buy was Wal-Mart. There was nothing. It was terrible. Now there are more options out there than my bank account can possibly access, which is amazing in itself. The options still tend to be low quality, but there are lots of different types of fashion represented, which I think is a huge change.
I also think that the brands dealing with plus size have grown up a lot. I think they’ve started listening to what plus-size women actually want to be wearing, rather than trying to dictate what they think they should be wearing, which I think is a huge change again. You’ve even seen a lot of brands like Elloquii, which is this big online brand, just get bought out by Wal-Mart so they could expand, and they’re doing collaboration collections with Jason Wu and other designers. There were five major high-end designer collaborations and that was just unheard of.
Things have gotten much, much better. They’re still not the same, which I think is the goal, that you can find all the same options in any size, but they’re definitely so much improved.
Brandon: I take it that the trends are in the right direction and this is something that is likely to continue.
Holly: The trends are in the right direction. I think the issues that you see now are – again, I think this Anthropologie situation is the same thing, brands figuring out that maybe plus-size women want clothes and then just screwing up something like that, screwing up some part of the launch or doing a collection that’s terrible and then maybe doing a next collection that’s better, and over time their designs get better. We’ve seen that with a bunch of brands, where they ended up making great clothes, but their first couple collections were just sort of clueless.
Brandon: Right, big learning pains.
Holly: Yeah, some brands are having to kind of change how they design. I was looking at a dress the other day to buy it on a site and it was a brand that hasn’t done plus-size – it was a capsule collection – except the measurement ratio was completely unlike any plus-size body I’ve ever encountered. I realized they just scaled it up from a size 2 and it’s not going to fit anybody, even if it comes in a 16 or 18 or 20. It’s still not actually going to fit anyone who’s that size.
Even by looking at the measurement chart I thought, “Oh, they just scaled this up. They didn’t actually think about it or test it,” and I didn’t buy it.
Brandon: Why would you? It’s interesting, I was reading something not too long ago and it was the justification for a traditional fashion brand not to do plus-size. The reason they stated is because they would have to re-design their clothing, exactly what you just said, because the measurements were different and they didn’t want to do that. I thought that was a terrible justification for it.
Holly: One of the interesting things now is you see companies that are doing plus-size really well renting out their designers and systems. For instance, Universal Standard has done these collaboration collections with J. Crew and actually Gwyneth Paltrow, and they’re essentially renting out their designers and their fit testers to other brands so they don’t have to pay for that part separately. You can essentially pay to lease Universal Standard’s system and designers, and then make your pieces, and then they can really make them into a good plus-size collection, but you don’t have to figure that part out.
11 Honore is doing something similar in the luxury market with runway designers, so there are ways now to do it where companies don’t have to do it from scratch, which I think is probably going to help with expansion because that is hard to figure out and expensive. Now if you can rent a team that has a sizing system and has a fit system, where you’re just modifying pieces rather than re-designing from scratch, I think that’s going to be less of a hurdle for a lot of companies.
Brandon: From a market opportunity, I remember in a previous conversation you mentioned that the plus-size market as a whole is growing quite a bit faster than the general market as a whole.
Holly: Oh yeah. All the time I hear from companies I work with or companies I write about and I’m researching that if they have two divisions, the curvy division is the only one that’s growing. The other divisions aren’t growing, and curvy is the only thing that people are buying and asking about, so there are statistics to support that.
Also it’s clear just from conversations I have with people at work that there’s such a demand for that and that there’s so much money in that community that they really want to spend. People are begging to spend their money on great stuff. They’re on social media begging companies to make things that they can spend their money on, which I think is really unique.
They’re also trained not to buy on sale, which is a huge thing if you’re a company. Plus-size women are trained that there’s never anything on sale, and if their clothes cost more it’s okay, which is a really advantageous thing if you’re a company.
Brandon: That is a phenomenal insight right there. I know a lot of brands struggle with that because in recent years people have become conditioned to expect sales so they don’t buy otherwise, and then you have the challenge of lower margins because of all the sales when you do discounts.
Holly: Right, and plus-size women don’t really ever expect sales. They’re just happy to have the dress they want. They don’t really care beyond that. They’re thrilled to be able to buy it and they’ll probably say, “Thank you for making it” on social media in the process.
Brandon: That raises a very interesting question, actually. When working with clients in the fashion business, people don’t buy just to cover themselves with some sort of textile to protect against the elements. They buy for another reason. Otherwise, everyone would shop at Wal-Mart because it’s the lowest price for that purpose.
They buy for maybe story, maybe a look, maybe some sort of aspiration. Especially in the luxury business it’s very much aspirational. So when we’re developing campaigns for clients and doing their graphics we ask our clients, “What does your customer secretly desperately want that you can summarize in your marketing materials and in your graphics, that will deliver that to them, that will convince them that your product can deliver that?”
How do you answer that question? What does the curvy client secretly desperately want?
Holly: I actually think it’s not so secret. I think any company that hangs out in plus-size spaces on social media has to be stupid if they don’t understand it. Really, plus-size people just want to be given the same options that core sizes are given, which seems simple but I know is really complicated in terms of funding and in terms of research and in terms of sizing. That’s all people want.
But we also touched on earlier there’s a secondary factor that if you are plus-size in general, you are not treated as well as someone who is smaller. People are – I think ‘suspicious’ is a little extreme – but people are wary of companies that accept their money but maybe they feel like the companies aren’t really accepting of them.
Again going back to the Anthropologie situation, they’re wary of that kind of situation, and in some ways I think plus-size customers – especially ones that hang out on social media like Instagram or Facebook and are talking about these issues – are almost political spenders. They will go out of their way to spend money with companies who they feel really respect them and care about them and actually want them as customers.
I think a good brand really needs to find a way in their marketing, whether it’s the models they’re using or the re-touching they’re doing or what they’re saying, they need to find a way to communicate that these customers are really valued, that it isn’t kind of a bait and switch just to get their money. I think that’s really important to be successful long-term in that space.
Brandon: You’ve mentioned a couple brands that are doing it well, and a couple that are struggling. Just generally, what’s the best in class right now? What brands are just killing it when it comes to serving this particular segment?
Holly: For lingerie, Elomi is kind of the standard and it has been for years, and there’s a reason no one has dethroned them yet. They’re doing amazing things. Scantilly definitely gets an honorable mention. They’re the Curvy Kate spinoff. They’re doing kind of bedroom lingerie, but no one was doing that in the larger sizes for a long, long time, and they’re stuff is really great.
For online brands, Mod Cloth and Elloquii and Universal Standard are the big three that I think a lot of people shop at. Looking at the way they’ve dealt with plus sizes advertising I think is a great lesson for how to do it well.
For luxury, 11 Honore launched last year I think, and they’re working with designers to take runway pieces and make them plus-size and sell them, so all the things you can buy at luxury department stores, everything from a $300 dress to a $10,000 ball gown you can actually buy up to a size 20 now on 11 Honore, which again is totally revolutionary. No one has ever done that before. They’re also doing what I talked about earlier, where they’re lending their design team to these designers to make those options possible.
The last category is there are lots of small indie brands that are specifically plus-positive in their mission statement. There’s a new one that just launched called Cutting Shapes Club and they make only plus-size dresses and they’re all custom illustrated prints, like they made a dress that said “Riots Not Diets” as part of their launch – again, almost political fashion. It’s cute and fashionable but almost politically minded body-positive stuff, and they sold out immediately.
Brandon: So of the brands that are really doing well in this market, what specifically are they doing that has allowed them to capture great market share and ultimately connect well with the curvy market?
Holly: Some of it is almost political advocacy. If you look at especially the marketing that Universal Standard has always done, and Elloquii, their models are really actually plus-size. Mod Cloth has been developing size-free stores now, where I think they carry size 0 to 4X all in the same store. Universal Standard opened a pop-up in New York that was size 0 to size 40 all in the same store. No one else is doing that kind of stuff. They’re leading in terms of the shopping experience and the way we can think of shopping in the future.
I talked about 11 Honore doing luxury. Luxury is unheard of in plus-size, and one of the big complaints that people have is that you can get trendy pieces but not quality pieces, so the fact that they’re selling high-quality designer pieces is a really big deal. You can buy an investment coat and have it for 10 years now, and you just couldn’t do that easily before they launched.
I think in some ways offering something new and different that really does fill a hole in the market – and there are lots of those areas that companies could get into – is really valuable.
Brandon: I suppose you could say that there’s not a lot of magic.
Holly: I completely agree. I think the key, and I think this is the hard part and I don’t know how to say this without sounding harsh, but you have to genuinely not hate the client.
I have been in so many meetings with people who make up to a 6X and I say, “Why don’t you guys have a plus-size model?” and they say, “Oh, we just don’t think that’s a great aesthetic.” I say, “But you make up to 6X and your model’s a size 8,” and they say, “Well, we just don’t like that visual.” That’s the kind of thing where companies are preventing themselves from doing better with that kind of attitude.
Brandon: I can imagine that is definitely a challenge for you to have them as clients and trying to work with that.
Holly: One of the good things I do get to do is I get to advocate. Sometimes you say, “Why don’t you have a plus-size model?” and people go, “Oh, I never thought about that,” and sometimes people push back. I sort of feel like at least if I’m around I can be pushing people a little bit, and I am known for pushing my clients a little bit when I feel like I can and it’s appropriate.
But I do think lots of people just don’t like plus-size people. That’s a fact of life, and a lot of people don’t want to spend money taking pictures of them and having that as part of their image. If people really want to make money off that segment of customers they’re going to have to get over that.
Brandon: Here’s a question, and I love asking this particular question even if it’s a little bit long-winded. If you were sitting in front of a very well-experienced creative director or marketing director of a well-established lingerie brand and they asked you, “Holly, tell me something about the curvy consumer I don’t yet know,” how would you answer that?
Holly: I would probably ask them how much they’re actually hanging out in curvy spaces. I work with a lot of companies and I know a lot of them market to curvier women, but they have never looked at an Instagram hashtag for body positivity. They have never watched Shrill or Dietland, these shows on TV that feature plus-size women, which everybody is watching and talking about. They’ve never tried to engage with the community or see what they’re talking about or how they describe themselves or what they’re interested in.
I think that’s a really big part of it, not that you have to get in there and engage, but that you should at least be comfortable hanging out in that space and talking to people in that space where they are. I think that’s really important. A lot of companies just put out stuff, but they don’t realize that how you talk about it is part of what really encourages people to buy from you. Just having the stuff isn’t necessarily enough.
Brandon: Very good. We’re pretty much out of time. Do you want to do a quick callout on the type of services that you offer?
Holly: Sure. I offer content writing and ghost writing and consulting. Those are my main services, and I’m very friendly and approachable so people should contact me. I work with a lot of new plus-size businesses as well, especially right now.
Brandon: How can they get in touch with you? Have you got a website or an Instagram?
Holly: The website is www.thefullfiguredchest.com.
Brandon: Very good. Holly, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the program today. Thank you very much.
Holly: Thank you so much for having me.