Alexandra Waldman, Co-Founder and Creative Director of Universal Standard wasted no time in defending “Plus Size Fashion Has No Future,” the title of her SXSW session. She noted that if one evaluates the female apparel shopper in the United States, “A medium is now a size 18-20. If designers can get a medium right, then everything else should fall into line.” The company’s goal is nothing less than a sizing mind-shift. “We want to take size out of the equation.” Universal Standard wants to be a brand for women, not just plus size women. They are working to build a brand where size doesn’t matter and the only question a consumer should ask is, do I like this? While the brand has picked a distinct stylistic “lane,” one that might not work for everyone, they hope that many more brands will expand their sizing. Waldman said, “We want to set an example.”
The partners’ origin story began with shopping. Both founders came from finance backgrounds with no experience in the fashion industry. They began as many startups do, with a consumer pain point, and then developed the brand from there. While Veksler had endless fashion choices, Waldman said, “I could not find a T-shirt that took me seriously as an adult, they were covered with flowers or cats, and I was supposed to wear them with palazzo pants. Remember, I now represent 70 percent of the population of the United States.” A New York Times article with the pair quotes Waldman describing plus size fashion as “mostly a semi-disposable hodgepodge of fast fashion.” At SXSW she said, “Most Plus Sized departments were so full of polyester that if you walked through them too quickly, you could set yourself on fire.”
Perhaps this is why Universal Standard began manufacturing their clothing in Peru. In Peru according to Polina, they have the best cotton. They also have factories willing to work with the very specific sizing and micro-grading that are foundational to their designs. The complications of size inclusive apparel are not lost on Universal Standard. Veksler said, “The costs are very different for a 2 and a 32,” and this differential is built into their pricing model. According to Waldman, “In a plus size world, we are considered a luxury brand even though our prices are comparable to a Club Monaco.”
While Universal Standard aims to set an example of style inclusivity, other innovative retailers concentrating on serving the traditional plus size market are gaining momentum. In plus size luxury, 11 Honorè is a leader. The venture capital-backed company works with designers including 3.1 Phillip Lim, Marc Jacobs, Christian Siriano, Marchesa and 70+ others offering high-end designs ranging from a size 10 to a 24. A recent article in WWD stated that the retailer’s number-one-selling size is a U.S. 20. In the same article, Founder and CEO, Patrick Herning was quoted, “We have been so successful at disrupting the conversation that we are the leaders in the luxury-plus category, and we are establishing what the new runway looks like. The article continued, “Seventy percent of the U.S.’s female population is size 14 or higher, which represents a $20 billion opportunity.” Heming said, “When I was launching, I was constantly told this customer is not interested in luxury fashion and not wanting to spend on luxury fashion. But a majority of plus women say that if they had the options, they would be spending more.”
Customer sentiment surveys back up these observations with quantitative data. A Fung Global Retail and Technology Plus Size Shopper’s Attitude Survey illustrates the enthusiasm for size inclusivity and more designer engagement in the market. Recent publicly available funding and acquisition figures, as well as observable retail innovation in this segment, illustrate that this market is gaining momentum.
First the Data, then the Dollars
Dia & Co. joins Universal Standard and 11 Honorè in this space with a plus size personal stylist, subscription-based service. According to TechCrunch, as of November 2018, Dia & Co. has raised over $95 million in multiple fundraising rounds and they now have four million users. Union Square Ventures partner and Dia & Co. board member Rebecca Kaden told Emma Hinchliffe of Fortune “I’ve spent the last six-and-a-half years as a consumer investor, watching different consumer transactional markets develop, and it’s rare you see one like this where there’s a real white space in the market. Generally, there’s an opportunity in commerce to make a better product, lower a price point, change a supply chain, but almost never do you see something where there’s a true supply-and-demand imbalance when there’s a mass market not being served by anything out there.”
Walmart read the same tea leaves and responded by acquiring the direct-to-consumer plus size fashion brand Eloqui in October 2018. Although Walmart did not disclose the brand’s purchase price, Recode Media reported the figure as $100 million. Other large retailers are making a strong commitment to an evolving size model. Kohl’s recently introduced a new private label brand EVRI. Anthropologie, Ann Taylor Loft, Nike, and others are also expanding their size offerings, making the same patterns and colors available to an expanded customer base. On another note, Target ‘s new plus size line Universal Thread invited a copyright infringement suit from Universal Standard in July 2018.
Whether approaching the opportunity from a size inclusive or the more traditional plus-size perspective, the market value forecasts of apparel in this segment are rising. A Duff & Phelps Coresight Research study predicts that the plus size women’s apparel market value in the United States will be $46.5 billion by 2021.
This size-shift is not exclusive to the United States. Euromonitor reports a substantial market value increase in many of the BRIC countries. They project India’s increase to be from $54 million in 2018 to $70 million in 2021, and China’s from $295 million in 2018 to $319 million in 2021.
While these brands may have divergent goals, approaches, and missions, there is a recognition of a shift in customer needs and expectations. The siren call of market share has spurred innovation and competition for this customer, as such, the level of service and offerings have risen. Universal Standard uses fit models for every design in every size. When they shoot their collections, each item is photographed in every size available. This effort enables their customers to see the items on a like-sized model, and it reflects a new level of respect for customers of all sizes. Dia &. Co. has partnered with the CFDA to fund classes to educate future designers on how to design for bodies that are larger than a sample size. Retailers are expanding mannequin sizes to better reflect a variety of body shapes and the traditional plus size is no longer necessarily relegated to its own department, with the larger sizes sharing an expanded rack. If these shifts become the norm, while this market is likely to continue to surge, the plus size moniker may fade, and the goals of Universal Standard will become the industry standard.