When Sal Pérez, a stylist and costume designer, was dressing actress Rebel Wilson for her role in the movie “Pitch Perfect 2,” he had to find clothes for 20 outfit changes.
This was an even bigger challenge than it sounds. Wilson is a plus-size actress working in a less-than-zero world.
Pérez ended up finding some items online and designing others, which were made in his costume workshop.
“Trying to find plus-size clothes that are fashionable and well made is very difficult,” he said. “I am horrified by some of the clothes I find in the stores. I don’t know anyone who enjoys wearing polyester. I think the fashion industry has to realize the potential the plus-size market has.”
Styles for plus sizes, which range from 14 to 24, have long been characterized by down-market, back-of-the-store racks of drab tent-dresses, garishly decorated blouses and polyester pants. The uniformly dark colors and generous silhouettes serve the sole purpose of covering up and deflecting attention from the body.
But a new crop of online boutiques, retailers and designers is trying to make plus-size styles more fashion forward. Instead of elastic-waist pants and muumuu dresses, these companies offer clothes that reflect the runways (think jumpsuits), surpass the smock (leather pants) and even show a little skin (crop tops).
The plus-size customer is “really letting her hair down for the first time,” said Marie Jean-Baptiste, the founder and designer of Rue107, which sells form-fitting mesh dresses ($110) and purple metallic jumpsuits ($59, on sale from $89) in sizes S to 3X.
Customers have clamored for more and better options. Last spring Sarah Chiwaya, 30, a lawyer in Manhattan, attended a fashion event at Saks Fifth Avenue. Captivated by a perforated leather midi skirt from Tibi, she was ready to spend. But the skirt was available only in small sizes.
“I would have bought it immediately if it were in my size, 16,” she said.
Frustrated, Chiwaya turned to her blog, Curvily, and bemoaned the lack of options. She used a hashtag, #plussizeplease, that has been adopted by others across all sorts of social platforms like Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter.
“I wanted it to be a way to show retailers the money they’re losing,” she said.
The market, in fact, is robust. The average American woman wears a size 14, and women wearing size 14 and up account for 67 percent of the population, according to the industry analyst firm Plunkett Research Ltd. Last summer, the NPD Group reported that plus-size clothing sales grew more than 5 percent from May 2013 to April 2014, going from $16.7 billion to $17.5 billion.
That is perhaps why youthful-leaning, mass-market retailers like Asos, H&M, Mango, Wet Seal, ModCloth and Forever 21 have begun selling either an expanded size range or a dedicated plus-size line.
“We work in the exact same way as Asos‘ core brand,” said Natasha Smith, a buyer for the new line, Asos Curve, in London. “There’s nothing we wouldn’t try: hot pants, bodysuits.”
Several new companies are making plus-size their sole focus. One is Eloquii, which aims to do for the plus market what Zara has done in the mainstream market: offer customers options that mimic runway trends but at prices that are lower than those in boutiques and department stores.
Currently, Eloquii is showing items like a leopard-print baseball jacket ($138), a cashmere sweater with Breton stripes ($138) and faux leather culottes ($98).
Eloquii was originally started in 2011 as a sister brand to the Limited, but was closed in 2013 when the Limited decided to shed its non-core brands. A group of former employees, including the creative director, Jodi Arnold, restarted the brand last year. (Its products are available on the label’s website as well as on Nordstrom.com). A former Gilt executive, John Auerbach, is a founding investor.
“The team doesn’t have a plus background, which is a good thing,” said Mariah Chase, the company’s chief executive, using industry jargon to refer to the plus-size niche.
“The starting point is trends, the runway,” Arnold added.
For example, Eloquii’s Cady pant (made in an array of fabrics, from $88 in a graphic rose print to $78 in solid navy) is “a structured, fitted pant where our customer has just gotten stretch before,” Chase said. A faux-leather fitted midi skirt, $128, sold out in 72 hours, according to Arnold. The company has recently raised $6 million from investors.
In a skinny-celebrity-obsessed world, it has been difficult to overcome the dowdy image of plus size. What’s more, many women are uncomfortable identifying themselves as plus-size shoppers, which hampers word-of-mouth.
But social media is helping to change that, said Aimee Cheshire, the president and a founder of HeyGorgeous.com, an online boutique that carries pieces from ABS By Allen Schwartz (wrap dress, $198), Lucky Brand denim (black straight-leg jeans, $89.50) and Ellen Tracy (angora coat, $169) in sizes 10 and up.
“I'll get emails asking, ‘How do I recommend it to my friend without offending her?’” Cheshire said. “I always say share it on Facebook.”
She said she tries to encourage plus-size women to openly embrace their personal style rather than hide their shape. HeyGorgeous tells these women they “aren’t the ugly stepsister, they’re our main woman,” Cheshire said.
“They’re not used to being wanted,” she said. “There’s no aspiration, no Vogue for the plus sized.”
Most plus-size clothes could be divided into three segments: “work wear, club wear and grandma clothes,” said Nicolette Mason, a plus-size fashion blogger. The problem has not been just a lack of options for consumers, but retailers’ belief that plus-sized women can’t support a high-fashion niche.
“When you’re taught to look at your body as a work in progress, you’re not going to spend $1,000 on a coat to last forever because you’re not hoping for it to last forever,” Mason said.
Gwynnie Bee, a clothing rental subscription service for sizes 10 to 32, is a more casual version of Rent the Runway (which began its own plus-size division in 2013). The site carries lines like BB Dakota and Three Dots. A $35-a-month commitment will get you one piece of clothing at a time; 10 pieces will cost $159 a month.
In the shadow of all the new focus on how to dress a larger woman, mainstays of the fashion industry that have helped propagate the connection between high fashion and small sizes are showing a greater willingness to embrace a curvier world. Calvin Klein used model Myla Dalbesio, who is a size 10, in a lingerie campaign. In November, Vogue.com shot a lingerie spread using plus-size models.
The 2015 Pirelli calendar, shot by Steven Meisel and styled by Carine Roitfeld, included the plus-size model Candice Huffine. Two edgy clothing lines, Chromat and Zana Bayne, sent plus-size models down the runway in their presentations last September.
For now, any competition is welcome.
“I would love to have more places to shop, for it to be a fun leisure activity with multiple sources,” said Kelly Goldston, the director of marketing at Eloquii. As more plus-size women get into the habit of expressing their personal style, business will be better for everyone involved, she said, adding, “New players would be good for us.”