Why Major Brands Should Be Paying Closer Attention to the Plus-Size Market

Imagine hitting the homestretch of the New York City marathon, with a few miles left to go, only to be heckled by a man about your body size. That happened to athlete Latoya Shauntay Snell in 2017, when she was fat shamed while completing one of the most physical activities in sports.

Despite being an ultra-runner who is attempting to complete 14 marathons this year, Shauntay Snell shared with FN that she has experienced shame for being a plus-size woman not only from individuals but also on a consumer level. In particular, she pointed to the lack of representation of women who look like her in a multitude of mediums — specifically in the fashion and athletic markets.

“The moment I became plus-size, I’ve been conditioned not to be seen,” she said, citing the demoralizing effects of minimal sizing and product offerings from brands. “To me, the industry is trying to find ways to say either you’re this or you’re out. Either you are going to lose some weight and comply the way that we want you to or too bad. It’s this exclusive club you can’t get into. And it’s complete garbage.”

Latoya Shauntay Snell
Latoya Shauntay Snell ran the Berlin Marathon on Sept. 29.
CREDIT: Courtesy of W. Eric Snell/E. Snell Design

With an estimated 67% of American women wearing a size 14 or higher, this group represents a majority among consumers, yet experts say they are not being serviced properly. And not only is that a misstep in today’s hyper-conscious society, but also a missed revenue opportunity for companies. “The average woman in the United States is a size 16, and that’s not even covered by buying size XL,” said Matt Powell, senior sports industry adviser at The NPD Group Inc.

“Brands are starting to realize how much business is on the table,” Powell continued. “The consumer is telling us that she wants to buy these products, and she will step up.”

According to NPD, for the first eight months of 2019 (compared to the same period last year), sales of plus-size activewear rose 7%, while missy (regular) sizes decreased 3%.

Meanwhile, outside of athletic, the plus-size women’s apparel market shows no signs of slowing either, as it’s projected to grow to $24 billion by 2020, according to Statista.

Steps in the Right Direction

For Shauntay Snell, she has begun using her platform on social media to promote body positivity as a plus-size athlete. Other public figures have done the same, including actress Jameela Jamil, who played an important role in getting Instagram to block users under 18 from seeing content promoting weight-loss product last month. And Rihanna made headlines during New York Fashion Week for presenting a range of body types in her Fenty runway show.

Additionally, some companies seem to be catching up to the zeitgeist. Within the last year, major fashion brands and designers including American Eagle Outfitters, Anthropologie, Athleta, Rebecca Minkoff, Reformation and Veronica Beard have responded to the demand for extended sizes. And it’s trickling down to shoes.

For instance, in March, Canadian plus-size brand Addition Elle teamed up with Aldo Product Services to create wide strappy sandals, heels and ankle boots that cater to its consumers.

And last month, Fashion to Figure, another plus-size brand, made its foray into footwear with help from influencer Nadia Aboulhosn. The two launched a line of wide-width thigh-high and ankle boots, product that Aboulhosn complained has been missing in the market.

President Nick Kaplan pointed out that boots are the No. 2 search item on the site, so there was good cause to take this step. “This collection was about leveraging our resources to execute an amazing design and leverage internally all the bodies we have to come up with the perfect fit,” he said. “This is a declarative that we are in the shoe business.”

Fashion to Figure, thigh-high boots, Nadia Aboulhosn
Nadia Aboulhosn x Fashion to Figure wide-width thigh-high boots.
CREDIT: Courtesy of company

On a mass level, Target has also begun addressing sizing concerns around footwear, announcing in June that for fall it would introduce more than 100 new styles in wide widths, including ballet flats, booties and heels.

The retailer is not alone. Other footwear brands, such as Clarks, Naturalizer and Easy Spirit have long served the size-and-width market, though they’re now recognizing the need is coming from younger consumers and from those looking for fashion-focused styles.

The Push for More

Though progress is being made in the body positivity conversation, for many, change is not happening fast enough.

Micki Krimmel decided to launch her L.A. activewear line Superfit Hero with a mission to create a feminist brand that’s size inclusive and sponsors plus-size athletes, including Shauntay Snell, weightlifter Sarah Robles and fitness instructor Roz Mays.

“Our cultural fat phobia runs so deep that we find excuses to excuse it. We are just trying to shine a light on people who have been ignored,” said Krimmel. “Athletes and women who have been left out for so long are not OK with being left out anymore.”

In addition to offering products size XS to 5XL, which has been fit tested and approved by athletes, the site features a directory for body-positive fitness trainers who are committed to inclusivity and acceptance of all body types.

Shauntay Snell said, “Micki turned me into a superhero. This is possible. So why are the larger companies not getting on board? The moment we want to run, none of these things are available. Not because they can’t be made. They choose not to make it available.”

She added, “Companies need to invite willing people like myself to the table, invite us to the showroom, get our ideas and ask everyday athletes that you’d never hear about for their feedback on what makes them feel good as a human.”

Admittedly, there have been promising moves, such as new collections launches, mannequins changing shape and more plus-size ambassadors getting their time in the spotlight. But many companies are still falling flat in their efforts to expand sizing.

Nike Mannequins
A plus-size mannequin inside a Nike London store.
CREDIT: Nike

Fashion to Figure’s Kaplan offered some explanations why: “There are a lot of wrong reasons for entering the space. As a result, the expertise inside these companies isn’t there. The authentic commitment to the customer is not there and thus the connection to the community isn’t there. To say that you speak to the entire plus-size population once again diminishes the value of the consumer. It polarizes the community by identifying them as one group.”

What’s the Solution?

Unfortunately for brands, there isn’t a quick fix. Some experts said companies may have to undergo a complete overhaul if they truly want to make an authentic impact.

For instance, in the activewear space, Powell suggested that change could start with examining sizing standards outside the simplicity of small, medium, large and extra large. “Brands need to take a holistic approach to women’s apparel and footwear and do it differently than for men,” he said. “It requires rethinking of the body and rethinking how we view sizes and shape. That’s why you see [some newer brands] winning here just because they have come out with that kind of mindset.”

For more-established brands, the task will require a fresh approach, and Saucony and Hoka One One told FN they are beginning that long process.

Saucony president Anna Cavassa said the athletic brand’s long-term goal is to offer a full line of head-to-toe running apparel and accessories for size XS through XXL, and wants to do it right.

“To deliver on best-in-class product, specific consumer insight, product development and wear testing are required for petite sizing, plus sizing, and cultural sizing differences based on some geographic locations,” she said, adding that it is developing product for the China market. “Following that, we will continue to focus on size inclusivity, investing in plus-size ranges for our core U.S., Europe and Canadian markets.”

Shauntay Snell, who is a Hoka One One ambassador, said she is partnering with the sneaker brand to help move the inclusivity needle through an open dialogue.

Wendy Yang, president of Deckers Brands’ performance lifestyle group (which includes Hoka), admitted there is work to be done. “As an industry, we have helped build a perception that running, fitness and the outdoors can be an exclusive, intimidating space, and it’s up to us to reverse that,” she said, adding that working with athletes such as Shauntay Snell will help change perceptions.

“We strive to have honest conversations, and we know that we aren’t perfect; we humbly know there is always opportunity to do better,” added Yang. “Athletes such as Latoya, along with our employees working internally at Hoka, help us have open and honest conversations with one another about what we’re doing well and where we can improve, and it helps us ensure that every demographic has a seat at our table.”

For Shauntay Snell, the ultimate goal is to cast a wider net and bring everyone to the table. “Let’s not just stop our inclusion process at plus size. How about showing plus-size people of color, those who have disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community. Where are the women who run in hijabs? The more we see ourselves the more we feel that we exist,” she said.

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