Why existing manufacturers don’t add plus sizes

Nothing drags out confirmation bias and cognitive dissonance more efficiently than a discussion of plus size apparel. Examples:

1. Manufacturers are greedy and will do anything for a buck.
2. Manufacturers must not want my money if they won’t make clothes I want to buy.

1. Manufacturers don’t care about me, they don’t care how I feel.
2. Manufacturers are trying to make me feel better by putting smaller size labels in clothes.

1. Manufacturers don’t want to see fat people in their clothes because it devalues their brand.
2. Manufacturers enjoy making fat people look ridiculous… [which devalues their brand]

Think people, there’s more than the obvious at work.

Fact: fit and sizing has gone in the toilet across the board for everybody. Problem is, fat people are taking it personally. They only see how it affects them but not everyone else (confirmation bias). Which is not to say that it doesn’t take time for the market to catch up with the rapid increase in obesity. There’s a whole lot of companies doing it now but it’ll take time for their enterprises to grow. You can help by actively looking for them and buying from them. Sure, not all will appeal to you but thinner people have the same problems. It’s not just you. It’s not personal.

Manufacturing is more complex than people think. People reason that manufacturers already have staffing, fabric and sewing machines so it must be personal reasons that keep them from pursuing a plus size line. Adding a plus size line means adding a whole new division. It’s an additional line with costs unique to it. It’s not a simple matter of turning a 14 into a 16, 18 and a 20 etc. It’s better if a line starts out as plus size. Their costs and risks are limited to one product line. It has nothing to do with plus sizes per se, these are the costs and obstacles that existing manufacturers have to absorb for a petite line too. The amount of fabric going into something is minimal, it’s everything else that costs. Want to know what those are? Okay, here’s a run down of costs and barriers to adding on a new product line for an existing manufacturer, most of which are as applicable to petites as they are to plus sizes:

Hiring a new designer with experience in plus petite size apparel because as you know, you can’t take regular clothes, size them down up and expect the details to scale without looking ridiculous. You need a specialist.

You need a different pattern maker who is attenuated to the specialized needs of this market and product. It’s not the cost of fabric, it’s things like styling and range of motion. Getting in and out of clothing and having it perform reasonably well requires sensitivity and engineering skills more typical of other populations with limited range of motion (the disabled and elderly). There aren’t a lot of plus size or elderly population pattern makers. It takes time for the need of these skills to be realized before they can be developed into hard skill sets. Perhaps a whole generation’s worth of time. Most young girls in design school don’t want to be pattern makers much less plus size ones. Haranguing young design students will be more effective than going after people who have established customers that keep them busy.

You need a plus size fit model and dress forms because as people gain weight, the variations of how they gain it dramatically increases. Even within plus sizes, picking one model versus another is still going to eliminate given segments. Yes, people who are height and weight proportionate vary but their differences are smaller; in plus sizes, it’s an order of magnitude. A lot of people said in comments to the NYT article that they didn’t “like that”. I don’t like global warming, drunk drivers or plastic cutlery but that doesn’t make them any less real. See the stats.

You need staffing to create a whole new brand, collateral, advertising, etc that will resonate with the values of the market with the level of investment that is commensurate to the firm’s position in the marketplace. It requires skills more typical of cultural anthropologists lest consumers be offended by an offhand or carelessly considered remark or posture. It’s a heady mine field of politically correct cultural expectations one may know nothing about and careful and compassionate as you are, you’ll still manage to offend someone. Some consumers are offended by the word fat. Some are offended if you avoid it. Since you can’t please everyone or even it seems, hardly anyone, it’s easier to avoid the market entirely. The barrage of criticism -much of it inappropriate, see below- is enough to inspire anyone to leave it to someone else.

Let’s say a company has all the product development and branding ironed out and now it’s time to sell it. A manufacturer cannot call their regular buyer at Penney’s, Saks or Nordstrom’s to say they’ve got this nifty new line. Their buyer doesn’t handle plus sizes, they need a buyer in another department. This means developing a relationship with an entirely new person with constraints and budget limitations the manufacturer knows nothing about.

The manufacturer will need an entirely separate booth at market, it will need to be placed within the plus size segment because plus size buyers aren’t shopping the skinny clothes aisles. This means they need a whole new booth ($10,000-$100,000), pay for the space ($5,000-$20,000), with a doubling of trade show staffs -and all at a time when the product is wholly unproven. Do you know what “unproven” means? It means no store will buy until the line has been shown for as many as three years. This means having to spend double the costs (actually more because you have no infrastructure to re-use from season to season like you can with the existing product line) for a minimum of three years before you can get any traction and that’s assuming you do.

A manufacturer will need a whole new set of sales reps to travel from store to store because they don’t have accounts yet. They must develop a whole new infrastructure of customers they don’t have now. This costs more than servicing their existing accounts (because sales people are visiting established customers) and one can expect the proverbial 19 no’s to 1 yes. And then you have to worry about the credit worthiness of the buyer because they’re an unknown quantity. You don’t know if they pay their bills meaning your factoring and account servicing costs will also increase.

Point is, if you’re an existing manufacturer, launching the new line must be commensurate with the image and costs of your existing product line to do it any justice. It can’t be a red-headed step child because buyers and consumers will know it. At the same time, considering the level of investment you’ve put into it, you need the sales numbers to justify moving forward. If you don’t get enough sales to justify cutting and sewing orders -remember, it’s an unproven line- it’s going to be dropped. If it takes 3-5 years to turn a profit for a start up line with only one product line, it’s not going to be any different for a new division for an established firm. In some ways, it’s a disadvantage because their costs are so much higher than what a start up can get away with. Start ups are expected to run on a shoe string so buyers cut them some slack. That’s why I think it is better to start a plus size line independent of any other and grow it holistically. Since you don’t have the image or expectations of an existing venture in the marketplace to compare it to, your costs and required recoup are lower.

Having a business location, knowing some fabric sources and owning some sewing machines doesn’t save a manufacturer as much money as people think, it’s like starting a whole other company. Sure, there’s some cost savings because you have some relationships (contractors) so you can get it sewn and you know who can sell you the fabric. However, in nearly every other way, it is costlier because you’re starting from scratch. You can’t just cobble on larger sizes. It needs its own fitting profile and patterns. These are a lot of costs to invest that they are not having to invest in their current product lines. And money is tight right now. If manufacturers are looking to cut costs from existing product lines with proven sales, they’re very reluctant to sink money into a huge new product -doubling the size of their firm- considering the risks involved.

Does this mean I think plus size lines are untenable? Hardly. I think it has a tremendous amount of potential. I think the parties best suited to produce plus size lines are plus size people. Who else can understand the needs of customers so well? If people who are height and weight proportionate start clothing lines to serve their needs and aesthetics, why can’t plus size people do it too? Besides, why would you try to force people you think hate you, to design clothes for you? If a waiter spits in my soup, I don’t want him to bring me another bowl. I want another waiter -or another restaurant.

PS. For those visitors who landed here via the Tirade of the DayTM from the blog equivalent of AM talk radio armed with a perseveration for armholes, no, I don’t hate fat people. I used to be one. Armholes are hard for every size body, not just plus sizes.

PPS I have received an unprecedented number of emails and phone calls from manufacturers who vowed to never make plus sizes after witnessing yet more invective from plus sized women. Hit too hard and no one wants to play with you, what sane person welcomes a gratuitously unkind and fractious customer? You’re not buying from them now so you have little to bargain with. Perhaps it’s time to try another strategy -like being nice- or start your own plus sized line. Skinny people start clothing lines for skinny people every day. If you’re not willing to do the work and make the sacrifices you demand of others, you’ve said more than words ever could that plus sized lines aren’t as easy or profitable as everyone seems to think they are.

Related:
What is a size break?
Obesity and prognosticating scarcity
Designing for extreme body types
Size is a matter of opinion?
Is the customer always right?
What if plus sizes made up 80% of the market?
Men’s vs Women’s: Plus size apparel
Designing clothes for plus size women
NASA’s sizing problem
Knits are evil
Vanity sizing: the consumer spending edition
Actually, the entire vanity sizing series.
All fit and sizing articles on this site.

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