Men’s vs Women’s: Plus size apparel

The discussion following What if plus sizes made up 80% of the market? has been very interesting. I’m intrigued by the implications of well to do parents who are not themselves obese but who have overweight children. That’s a topic for another day. I was going to post a comment there in response to Dorothy’s but decided to post it here because it discusses some key differences between men and women’s wear, the same but as applied to plus sizing and more food for thought as it relates to the very real constraints to designing for plus sized women. It’s easy to blame the industry for consumer dissatisfaction but our options are extremely limited in many ways.

The apparel industry must remove pre-conceived value judgments regarding obesity, health, and biomorphic variety from production-oriented decision making. Just don’t ask the rest of the apparel industry to join you.

I’m not suggesting this doesn’t happen but I think it’s far less than people would imagine and in some ways, they give us too much credit. For example, it’s an urban myth that top designers don’t want to see fat women in their clothes. People totally minimize the infrastructure and development costs associated with plus size apparel. It’s a lot of investment in re-tooling their entire operation when market performance doesn’t justify it (caveats duly noted). Having a building, sewing operators and sewing machines is the least of it so it’s unfortunate that those are the most obvious. In some ways you give us too much credit. Too often, we don’t see the customer amid the grind of our work beyond throwing it on a fit model. Also, we are usually (often) not our own customer. Which is why this conversation and others similar to it (read the comments), are useful.

Why can’t the “suit showroom” business model be used for women’s as well as men’s fine apparel?

There are many reasons why the market won’t respond.

  • The most obvious difference is there are (currently) more men in the high end big and tall market than there are plus sized women.
  • These are men’s products. The pricing of men’s apparel generally, continues to increase while other apparel categories continue to fall or remain static.
  • Suits are more costly. At this level (presumably C-level), there are more men who need high end suits than women.
  • Men don’t quibble over clothing prices to the extent women do. They see it, they want/like/need it and they buy it. They don’t wait for it to go on sale.
  • Styling trends in men’s apparel are more stable and in this more conservative than not niche, changes amount to evolving fit demands. Product development costs are lower.

Why can’t women choose from alterable, coordinating dresses and separates that can be fitted to them at the store?

There’s a crucial misunderstanding (again, part of the invisible re-tooling investment) among the public at large. Providing a range of garments to fit all women isn’t tenable even in a suit type showroom. Here are some reasons:

Grading: While you can easily thumb through sizes on the rack, going from 14, 16, …20, grading for those bodies is an entirely different proposition. You cannot grade 2-20. Well you can but I guarantee it’ll be crappy because grading is not morphing. With 2-20, you’re crossing a “size break”. When people gain weight, they morph. Their proportions become disproportionate to what they were. For plus sizes, you have to create an entirely different base pattern (block) and even then, according to proportion disparities. This amounts to doubling your costs. Really. Your product development costs will double. You need two of everything. Fit models, patterns, protos, samples, sales reps, accounts etc.

Scale/Style: Some design details don’t work on larger sizes. We work according to human-sized scale. You can call it bias but it is comprised of the sizing perception and its expression in the world we find around us. Things like tools and handles, there’s no sizeism there. Sure, you could say that we should develop the skills to design pleasing details appropriate to the plus size scale but this sensitivity is a rare sense among designers. Arguably anyone.

Consider sculpture and sculptors for example. Most make human sized or smaller or even slightly bigger pieces. Few sculptors make really huge pieces. And even when they do, they’re blowing up, magnifying a concept the proportions of which are human-sized scaled. Returning to plus sizing, people’s bodies morph. There is a tremendous difference in shaping as people’s girth increases. To design effectively, one’s eye must be attenuated to the range of possible proportion variations. You couldn’t sell the same styled dress to six different women. You’d need differently styled dresses for each, with styling details that flattered them according to the proportion of their figure shape and size.

Shape: Returning to your suggestion of suit type showrooms, the men’s niche would require a whole lot less inventory to meet the demands of the market. The key problem is not whether suit salons should be tailored to women based on whether they “demonstrate as great a figure variety as men” but that women demonstrate a far greater variety of figure types than do men. Perhaps insult to injury, men’s weight gain is more predictable. There are fewer constraints in adjusting fit for the larger sizes of men’s wear. [Have I mentioned (recently) that most of my experience is in men’s suits? Even Big and Tall men’s suits? I don’t know why people promulgate that old saw that fitting men is harder than fitting women. They haven’t fit variety enough of either.]

Men’s wear is nearly always designed for either upper or lower body, separates. There’s only one fitting zone (read: possible disproportion) to cross (waist to hip etc). With women, there are dresses with two zones to cross. This is just one reason why fitting and designing for men is easier and less costly. If it’s easier and less costly, suit salons ensue.

Women also wear and need a greater variety of apparel than men (and shoes but that’s another story), meaning that silhouette and styling given the function is even more complex. Designing a plus size bra is vastly different than plus size bridal wear, it’d require a whole bunch of “sculptors” who had the eye to design for a variety of “morphed” shapes, each according to their function and styling differences.

Value: When a man buys a suit, it will be worn more frequently (greater value) proportionate to his other apparel items than would be true of the average woman buying a suit. In other words, a man buying a suit is spending a greater proportion of his budget on it meaning that a retailer selling suits is going to be able to capture a more significant percentage of his total apparel dollars. This isn’t true of women. A retailer of women’s suits is -proportionately-capturing less of the woman consumer’s budget. Read: it’s riskier. There’s less potential return and sure, you could get some big bucks lined up behind a concept store but in this economy, it’s an uphill battle.

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  1. Rocio says:

    I worked with a very high end bespoke tailor in Beverly Hills in the early 90’s and some of the “low end” suits started at $850.00 (with some fabrics costing up to $300.00 yrd you can imagine how much a client could end up spending)
    He was trying to promote a similar service for women but it wasn’t long before he realised that as you rightly mention it was a big risk and he eventually realised that women just don’t look at clothing that way… and that’s before we even get into the number of alterations because the female clients tended to have a different idea of what a “good fit” was.

  2. dosfashionistas says:

    Women’s plus sizes tend to be separates rather than dresses for the very reason mentioned. And the dresses tend to be loose silhouettes. Again for the same reason.

    One of the most rewarding jobs I ever held was as pattern maker for the Sunny Lady label at Sunny South (Dallas company, now closed). I am plus size and brought all my years as a large lady to the job….and the company, being not really interested in what SL did, pretty much gave me free rein. The idea was that selected styles out of the Sunny South label would be made in the SL label as well. But I was not held to a line for line copy if I said this would not be flattering. I could add length, change pocket sizes, soften the fit. It was great! In 1992 Sunny Lady won a Dallas Fashion Award in the catagory of special sizes…an award voted on by the buyers that come to market. If I am proud of anything in my career, I think what I contributed to this honor would be it.

  3. Eileen says:

    If someone makes pants suitable for the women in my family (including me) who tend to gain weight on their stomachs, but not everywhere else, could you let me know. I’ll buy!

  4. Amy says:

    Eileen, I suggest you try Lane B r y a n t ‘s Right Fit Line. The yellow/square model in particular. These are the only pants that have ever fit me in my entire life. I am planning on making a pattern out of them.

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