Obesity and prognosticating scarcity

I’m sure you’ve all heard the news by now. Obesity continues to increase, particularly among children. Former Arkansas Governor Huckabee who lost over 100 pounds, says obesity now even threatens national security as “61 percent of active military personnel are currently overweight” and that “it could be a big problem if the next generation of kids can’t pass the military’s physical exams”. I’ve gone on the record for saying that increasing girth portends poorly for the apparel industry in that our plant infrastructure (table widths, fabric widths and looms) will need to increase to keep up with current trends. Similarly, the measures constituting given size numbers will continue to evolve, normalizing to the median which in turn will continue to frustrate consumers. Relatedly, I don’t think the increased usage of too-thin models is coincidental; for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I think the polarities over class and weight will increase. Owing to the housing crisis, I think we’re headed for a downturn in the economy, and even more people will have less disposable income. Statistically speaking, the incidence of obesity will increase still more.

Image courtesy Calorie Lab.

Then lately, I’ve been reading about scarcity, probably for a post I’ll never publish. The one thing that stands out in my mind, is that if plus sizes are relatively scarce as its wearers claim, why haven’t prices increased commensurately? Adjusted for inflation, clothing prices continue to decrease. In spite of protests, I can only imagine there is greater availability in the market than claimed, if only via the augmented sizing standards of regular lines.

I imagine a DE has four central options for developing their target market (adults):

  1. An increasing minority, plus sized low cost apparel
  2. An increasing minority of plus sized, premium priced apparel
  3. The broad swathe of the market, while not technically obese, they are overweight
  4. A decreasing minority of premium apparel for height/weight proportionate people.

If we’re headed for a downturn in the economy, I don’t see option 1 or 3 as particularly viable because competition in this segment will intensify with the big brands staking turf. You can only beat the brands if you’re dead on with styling, fit and pricing. Personally, I’d avoid it altogether. Options 2 and 4 are more likely to be better options. Actually, there’s probably a fifth option, moderate to low priced apparel for people of normal weight. I know everybody says that they can’t find their sizes on the rack but the next time you go to Wal-Mart or Target, count how many 2-4-6’s there are as compared to larger sizes. Those go first -and fewer were made and delivered in the first place. Accordingly, I can only imagine that #4 will splinter further. Will we see sub-premium Bridge-ette lines?

Pondering, I don’t know how to sort all of this out.

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  1. Jess says:

    In terms of the last part of your post, in the majority of stores (e.g, the Bay, Reitmans, Sears, Banana Republic, are a few places I shopped this weekend) where I live (a large Canadian city), the racks (including the sale racks) have XS and S (and somes a Medium), but the L, XL, (and XXL if they exist in a line) sell out extremely quickly. The sales racks are FULL of XS’s. Indicates that the stores are ordering too many of the smaller sizes and too few of the larger sizes.

    Also, most of the remaining XL’s on the rack were big baggy (no shapping) styles. I ended up just going to a fabric store and will make my own items for this season.

  2. Helen says:

    As per Jess’s comment, not only does Banana Republic seem to have a surplus of XS sizes but Banana’s concept of “extra small” is equivalent to many other store’s small-to-medium. That is to say, BR has a “larger” median consumer and still has too many small sizes.

  3. J C Sprowls says:


    I know, that’s evil. I need to take some time to digest this. There are a lot of point in the supporting and referenced articles.

    No doubt, this type of information needs to be addressed through Market Research.

  4. Darby says:

    Yes, obesity and socio-economics are certainly related. That’s why you find communities with very few obese people and those with high percentages. That’s also why I think more and more DEs will be going after niche markets in these markets. In my case, my tween swimsuit line is going after the athletic, fit tween market, because so many of the beachwear out there just doesn’t fit this segment well. But my niche approach has me worried, too. Will my target market decrease in size as obesity rates rise? Hmmmmmm.

  5. Connie says:


    Maybe Americans should stop producing so much food and start producing more clothing. Wovens only and no knits or elastic for a few years. Feature lots of belts which should be worn when eating.

  6. Josh says:

    There are 2 Jess’ on this board? That’s confusing, I was wondering how my twin brother Jess got into Cananda and shopped at all those stores. lol Please add a last name initial to your name new Jess so I don’t get confused.

  7. Karen says:

    Will we see sub-premium Bridge-ette lines?

    Perhaps. Rachel Pally has just started doing plus sizes and if you’re looking at a customer in the 35-45 range their choices in regards to dept. stores are essentially Karen Kane, Ralph Lauren and Jones NY in the $100-$200 range and then all of a sudden it jumps to the Lafayette 148, Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy range of $400-$700.

    There is no Theory or Tahari like brands for them.

    In regards to Buchman and Tracy I should actually say “jumped” past tense as the plus size Buchman and Tracy lines have been discontinued.

  8. /anne... says:

    As someone who used to wear ‘plus sized’ clothing, I noticed some gaps in the market, at least here in Australia.

    Here there are few options:

    – cheap rubbish designed by Omar the Tentmaker. Forget fit, it comes in garish colours and cheap stretchknit with elastic waists.

    – trendy stuff for the under-25 Happy Fat Girl. If you like ruffles and bright colours, you’re set; however, you pay about twice what you would for the same garment in a fashion chain. I’m not kidding about twice the price; I’ve even seen exactly the same garment, only in larger sizes.

    – high-end expensive fabric, but with boxy shaping. About the only place to buy suits, they have broad shoulders and no waists.

    What’s missing is:

    – lingerie. Try buying a t-shirt bra, an exercise bra, or something pretty, in a big band size. A friend can’t buy a 20A – you might not think she needs it, but in fact what she really needs is a Wonderbra :-). Oh, and if I wanted a plain singlet to fill in the neckline of a low top or add modesty to a sheer top, I had to make it myself. They don’t make them.

    – nighties and pyjamas. There’s nothing that anyone under 50 would want to wear. They almost all look like you’ve stolen it from an aged care home.

    – swimwear. Sure, I could buy really expensive things with stupid skirts; I just wanted a plain one piece or tankini, and I didn’t want to pay much, as I wasn’t planning on extensive use.

    – exercise clothing. I ended up buying mens things – very demoralising.

    – work-appropriate clothing that won’t send me broke. I work in IT and I’m expected to maintain a good standard of dress, and I need the occasional interview suit. I couldn’t afford the high-end $500 jackets and $200 pants (no skirts – apparently you’re not allowed to wear a skirt with a suit if you’re over a certain weight); the rest was mostly cutesy stuff more appropriate to weekend wear, or younger people working in more informal environments.

    – work appropriate colours. I got so fed up with the colours available in clothing – what’s with the musk-pink and burgundy prints? Does ANYONE look good in those colours? The alternative was usually garish brights.

    – accessories; lots of even thin women have calves too large to wear boots. Shoulder straps on bags are often too short to wear comfortably, or end up sitting so high they look stupid. Although some of that is caused by the fact that I’m tall :-)

    There are probably other market gaps – you just have to look. Find the gap, and you will prosper; in Australia, there’s almost nothing between the high end and the cheap end, stuff for your average working woman, who wants to look professional but can’t afford hundreds of dollars for a Maggie T suit. The other gaps are the funny little things that everyone else takes for granted – all of the other clothing types that don’t fall into standard daywear.

    Good luck!

  9. Oxanna says:

    I like Connie’s suggestion. :) Seriously, woven clothes can greatly affect posture, and probably eating/exercise habits too. If I slouch in a knit top, I can get away with it. If I slouch in a dress shirt? Eeek!

    Speaking as a consumer, I’d love to see the fifth option. It’s true, where I shop (low- to mid-range stores), the small sizes are gone in a heartbeat. And I’m not terribly tiny.

  10. Ellis says:

    Very few designers really know what to do with a large sized woman’s body. The styles in even the best dept. stores are frumpy and uninspired. It takes a great deal of skill and vision to create styles that will compliment the fuller figured woman. Many companies take selected styles from their existing missy size lines and just grade them up. This is a recipe for disaster and they simply do not fit or hang correctly on the large size woman. The shoulders ride back and the balance is off. The industry is actually set up fine to deal with large size productions, it’s just that most manufactures deal with these lines as an afterthought instead of giving them the full attention and separate development process that they deserve.

    As far as the map goes, we lived for 2 years in Vermont and I can tell you for a fact that practically everyone over 40, (which is most of their population), are grossly overweight. The sales reps tell me that Texas comes in first as having the largest population of overweight people.

  11. Marie-Christine says:

    Oh, if there’s a market that’s underserved on all levels, it’s clearly option 3, the fat-but-not-huge segment. Regular stores don’t carry hardly any 14-16s, plus stores don’t either, you’re left with nothing, and everything you find fits -atrociously-. It’s enough to drive a person to chocolate, just to make it possible to shop again ;-).

    Another completely ignored segment is the fat-but-fit one. For instance, most technical sportswear for women is made for the shrimp. If you have a butt, it’s impossible to find Goretex pants that’ll accomodate it, unless you buy men’s 5X and chop 2 feet off the legs. Everyone tells you (rightly) that you must exercise to be healthy (which works fine, as opposed to starving) but you can’t find anything to exercise in. Or you can find lookalikes in non-technical fabrics, which just don’t do it.

    But really, you’re mis-understanding the complaints of fat people about RTW. It’s not so much that there’s nothing to buy, that’s improved a lot in the past decade or two. But the real problem is that there is a lot less -choice- in what to buy, and that every option is inferior to what skinny people get. You can sometimes get a —, but it’ll come in fewer colors (most grossly unflattering, after all you’re ugly already) and in cheesy fabrics (you’ll grow out of it soon), and cost more to add insult to injury. Most of what you get is what some shrimp thinks looks good on you, ie Omar the Tentmaker’s output as Anne says so well :-). Sheesh.

  12. Deanna says:

    “Everyone tells you (rightly) that you must exercise to be healthy … but you can’t find anything to exercise in.”

    This comment pretty much sums up why I am in this business. I am a fit size 20, 5’8″ and yes I am considered obese, and I am doing something about it. I have heard health “experts” say that the fashion industry should NOT cater to the plus size market because if they do, fat people don’t have an incentive to loose weight.?!
    I for one have lived for 10 years in men’s clothes and found it demoralizing. I was a large, lifeless, sexless, blob and I wanted to hide because I felt I looked so bad.
    Then I decided, who cares if I’m fat, I’m going to make splashy workout clothes and get on with life. I think there are so many women out there who have just given up. They can’t relate to the models in photos or celebrates, so they throw on a t-shirt, men’s sweats and crocs and go for pizza. It’s a self confidence crisis.
    I am trying to emphasize my belief that it is better for your HEALTH to dress better, because you feel better, look better, and get moving to a better life. A great dress that makes you look hot, gives you the confidence to go dancing, not stay home on New Years and watch tv. Fashion IS important! We (Canadians in my case) do need to trim down, but we have to start treating fat people like people first.

  13. Jennifer E. says:

    I feel I must chime in on this one

    I agree with Ellis there are “Very few designers really know what to do with a large sized woman’s body. . . . It takes a great deal of skill and vision to create styles that will compliment the fuller figured woman.”

    One part of the issue lies with the different body shapes, which are more apparent in plus size or husky people. Classically there are four figure types, Apples, Pears, hourglass and top heavy. Some Brands (Igigi and Lane Bryant) have started to cater to different fits and think this really the way to go for both women’s and missy fits. Actually I would just like to drop the whole “missy” “women’s’ thing and have different fits based on body type.

    As storeowner who sells moderate price plus-size clothing I try very hard to find brands that meet my customer needs and body types. Shocking the most popular item is not a knit. It a woven button up shirt – not oversize shirt jacket but a proper button up dress shirt.

    I also appreciate Marie-Christine comments about being what I call a limbo shopper any one a size 14-18 missy’s. It difficult for stores such as my self to carry missy 14-18 not because they not available but because then I get the “why could the make in my size” trust me I tried and got more of a headache then sales. There is also the issue that many individuals do not understand the fit difference between missy 14 and women’s 14w (and if one more call person call is WIDE I am going to… . . . best leave that part blank)

    Now then my statement about changing everything to different fits based on body type may seem crazy as I be explaining things until I blue in the face. But I think after about two years I’ll either lose my voice completely or all of my customers will get. Instinctively customers are looking for something that fits their body. Which why they say they want consistent sizes across brands not realizing that what they want is to know which brands or garments fit their body type. Which is why I have to give Lane Bryant “a nod’. They recently launched jeans available in three fits, straight body, curvy and very curvy and will have the classic Houston pants available in all three fits.

    So what I am proposing is a 6th option- moderate price clothing based on body portions/types regardless of size.

  14. Kathleen says:

    I also agree with

    Very few designers really know what to do with a large sized woman’s body… It takes a great deal of skill and vision to create styles that will compliment the fuller figured woman.

    which is why I have a problem with people in the plus size market who complain that manufacturers don’t produce apparel in their sizes when I think it’s often worse if they do (as many of you echo). You’re right, it does take skill, vision and integrity to produce these items well. A designer should focus on what they know. If they don’t know that customer, they shouldn’t make clothes for them.

    That’s why I say manufacturing is an equal opportunity business. If you don’t like what’s out there, come on in. The door is open. If items are too costly, ill fitting etc, you can make what you’re not finding. The alternative as we’ve seen is worse. I mean, that’s what everyone else has done. Skinny clothes are usually made by skinny people. It’s only appropriate that plus size people make plus size clothing. Who knows the market better? Except in unusual circumstances or admirable dedication and diligence, I think it’s almost arrogant for a skinny person to make plus sizes.

    Btw, I should see if I can find them but I have (had?) some old Lane Bryant catalogs from the 40’s and 50’s (?). There were some really CUTE styles in there! Would you all be interested in seeing these if I could find them?

  15. Babette says:

    Further to Anne’s comments about what large size garments are missing from the Australian market – maternity wear in plus sizes is non existent.

    Someone somewhere obviously decided that plus size women are all infertile (yes it’s affected but IVF is available to these women too) or that they should just buy a size or two larger which is not a solution.

  16. Karen says:

    As a retailer of plus size apparel I totally appreciate the statement:

    It difficult for stores such as my self to carry missy 14-18 not because they not available but because then I get the “why could the make in my size” trust me I tried and got more of a headache then sales. There is also the issue that many individuals do not understand the fit difference between missy 14 and women’s 14w . . .

    When I first started my business I did carry “missy” sizes 14 and 16 and while they would usually eventually sell I just couldn’t afford to keep stocking them as they took much longer to move. I also really needed to stop stocking the 14Ws as well for the same reason (slow to move) as well as the fact that you are correct many don’t know the difference between 14 & 14W

    Kathleen I’m glad you make allowances for unusual circumstances because I’m actually looking into manufacturing my own plus size line now that two of my biggest sellers have been discontinued and I am not plus size ;) I just want to do something to prevent the deaths of many of my wonderful customers because a bunch of them really are on suicide watch due to the discontinuation of Buchman and Tracy’s plus size lines – they’ve been wearing them for decades and they honestly don’t know what they are going to do.

    The problem is many DE’s start out as idealists but it’s hard to stay that way when dealing with the plus size shopper as a whole. Just the other day I spent over 2 hours going back and forth with a customer via e-mail. She was a Size 22/24 on top and a “missy” Size 12/14 on the bottom. In speaking with her I was reminded of my friend’s late mother. If were to guess I would say she was a Missy 14 on top and plus size 22 on the bottom due to extremely broad hips. It’s insanely difficult to design for that and insanely expensive to try if you’re trying to make every body type happy.

    Anyway – perhaps the best case scenario is for a DE plus pear to start her own niche line solely focused on other pears, and for a DE Apple to start her own line, etc.

  17. Sonia Levesque says:

    I agree with Anne and Babette. Lots of business opportunities are THERE for fashion folks in LOTS of garments and accessories choices…

    I am a plus size woman, starting her plus size clothing line. I’ve been doing made to measure clothes exclusively for plus size women for 7 years now (20 years if I count working for MY body!). And I can tell you; ALL plus size women feel somehow left out, more so for the 14-18 missy sizes a few replies talked about. My advice for the industry?

    – Where are the fashion foward stuff? I can only find 3 styles in broad distribution; classic older ladies choices, sportswear for the young/students, classic work and relaxed clothes in higher end lines. If you love to follow trends or are interested in dipping in the “designers styles”… You have next to nothing in store!

    – Either extend the plus garments sizes down (doing 10+ and 12+) or pushing the missy’s size up a notch (18-20). All in an effort to offer more choices to the fastest growing (excuse the pun) market share…

    Personnaly, I’m catering to the fashion foward types, with prices no higher than a Bridge line. I find a DE cannot compete with the likes of Gap, Reitmans and Addition-Elle (the Canadian Lane Bryant). Better offer something new, fun and … well made.

    That is my other point. The plus size silhouettes are very hard to work with pattern wise, but not impossible to work on. You need experience and/or lots of patience. ALL DEs I know who ventured from regular size to plus abandonned within 1 year; all because of fitting problems! Might I add; Where are the Fashion School in this?

  18. Jennifer E. says:

    Yes, I would love to see the old Lane Bryant catalog too. The reason I am reading this blog is because I eventually want to move back into the manufacture side of things and make some plus size basic to sell to boutique’s. My plans are well far off though. Maybe launch in 2010? if i can find the $$$

  19. J C Sprowls says:

    The problem is many DE’s start out as idealists but it’s hard to stay that way when dealing with the plus size shopper as a whole.

    Perhaps. But, market research and market feedback help clarify the vision and the products that will be released into the market.

    In theory, anyone should be able to design, produce and compete in this market space. But, as my grandmother said: “how can you design clothes you can’t wear?” She said a lot of other things, too; but, they’re too colorful for this conversation. :-)

    perhaps the best case scenario is for a DE plus pear to start her own niche line solely focused on other pears, and for a DE Apple to start her own line, etc.

    I certainly agree. I mean, who else understands the body shape better? Kathleen says that “manufacturing is an equal opportunity” enterprise, which I agree with and you seem to bite into (excuse the pun), too.

    I would encourage anyone who wants to sell in this market to make bold statements. I think bowing to “focus groups” is not appropriate in this particular market space. What I mean is: if you’re specifically designing for the pear-shaped woman, please use a pear-shaped model on your collaterals and incorporate graphics and subtle imagery into the marketing material so consumers who are pear-shaped know they can seek you out.

    I think it’s a common failing to put “focus group approved” models in ads that are not representative of the market being served. It leads to cross-market consumerism (i.e. untargeted consumer, etc.), dilutes the brand’s purpose and simply leads to dissatisfied customers. As most of you know, I’m not afraid to be unpopular, so take that advice with a grain of salt and manage your own comfort level.

    I find a DE cannot compete with the likes of Gap, Reitmans and Addition-Elle (the Canadian Lane Bryant). Better offer something new, fun and … well made.

    I’m inclined to think that a DE producing BBW should enter in the luxury end of the market, first. Develop some caché and then build down & out, so to speak. I don’t have time to research the numbers right now (I’m knee-deep in my own) but, the people who buy in this realm do make up a significant % of the total volume.

    For example: 10% of men (i.e. the luxury consumers) contribute to 30% the total volume spent on apparel each year for the past 7 years. That means 90% of the men make up the remaining 70% of apparel spending! There are many niches within that 10%; but, this should give you an idea of the type of research you need to do to validate and refine your concept.

    Where are the Fashion School in this?

    Afraid of innovation. Okay, that was critical.

    But, it’s the end result of a long-standing issue in academic circles. Students are frequently recruited into instructor roles based on their academic performance, not their real-life experience. What this creates is a situation of teaching by wrote meaning that old concepts (and, misconceptions) are replayed and repeated until they become deeply ingrained.

    Personally, I would like to see illustration classes teach not only the traditional 9-and 8-heads figure concept, but also the “real figures” concept, too. I think that limiting a student to design on a 9- or 8-head croquis is an incomplete picture. It is not representative of the individual or the mass client they will serve after they leave the program.

  20. Oxanna says:

    JC Sprowls said: “Personally, I would like to see illustration classes teach not only the traditional 9-and 8-heads figure concept, but also the “real figures” concept, too. I think that limiting a student to design on a 9- or 8-head croquis is an incomplete picture. It is not representative of the individual or the mass client they will serve after they leave the program.

    Oh, yes! I’d love to see them teach a real body’s proportions as opposed to simply sketching out the 9-heads figure. It might look nice in a sketch, but if you’re designing for petites, you can come up with some sketches that look beautiful on your runway model sketch but horribly dowdy on your 5’1″ customer. A very good example of an irrelevant (for the most part) standard.

  21. J C Sprowls says:

    Wow… I was just doing some research. And, the only candidate books I’d consider buying on this subject are:

    Fashion Design for the Plus-Size, and

    Master Patterns and Grading for Women’s Outsizes: Pattern Sizing Technology

    All the others look like fluff. We really need folks who are courageous enough to tackle the issue, head on – regardless how popular it is.

    In the meantime, I’ve added both these books to my library list and will attempt to read them at some point in the future.

  22. Jennifer E says:

    JC or any one else if your looking for a copy of Master patterns and Grading for Women’s outsizes -cheaper – check Chapters/indigo a Canada book seller who has them new for about 1/2 the price of this used one at Amazon. ($54.50 CDN about $50 US plus shipping)

    Also note I at one point a few months ago I was able to read several of the page from Amazon.com online and found Cooklin had some interesting statistics and definitions. So though many including Kathleen say that Cooklin is apparently a great pattern maker /grader – I would still read this book with an objective eye. Also the statics maybe out of date and not applicable as he used Uk data.

    For example and this only going from memory

    XX% of plus women have a small bust
    Small bust was defined as being 10cm smaller than the hip (~10cm = 4 inches)
    Which i found extremely funny cause I am pear shape and I have large bust (bigger than DD or EE) but my bust measurement is more than four inches smaller than my hip. I would define bust size in relation to back width and shoulder width more than hip.

  23. J C Sprowls says:

    Thanks for the feedback, Jennifer.

    RE: Statistics. They are obsolete the day they are printed. What’s important is to understand the methodology for assessing a data set then applying that methodology to your specific market’s context (i.e. data set). Cooklin’s books do us a favor (above and beyond other authors) in that he discloses the sample population and summarizes the study so you have the same context he used.

    RE: different scales & relationships. I agree. The bustline circumference is too variable (e.g. depth of breast mound) to be at sufficient ratio to the hipline circumference. I prefer landmarks & bone processes when discussing relative dimensions (e.g. distance between the spines on the shoulder blades v. the length of the iliac crest).

  24. Dennis says:

    Interesting reading. I’m a guy with a belly. Had to learn how to sew, use software to create a pattern, bought a book on pattern making. Not going into business to be a DE, however. Run across a woman with a belly with no breasts: she makes her own patterns and sews them. A male friend has to wear boys clothes because he is so small, not a little person, just normal proportion-wise. His wife is bigger. Just wondering if anybody worries about the proportinally small people.

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