Designers, models and retailers discuss how the fashion industry is finally making progress on size inclusivity and how Nordstrom is leading the way.
By Britt Burritt
We frequently contrast models with "real women," as though they were distinct groups—as though models aren't real, and women with common characteristics (like curves, stretchmarks or bellies) don't belong in magazines or on catwalks.
Challenging that was 11 Honoré's Fall 2019 runway during New York Fashion Week. Model Candice Huffine, clad in an all-white Christian Siriano wrap gown, opened the show. What followed was a train of extraordinarily beautiful women in size 12 to 20 creations by designers like Brandon Maxwell, Monique Lhuillier, Tanya Taylor and CUSHNIE, concluding with actress and trans activist Laverne Cox twirling and flipping her hair in a burgundy tulle Zac Posen ballgown. Cue the confetti and the applause.
But one fashion show doesn't make a movement. Decades of challenging an industry that has willfully ignored that the average size of the ("real") American woman is a 16—while most retailers stock only the 2 to 12 range—built up to this runway moment, which felt both like a rebel yell and a party.
"One of the major pillars of fashion has always been exclusivity," explains Patrick Herning, CEO of 11 Honoré, "so making the shift to be more inclusive inevitably required a change in the collective mindset, in the media and its representation of women and, of course, all the work behind the scenes from a technical aspect and whether or not designers are set up to scale their collections. There are so many layers to making inclusivity and size extension sustainable."
Nordstrom has emphatically joined 11 Honoré in encouraging its brands to develop extended sizes and in supporting them in that endeavor. "The industry really needed a retailer to be customer-centric and ask for more sizes," says Pamela Lopez, Nordstrom Brand PR Director, about the company's strides. "We're asking for sizes 00 to 24. We started working with our best brands a couple years ago, and this spring we have over 200 brands extending their ranges!" All Nordstrom in-house brands already go to a size 24.
"We currently make sizes 0 to 22," designer Tanya Taylor says of her eponymous label. "We would love to make clothes in every size, but right now we're focused on perfecting our current size range before expanding. Eventually our goal is to have every style represented in all sizes," she says. "Factories count extended sizes as its own style, so retailer support is extremely important for our extended-size business. When we don't make a style in extended sizes, it's unfortunately because we don't fulfill a minimum order."
Offering more styles in many sizes is a complex logistical and emotional problem. It requires partners at every stage of the design and retail processes to alter long-established practices. And it impacts women in an extremely personal way. "It was hard work," says Lopez about Nordstrom's efforts. "Some brands might be adding one size at a time for us, but we're focused and inspired and we're making progress."
Traditional and social media have been instrumental in increasing awareness of fashion's blind spots. Model and journalist Lauren Chan, who walked in the 11 Honoré show, mentions Shrill star Aidy Bryant's advocacy for size-inclusive fashion—"She said most everything she wore was custom-made because of the lack of plus-size options in the character's style"—and how social media has expanded our awareness of body difference. "Social media has served as a legitimate outlet for customers who wear above a size 12 to document their fashion frustrations," Chan says. "I think that the plus-size market is being taken seriously now that brands can no longer ignore those sentiments."
One brand that was paying attention to those conversations early on is Good American. "Inclusivity was built into every aspect of Good American's business from the start," says cofounder Emma Grede. "Every item we make is available in sizes 00 to 24 because we want to make sure our clothes fit and feel good so women can spend their time and energy on the things that truly matter."
Listening to customers was essential to developing a scalable and sellable size strategy, Grede says. Following customer feedback, Good American released a size 15; usual size ranges pass from 14 to 16. "We first realized a true need for size 15 after looking at shopper data," she explains. "We saw that our returns for sizes 14 and 16 were 50% higher than return rates for other sizes. We then reviewed the size patterns, and it was clear from measurements that there is a bigger size grade between size 14 and 16 compared to other sizes. This means that sizes jump a few more inches between a 14 and 16 than they do between a 12 and 14 or a 16 and 18."
Tanya Taylor, too, has taken to carefully studying size and fit variations to make adjustments based on women's comments. "We use two fit models, a size 4 and a size 18, and then have all the women in the office try the styles on as well," Taylor explains. "The biggest takeaway when fitting is to listen. It's important for us to use fit models that are vocal and can give good feedback. Someone who is an 18 might feel differently about the fit of a style than someone who's a 12 or a 2. It's important to try [styles] on numerous women, listen to the feedback and make adjustments where needed.
Nordstrom has also been carefully weighing customer concerns and taking them to the sales floor. "We heard from our customers that they prefer to shop by occasion rather than by size, so we're integrating all sizes together, rather than separating the petites and plus sizes into other departments," says Lopez.
For friends who shop together or for women who bridge the regular and plus-size offerings, this small change to merchandising can make a huge difference in normalizing the body concerns that women often hold no matter the number on their clothing tag. "Ultimately, we want to remove the stigma of size and focus on fit, so that is the future goal," says 11 Honoré's Herning.
"Listen to what customers are asking for and act on those requests," concludes Chan, who is also launching her own plus-size clothing line. "Right now, the two main things women are demanding are a.) more sizes, better designs and higher quality on the product front, and b.) more body shapes, races and ages on the representation front."