Plus-sized fashion is an industry that’s presently worth around $20 billion annually, but it’s predicted this could more than double before very long. It’s not just because body sizes are getting larger around the world – as household incomes rise, people tend to buy more clothing and have more complex wardrobe requirements.
The growing body positivity movement means that larger consumers are starting to change their expectations and are less satisfied with having a limited range of clothing options available to them. This all increases the demand for plus-sized clothing.
Ecommerce has opened up opportunities for plus-sized shoppers to access what they want and retailers, in return, reach greater audiences making it more worthwhile catering to plus-sized shoppers. In an increasingly challenging business environment, retailers need to cater to a wider range of tastes and body sizes and in some markets, such as the US, plus-sized shoppers are the majority so it seems ludicrous not to engage with this group.
Two-thirds of women in the US are sized 14 (that’s UK size 18) or above, yet plus-sized clothing is seen as a niche segment. Not all major clothing brands offer larger sizes; where retailers do cater to larger body types they tend to place these in a specialised area away from other items.
Not all clothing on offer in-store will be offered in larger sizes, which reduces the options for bigger consumers. Plus-sized shoppers have a harder job finding what they need and a more frustrating relationship with brands. What this can mean is that once a frustrated consumer finds a reliable brand for their needs, they tend to be more loyal.
Essentially what’s happening in plus-sized retail is a market correction. Brands have failed to cater to a growing audience and are only just started to realise the size of the opportunity. In a tough retail environment, it’s also a potential lifesaver for struggling brands to attract new audiences with products that are more suited to them in order to foster brand loyalty and boost profits.
There seems to be a correlation between economic development and increasing body size. On the one hand, economic development is a fantastic leap forward for populations as they have more food security and are better nourished. But humans aren’t great at pumping the brakes on that extra food availability and body sizes tend to rise as economies develop.
This can be counterproductive for measures such as life expectancy and spending on healthcare. Chile’s a good example of this trend.
The Latin American market managed to increase GDP and made terrific advances at reducing malnutrition and infant mortality rates. Regrettably, the country also saw rising obesity levels even whilst some people in the country still went hungry. It’s a story that’s being repeated in many markets around the world.
We’re not just demanding bigger clothing. There’s also increased demand for supersized versions of familiar products including coffins, beds, refrigerators, showers and bathtubs. Massage couches, operating tables and hospital beds are also getting bigger and there’s increased demand for better-adapted ambulances for handling larger patients.
There are opportunities for many different types of products to be adapted to meet our current lifestyles. Plus-sized apparel is just one minor part of a wider consumer trend.
China’s struggle to accept plus-sized
The ‘fat acceptance’ movement that’s spread across the West and influenced the availability of fashion for bigger bodies hasn’t really reached China, where there’s generally low tolerance of larger bodies. Although obesity rates are lower than in many Western nations, China’s sheer population size means it still has the world’s largest plus-sized population and obesity is prevalent among children and teens.
Despite China’s rising levels of obesity, it remains culturally important to conform to the norm – which usually means a small body size. So far the desire for conformity seems to outweigh the emergence of any kind of body positivity in China’s market.
Marketing for plus-sized fashion is made easier in the West by the rise of the body positivity movement that tries to promote, rather than shame, larger consumers. In the absence of this approach, Chinese retailers tend to encourage people to lose weight and look slimmer often at the same time as selling plus-sized clothing.
As a retailer entering this market, it’s going to be a hard slog doing anything to challenge cultural attitudes. Scarlett Hao, a model and fashion influencer who herself promotes plus-sized fashion argues that anyone in China with the money to buy plus-sized fashion will instead spend the cash on losing weight.
With attitudes like this even among supporters of plus-sized fashion, it’s hard to see how this kind of clothing can be marketed in a positive way.
Yet there’s still room for optimism. Chinese society is changing at the speed of light, and younger generations seem to be more open to individuality and self-fulfilment. They may also have greater exposure to Western ideas and concepts of diversity. There also seems to be a growing demand for plus-sized models in China, and the ones that are already working seem to be earning well above the norm.
There’s certainly room for brands to take a bold stance on the issue and market plus-sized clothing in a positive way in this market. It’s helpful that plus-sized consumers tend to be concentrated more densely in wealthier urban areas, which helps with segmentation and targeting.
Small start-ups are also reaching people via WeChat communities and Tmall stores. With a limited choice of brands available to them, it’s likely that Chinese consumers could be loyal to the plus-sized brands that serve them.
Already China’s plus-sized clothing market is worth close to $5bn annually, according to Coresight Research. With 36 million female consumers in China already classed as obese, there’s a lot of opportunity here for brands that can find the right tone with which to engage this promising market.