Why it’s needed + what can be done now to get started.
If not now, when will the luxury fashion industry address size inclusivity? REAL inclusivity. Not a conversation, a nod, a token, or a marketing wink. Putting one larger person on a runway or in a campaign is certainly a step in the right direction but not even close to real change. Soon, the brands and designers that adapt to create clothes for more bodies will survive and the others will fall.
Gone are the days of aspirational luxury. The standard modus operandi in the 1980’s and 1990’s, the powerful luxury brands have forced this old way of working + marketing to maintain their status-quo stronghold for the last two decades. A few size inclusive change-makers like Universal Standard and 11 Honore have challenged the status-quo, but the top tier of luxury companies has failed to improve size range offerings. The majority of people in larger bodies cannot buy luxury brands in their size, resulting in an enormous potential market of people left alienated. Can they be won back?
Aligned with the recent social media influencer shift from aspirational to authenticity, the fashion market is now consumer demand driven. Real people want to spend their money on clothing that will help them express themselves. Know-it-all, top down, designer/store tells you what is cool business models do not work today. The designer’s role of driving innovation and creating fantasy is vital, but once the customer sees the creation it must resonate in their gut that this item expresses how they want to show up in the world. People cannot be shamed into spending their money on goods to make them better people, but this is how capitalism and fashion often act. The self-accepting consumer wants to celebrate who they are. This trend is being led by millenials and gen Z. The designer that speaks to who this customer is will win their following and funds.
Apparel sales are currently down 35% globally and every brand and designer is thinking creatively to motivate sales, pivot, and expand, to better serve and acquire new customers. Optics, activism, and any moral impetus aside, creating products for more size bodies is a smart financial choice. Winning back alienated potential customers will be no easy task, but I argue that it’s imperative and worth the risk. In the short term, the ROI may not be apparent. Expanding a size range can be very costly for designers and retailers before the demand appears. Size expansion is a long term investment, but you will not be able to attract the demand if you never offer the sizes people need or meet the market only half way. Commitment to inclusivity is crucial and commitment is what is necessary to make real change and elevate inclusivity from a talking point to a monumental industry movement.
I believe this change is imperative because ALL people suffer when ALL are not included. No one is safe from diet culture’s messages that only a certain size person is worthy of looking fabulous. None of us are free unless we are all invited to the fashion party.
Diet culture, fed to us through the lens of media, fashion companies and anything capitalism touches, tells people they must be a certain (small) size to be worthy. Billions of dollars are at stake for the industries that profit off our desire to change our bodies. It can seem insurmountable to attempt the takedown of diet culture which is fueled by patriarchy and it’s desire to keep women small, questioning their power, and keeping their resources (mental, financial, time) directed towards businesses who subsequently profit. It is incredibly scary for those in power to imagine a society in which women (+ some men) do not spend a remarkable quantity of time, energy and money on what they look like.
Any dream to change this dynamic can seem impossible. Our collective fear of defeat feeds the power + profit machine to maintain it’s stronghold. Big structural change is impossible without people who demand change by taking small actions. I can envision a better world where children can grow up to believe, know, and see reflected to them, that they are perfect just as they are.
Where to start? One small action designers can consider is changing their sample size. Typically the smallest or near smallest size in their range (0–4, XS, or S), an increase to size 6, 8, 10, M, or L would make their clothes accessible to celebrities to wear on red carpets, magazine covers, and in films.
On the new I Weigh podcast hosted by activist and actor, Jameela Jamil, founder of the I Weigh community, she and actor Beanie Feldstein and singer Demi Lovato have discussed the catch-22 of trying to promote their career without access to the newest fashion. Without being able to fit into the sample size, they miss opportunities to shoot a Vogue cover or attend a fashion show. Subsequently limiting crucial visibility that can affect job offers and career advancement. Without new opportunities and projects to promote, they are less likely to be asked to be shot for a Vogue cover, resulting in the double bind. The ultimate losers in this scenario are us, the audience. We miss out on enjoying the art of a wide arrange of talent because that talent is limited to those of a certain size. We lose even more when we (and young children + teens) are exposed to only one type of body in the media. If we do not match the impossible beauty ideal (made even more unattainable with the use of Photoshop) we suffer.
The ways in which we suffer from impossible beauty standards are too great to get into here, but I recommend the book Beauty Sick by Renee Engelin for illumination. My experience working in the fashion industry for 20 years, resulted in body dysmorphia that I awoke to after reading Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon and listening to Food Pysch podcast by Christy Harrison. If I felt large in a size 6 body (drastically below the national average size) then I believe no one is safe from the mind-fuckery of diet culture perpetuated by the fashion industry.
The media and marketing messages are not the only problem, the industry has largely turned away the business of people who do not fit their limited ideal for over a century. Today, some designers make up to a size 14 but others stop at size 8 and the largest sizes can be difficult to find stocked in stores. Many retailers and designers stock full size ranges only online, making it impossible for customers to try on and make an informed purchase decision. Other designers run so small that a size XL can fit like a 6.
We can start to change the culture by fostering a wider range of talent who can dress in the latest clothes and become role models for us and future generations to love their bodies. And if love is not the ultimate goal, gratitude for what our bodies do for us and practicing body-neutrality (ref. Jameela Jamil) helps us reframe the role of our body by taking away it’s power as the ultimate signifier of self-worth. How our body looks doesn’t have to matter if we don’t want it to. We can still choose to express ourselves through fashion and separate from or diminish the importance of what our body shape is.
Next, fashion businesses need to put their money where their mouth is and invest in developing and stocking a wider range of sizes. A good example of luxurious, designer clothing for a wider range of bodies is Coyan. The in-season collection drop business model offers modern pieces made from the highest quality fabrics that are locally and ethically produced. The prices match the high quality. Although not affordable for everyone, it reflects the business opportunity at the top end of the market and provides an option to those seeking to avoid fast fashion and it’s harmful practices.
With the right intentions of dressing all people who love clothes and providing clothes that fit and the permission to feel beautiful, we can expand the fashion party. All of us will benefit and rejoice from liberating our mind + body from the desire to contort into something we are not. The more the merrier.