Curvy shoppers grill retail execs: 'Plus-size' applies to body shapes other than 'hourglass'

Nicolette Mason, Malissa Akay, Nadia Boujarwah, Lynne J. Coleman, Griselangel Paula, and Sara Westbrook at theCURVYcon on Sept. 8, 2018, in New York City.

Plus-size shoppers want clothing that fits their diverse figures, athletic wear that actually performs, and better styles for men.

Those were just a few of the issues that came up at theCURVYcon on Sept. 8 when five of the biggest retailers in the plus-size fashion industry joined together for a lively discussion on the state of plus-size retail, current style solutions for their customers, and challenges that lay ahead. Representatives from Lane Bryant, J.C. Penney, Rebdolls, Old Navy, and Dia&Co were all present for the panel, moderated by plus-size model and designer Nicolette Mason.

There’s a common misconception that the term plus-size applies to only one group of people; however, it’s quite the opposite.

“For a lot of companies looking at our community from the outside, it feels often like plus is kind of envisioned as this one monolithic group of women and everything within plus is the same,” said Nadia Boujarwah, CEO and co-founder of Dia&Co. “And the truth is, there are a hundred million women in this community, and so you should expect every possible uniqueness to be true within the community that we serve.”

Nadia Boujarwah speaks on the “Dear Retailer” panel during theCURVYcon. (Photo: Getty Images)
The “Dear Retailer” panelists discuss issues for plus-size retailers and consumers. (Photo: Getty Images)

This misconception is echoed by the consumer standpoint as well. During the question-and-answer period, one audience member voiced her exasperation with this issue. “As a plus-size customer, I find it incredibly frustrating that clothes are designed for hourglass figures most of the time — hugging, hugging, hugging,” she said. “I couldn’t wear jeans in high school because I didn’t find a pair that could fit me. … I’m wondering if there’s anything being done regarding … doing something for apple shapes, or different shapes in particular, not just the mostly represented hourglass figure?”

To address this, Lane Bryant’s senior vice president and general merchandising manager, Malissa Akay, said, “We do a ton of work with real customers. We have hundreds of thousands of women in our database [who] engage with us weekly and monthly on different fits.” In one example that Akay cited, the popular Allie pant was actually crowdsourced. The pants feature special fit technology, and the line includes four stretch levels as well as a no-gap waistband.

Malissa Akay talked about Lane Bryant’s approach to fit during the “Dear Retailer” panel. (Photo: Getty Images)

The audience asked questions about plus-size men too. According to Sara Westbrook, head of plus merchandising at Old Navy, men “face the same challenges as plus-size women.” She noted that plus-size males may feel a sense of disenfranchisement that’s similar to the way many females feel. “That’s a really important part of our men’s business at Old Navy,” Westbrook says, “and we have a really broad size range as well as lengths, so he can definitely find himself within our collection.”

When it comes to activewear, there are misconceptions about what plus-size women actually need or want from it, the panelists said. “We don’t have to be a ‘before’ photo,” said Nicolette Mason. “We don’t have to be active just because we’re trying to lose weight. We can love our bodies exactly as we are and still want to participate in fitness and activities.” On this topic, an audience member asked the panelists, “What are your feelings on activewear in the plus-size community, because it’s something I think everyone’s attempted and everyone really wants, but … we still want plus-size to function at the right support that we need.”

Dia&Co’s CEO and co-founder, Nadia Boujarwah, addressed the question, saying: “I think there’s a big misconception that the plus-size woman is looking for athleisure and not performance wear, and that’s just not true.” In fact, Dia&Co launched activewear for the first time earlier this year, and it’s now the largest retailer in the world to sell plus-size activewear.

Tennis champion and designer Venus Williams, who spoke at theCURVYcon on Friday night, recently revealed that she’s expanding her activewear line, EleVen, into plus sizes (exclusively with Dia&Co) to cater to curvy women who care about both fit and performance.

The panelists embarked on a wide range of discussions on issues ranging from diversity to representation, both internally and externally. Interestingly, Mason brought up a valid point that the blame shouldn’t rest solely on the brands. “As much criticism as brands get for not casting diversely, there are so few [modeling] agencies that are actually representing women above a size 14,” she said.

It’s refreshing to know that representation is being taken seriously from these brands from an internal standpoint, including people who are behind design decisions and creation. At Lane Bryant, 95 percent of its workforce are women. At Dia&Co, more than half of its staff are women of color. At J.C. Penney, “It’s just a part of our culture,” said Lynne J. Coleman, senior divisional brand management director. “It’s just the backbone of collaborative innovation, getting different opinions from all different types of people.”

Yes, there are still challenges for plus-size retailers, but there are many strides to applaud as well. Events like theCURVYcon that bring together a diverse group of women — including models, celebrities, influencers, and retailers — continue to push the envelope on plus-size fashion.

Yahoo Lifestyle live-streamed theCURVYcon 2018. Check out our full coverage and catch another great moment below: 

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