The Plus-Size Market and Oprah’s Missed Opportunity

The September 2018 issue of O, the Oprah Magazine contains an extensive and extraordinary fashion spread focusing on plus-size fashion. Oprah breathlessly announces it in her “Here We Go!” editor’s page comment:

“If you’ve had the difficult experience of trying, and failing to find clothing in stores that rarely carry your size—or any size above 10 or 12, for that matter—you’ll be glad to hear that the fashion industry is beginning to mend its ways.  . . . [W]e’re celebrating the big change in attitude that’s created a new world of style for every body, and taking a look at the long road we’ve traveled to get to a more inclusive place. . . “

If only Oprah had come clean, and written “If you’ve – like I have – had the difficult experience of trying, and failing to find clothing . . . .”  This is part of a pattern of Oprah’s downplaying and even ignoring her personal history relating to size. Why is she so coy about what has been in plain sight, when her personal experience could be so helpful to her readers?

Illustration: Emme, perhaps the original famous full-figured model, is featured in the magazine spread.

Before her famous reveal of the wagon full of fat representing the weight she lost on Optifast back in the 1980s (a reveal that got me and countless others to sign up for the program), Oprah’s shopping habits had some notoriety in the upscale stores of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue. According to a saleswoman at one of those stores, Oprah’s assistants would remove size tags from the designer or bridge garments purchased on her behalf so she wouldn’t see the double-digit sizes being purchased for her. I was advised by another style expert that Oprah’s assistants would on occasion purchase more than one identical designer garment and then piece them together to create a single garment that better fit and flattered the celebrity host. Of course, Oprah may have been ignorant of some or all of what was being done to shield her from the harsh realities of the sizes she required – thus, the subterfuge by her shoppers and staff. Are these stories that were relayed to me by people in the fashion and style industries true, or mere urban legend? I can’t say for sure, but they do reflect remarkable creativity in sidestepping the issue of size.

On a more personal note, I introduced a line of fine jewelry for the plus-size market in 2003. My pieces were featured in Good Housekeeping and InStyle magazine, among others. However, when my publicist contacted the Oprah organization, she was told that the magazine staff was not interested in looking at or promoting my offerings “because Oprah is not plus-size.” Even if that description was true at the time, Oprah has demonstrated through her organization over the years a disdain for any designer catering to full-figured women. It’s nice finally to see a more inclusive approach to fashion.

There’s an interesting little caption on the photo of Oprah on her editorial page, which reads: “Reevaluating your perspective is never a bad thing.” Oprah, let’s hear your story of dealing with dressing as a woman wearing size 12 and up.  Now that would give us some perspective on the fashion world’s change of attitude.

Inclusive-Size Lines: A Concept Whose Time Has Come (Yet Again)

A tiny blurb in the May 2017 issue of InStyle magazine announced: “Teresa Maccapani Missoni brings her family’s luxe Italian glamour to Eloquii for an inclusive-size line of feminine dresses and separates in a resort-ready palette of white and azure.” Eloquii.com is a fashion site for sizes 14 to 28, and Missoni is its first-ever designer collaboration.

0617 March Vogue Prabal Gurung for Lane Bryant Ashley Graham REV

Designer Prabal Gurung is also receiving a good amount of press for his new collection for Lane Bryant in sizes 14 to 28. The April 2017 issue of Glamour reports that Gurung collaborated with Lane Bryant after he had “no luck getting luxury department stores to sell his line as plus-sizes.” The March 2017 issue of Vogue also spotlighted the collection.

At the same time, in a feature in the April 2017 issue of Glamour, “Hey Stores: Where’s My Size?” writer Lauren Chan and four full-figure fashion bloggers shopped clothing stores in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York, and found no plus-size clothing whatsoever at 41 of the 69 stores.

For many full-figured women, Salon Z at Saks Fifth Avenue (remember the campaign “Saks First”) truly was their go-to choice for professional wardrobe and special-event dressing. Now Salon Z exists on-line only.  Nordstrom’s plus-size focused Encore department at its spanking new store in the large mall near my home had only a pitiful couple of racks of dated sale merchandise in plus sizes when I visited. Despite the increase in demand for plus-size fashion, the demographic is being served more by specialty retailers and boutiques.

0617 June Glamour Nicolette Mason I Am Not an Hourglass REV

There’s an issue aside from sizes, too — full-figured women, like women of all sizes, come in a variety of shapes. “I Am Not a Hourglass” writes Nicolette Mason in the June 2017 issue of Glamour. Mason writes:

“It feel like every day there’s another body-positive headline in fashion–airbrush-free swimsuit campaigns, designer collaborations, New York Fashion Week’s record number of plus-size models–and while those stories represent major strides in size inclusion, there’s one thing that still bothers me:  Almost every time we see a woman above a size 14 in magazines, in advertisements, or on the runway, she’s a perfect hourglass shape.

“Think about the most famous plus-size models:  They have big busts and full hips, with snatched waists and thin arms and legs. Gorgeous–but also, newsflash! That is not how most plus-size women look. Hell, all you need to do is look around on the street to know that many of us are rounder in the ‘wrong’ places, with full faces and thicker limbs.  . . . How progressive is body positivity if we’re affirming only one plus-size body type?”

Mason explains that, despite fluctuations in her size between 12 and 16, she is larger on top with large breasts and smaller hips. She cites Eloquii, Universal Standard, and Los Angeles-based Zelie for She as lines that design for various types.

This is not new, by any means. For instance, plus-size model and image consultant Catherine Schuller introduced a line on one of the home shopping channels some years ago, with styles identified as being appropriate for various body shapes. With few exceptions, plus-size clothing lines do not provide guidance to consumers as to what pieces will flatter which shapes.

0617 July MC model Denise Bidot Big Girl in a Skinny World REV

Look at the regular column “Big Girl in a Skinny World” in Marie Claire magazine. In the July 2017 issue, which features plus-size model Denise Bidot, the column spotlights for her a Vivienne Westwood skirt with a horizontal print (up to size 14), a Stella McCartney dress (up to size 14), and, a choker from Eddie Borgo. The choker has an interior diameter of 4.25 inches. None of these items will fit the majority of “big girls.”

0617 Christian Siriano in People REV

One option, for those who can afford it, is to go custom. Designer Christian Siriano is quoted in the July 3, 2017 issue of People: “My goal is to hopefully change people’s perceptions of what’s beautiful and what women should wear. I include a diverse range of sizes, races and ages on the runway. An then, there’s the red carpet. I don’t go after the young, new It Girl. They’re fabulous, but what’s exciting to me is seeing someone different on the carpet looking amazing, like Danielle Brooks. . .  Honestly I just love that I get to help change people’s perceptions, and I’m proud of what we’re doing. But it took me 10 years to get here, and it will take another 50 years to have my position become a little bit more of the norm. That would be really exciting.”

I’m thrilled to see that some designers and retailers are once again attempting to serve the 67% of American women who wear a size 14 or above. Stay tuned.

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The Forgotten Woman

If you’re reading this blog, you are almost certainly familiar with a national chain of boutiques dating back to the 1980s and ’90s that catered to full-figured women, by the name of The Forgotten Woman. The chain focused on designer and upscale clothing, and included designs by Geoffrey Beene, Oscar de la Renta, Adrienne Vittadini, Pauline Trigere and Bob Mackie. Sadly, the chain went out of business in 1999. Yet with a substantial portion of the adult female population wearing so-called plus-size fashions, you would think that this segment of the fashion industry would be thriving.

The good news is there seems to be fresh interest in catering to the full-figured woman. The less good news is that the target customer is decidedly younger than the typical customer of The Forgotten Women.

0716 LA Tiime plus size fashion REV

The Los Angeles Times published a piece on Sunday, June 19, 2016, entitled “Pluses and minuses: The fashion industry improves its variety of sizes, but still lags.”  Three young women  – Nadia Aboulhosn, Gabi Gregg, and Nicolette Mason – are touted for the “hundreds, if not thousands, of outfits detailed on their blogs and Instagram profiles . . . they shop, and so do their readers. Their combined reach to followers on Instagram alone is creeping up to a million. What’s more, the three multi-hyphenates (blogger-designer-model-creative strategist, among others) have been pushing the fashion industry forward when it comes to broadening the range of sizes offered as well as the general messaging from brands.”

The CEO of plus-size-focused fashion website Eloquii comments that the customer “is buying the trend-driven fashion items the minute they’re available–there is no hesitation. . . . Off the shoulder, ruffles, ’70s, chambray–if it’s a fashion trend, it’s selling and selling well.” Research firm NPD Group views full-figured teens as “reinvigorating the plus-size market.  Today’s young consumers know what they want and won’t settle for less.”

Ruffles and off-the-shoulder looks at popular price points (dresses under $59) are not what the successful mature full-figured woman wants to wear, yet the needs of this extensive and affluent group are being met by very few designers.

The Times reports: “The plus-size bloggers say there must be a larger representation of different plus-size women. ‘There’s still a lot of work to be done– and still not a lot of diversity in plus fashion, despite the fact that it’s a highly diverse market, in terms of race, financial means and location,’ says Mason. . . . ‘We now know it’s OK to be a white, well-proportioned curvy woman, but what about everyone else that’s part of this demographic?'” And, one might ask, what about the more mature woman?

To the designers out there who are committed to serving the plus-size market, and to designers thinking of expanding their size ranges, here’s something to consider:  If our next President is a woman who embraces the flattering long line look of a pantsuit as her signature look (and who reportedly receives fashion advice from Anna Wintour of Vogue  magazine), isn’t it time to emulate that look and to start designing flattering quality professional wear for the mature full-figured woman?

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A Broader View of Beauty

Being an outlier when it comes to beauty, as someone far too short and wide to meet the standards of classic loveliness, I have always taken an expansive view of what constitutes attractiveness. The world of fashion has gradually gone farther and farther down the path of embracing the quirky, from the French concept of jolie laide (“pretty/ugly”) to such features as gaps between front teeth and outsize feet.

0515 Tess Holliday size 22 plus size model REV

The June 1, 2015 issue of People magazine (“The 2015 Body Issue”) announces on its cover “The World’s First Size 22 Supermodel!” and adds:  “From Bullied Teen to Plus-Size Star:  Tess Holliday on her traumatic childhood and inspiring journey: ‘You can be beautiful regardless of your size.'”

With reportedly over 800,000 likes on Facebook and almost 700,000 followers on Instagram, Holliday caught the eye of the U.K.’s MILK Management and became, at size 22, “the largest model ever to sign with a major agency.” People continues:  “At 5’5″ and 280 lbs., the heavily tattooed Holliday is a pinup for a brand-new era: body-positive, outspoken, social-media-savvy and no one’s idea of a cookie-cutter mannequin.” Noting other plus-size models currently making waves, including Candice Huffine, Denise Bidot, Ashley Graham, and Robyn Lawley, the magazine poses the question: “Maybe the fashion industry has finally realized that women wearing size 14 and up account for 67 percent of the American population?”

0515 Not-So-Real Housewives of Orange County plastic surgery Botox REV

Without comment, the same issue of People includes a one-page spread on the “Not-So-Real Housewives” of Orange County, who “dish about their plastic surgery and Botox.” Not a mention of liposuction appears in the article although the most senior of the five women reports having had a tummy tuck more than 15 years ago. Three of the five women in the article admit to having breast augmentation, three have had nose jobs, two have had “chin jobs,” one tried a lip injection, and all five have had Botox injections. 51-year-old Shannon Beador comments that she wants her three daughters (ages 10-13) “to grow up loving their bodies. I don’t want them to think that they’re going to have to change anything.”

Overly Photoshopped images seem more and more passé as consumers protest when advertisers go too far in correcting perceived flaws or in striving for an unnatural level of perfection. Has there finally been a sea change in appreciating the beauty in every individual, whatever her size?