During Fashion Week 2019, Meagan Kerr was excited to see some New Zealand brands she had long admired, but never been able to wear, sending plus size models down the runway.
But when Kerr, a fashion blogger who wears a size 26 to 28, went to look for those larger sizes in stores, they didn’t exist.
“I think that’s absolutely lip service,” Kerr said.
Ethical fashion is big business in New Zealand. In the past decade or so, many new labels have been founded that focus on sustainably produced fabrics, fairly employed manufacturers and minimal waste creation. But they’re not terribly inclusive. Although the average woman in New Zealand wears a size 16, many of the best-known ethical labels top out at a 14.
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That’s a big part of the population going unserved, and a big potential customer base untapped.
“I get a lot of people asking about it,” said Kerr. “They’ve seen people saying, ‘Be more ethical in your shopping.’ But they don’t know where to look.”
It’s an oft-told story: Fat women, non-conforming to narrow, traditional notions of beauty, are essentially invisible to the companies that turn it into a commodity.
In this instance they’re also being denied the opportunity to shop according to their principles.
“It’s a really important conversation,” agreed Rachel Easting, co-founder of Wellington-based label Twenty-Seven Names. “I’m surprised it hasn’t come up earlier.”
Twenty-Seven Names’ most recent range has gone up to an 18 for the first time.
“We find that larger sizes do sell out really quickly.”
The reasons for high fashion not catering to plus size women are many, Easting said, but it’s certainly an entrenched attitude.
At polytech, the lesson was: “This is how you do it, you do an 8 to a 14.”
Kerr also felt many fashion designers didn’t have the skillset to design or manufacture for larger sizes, but even that was based on a much blunter truth.
“I think there really is the aspect of, we don’t want to see fat people in our clothes.”
Easting admitted this kind of bigotry was a “big proportion” of the systemic issue.
“There is just a massive need for change.”
At another Wellington label, Kowtow, that work was under way, said founder Gosia Piatek.
The brand, which sizes in letters, was going up to an XXL – equivalent to an 18-20 – with its next line dropping in July.
Kowtow already had a base of plus size shoppers who found the label’s oversized style a roomy fit.
“I’ve always thought of us as super inclusive,” Piatek said. “Our clothing, our styling, and how we make our clothes is extremely generous in sizing.”
The Kowtow XL could accommodate women up to a size 20.
“I can already see in Wellington there are size 18-20 girls wearing Kowtow all day long, but they know the brand.”
Case in point was Kerr, who said Kowtow was a company she would “love” to shop with.
“But I can’t, because I looked on their website and they go to what, a 16 or an 18?”
Designer Meagan Tilby didn’t think it was enough for labels to simply suggest plus size customers try a smaller size, or even to make the same styles in larger sizes.
“If you’re just doing plus size to tick a box, to be more socially acceptable or to make more money, you’re not doing it for the right reasons,” she said.
“The two women you’re comparing here might be poles apart in terms of a lot more than dress size – things like confidence and therefore the length they’re comfortable wearing or whether it has sleeves or not.”
It was a label’s prerogative not to make plus size garments, she said, which was why she had founded her label, Ruby & Rain, an ethical and conscious company that caters for women from size 14 to 28.
She saw not only a gap, but a “void” in the market, where plus size women were “expected to wear something bland and certainly not designer”.
“All the cliched style advice – like ‘don’t wear horizontal stripes or bright colours’ – got me quite riled up, because I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I be noticed?’”
But the small range of designer clothes available in plus sizes were typically not designed with the end customer in mind. It wouldn’t make the customer feel “confident and valuable”.
Ruby & Rain isn’t the only Kiwi label to specialise in plus size clothing – Kerr was also a fan of House of Boom, Lost and Led Astray, The Carpenter’s Daughter and Citizen Woman – but they are still only a small part of the ethical fashion sector.
Labels who were serious about attracting larger customers would have to really want it, Tilby said, and it didn’t look like many did.
“I think a lot of designer brands fear that making their clothing accessible to ‘fat’ women, will make their clothing less acceptable to their ideal customer – the ones they think will wear it best.”
That pervasive fat-phobia was part of a “multi-faceted” systemic problem, Kerr said.
“Plus size people have less opportunities for employment, less opportunities to rise up the ranks, [so] they get paid less.”
People who wear non-standard sizes may also be less willing to invest in expensive clothes, because they always feel under pressure to be losing weight.
The very idea of shopping for clothes can be stressful when it’s difficult to find anything in your size, meaning plus size people will often wear clothes until they’re threadbare, which in turn gives them even less confidence.
All this leads to a vicious cycle: For large women the fact they can’t easily procure the kinds of clothes they want reinforces the message that their bodies aren’t good enough.
So they retreat, not engaging with fashion, and giving designers less incentive to cater to them.
And while mainstream fashion labels across the board were not good at serving plus size customers, ethical brands had more of a mandate to do so than others, Kerr argued.
“‘Ethical’ and ‘inclusive’ go hand-in-hand.”
Twenty-Seven Names’ Easting agreed.
“We’ve always tried really hard to be doing the ‘right thing’: We make in New Zealand, we make ethically, we choose our fabrics well, so broadening that scope out and making sure we are having a broad range of models and sizes and inclusivity in general is a really important thing to be doing.”
She didn’t think lack of training was a true barrier for designers.
“Even within the smaller size range, only 8 to 14, women’s bodies are so different,” she said. “Nobody is actually a mannequin, and we are designing for real people.”
But the commercial concern was still there for Kowtow’s Piatek.
“I don’t know how much demand there would be” to go higher than a size 20, she said.
“You can’t produce sizes you’re not going to sell.”
The key was customer engagement, which she said brands were better at today than in times past.
Kerr said that was more of a challenge where traditionally sidelined plus size women were concerned.
It involved “speaking to actual plus size people about what they want” in a way that was warm and respectful, something she said Ruby & Rain was particularly good at.
But if mainstream labels could get it right, the customer base was there.
“We’re out here with our money. If we want people to shop ethically, then we have to make that an option for them.”