The plus-size state of the union

Is fat fashion heading for a renaissance or sinking under the weight of the recession?

By Judy Berman

Published June 18, 2009 1:19PM (EDT)

Is this the best of times or the worst of times for plus-size fashion? That's the question prompted by a New York Times story that explores new clothing lines catering to plus-size young women, including a forthcoming line designed by rock band The Gossip's outspoken fat-activist front woman, Beth Ditto. (Unfortunately, author Ruth La Ferla refers to Ditto as a "favorite mascot of the fashion world" -- faint praise that nonetheless seems positively classy compared to the words of a British GQ editor, who last week denounced Ditto as a "porker" and a bad example to girls.) La Ferla also points to trendy plus-size offerings from higher-end designers, including Karen Kane and Kiyonna, and bargain basement retailers such as Target, Kmart and Forever 21 (whose new Faith 21 line, as Broadsheet contributor Kate Harding has noticed, tops out at size 15/16).

It's nice to see designers finally getting hip to the reality that larger women want to wear basically the same things that catch thin women's eye -- bright colors, leather jackets, curve-hugging dresses. But these developments are coming at a time when many companies are only selling their plus-size lines online (Ann Taylor, Old Navy) or even shutting them down altogether (H&M). As Virginia Postrel at Double X writes, these decisions seem to have more to do with the economics of fabric than "fatphobia" -- though I don't imagine that revelation is terribly comforting to a size-20 gal who just wants to try on a pair of Ann Taylor work pants before buying them, goddammit.

Harding, in an e-mail, confessed she was not convinced these developments are particularly novel or unique, noting that Kiyonna and Karen Kane are not new lines, and neither is Old Navy's decision to sell larger sizes online. She writes: "I don't see anything really different happening with plus fashion right now than what's been happening over the last few years -- the options for women who wear larger sizes are increasing overall, but it's really gradual, and not everyone who starts a plus line makes it -- just as not everyone who starts a straight line makes it. It's news when it's a plus line because stories about fat people are, for whatever reason, endlessly interesting to journalists and/or the public."

So is plus-size fashion's herky-jerky market merely a result of recession-era growing pains? Well, while La Ferla's article gets tiresome in places (do we really need a randomly placed, "you go girl"-style list of all the curvy celebrities the author can name off the top of her head?), it does offer some potentially encouraging information:

Despite the slump, some see the market inevitably returning to strength. “The fact that more businesses are getting into this market is a clear indication that the recent lack of growth has been more about the economy than about a lack of interest,” said Marshal Cohen, an NPD analyst.

It seems that, until our economy is once again flush with cash (if that ever happens), the future of plus-size fashion will remain precarious. In the meantime, retailers are trying whatever they can to meet their bottom lines -- not just online sales, which save on overhead, but cheaper fabrics. Plus-size women won't -- and shouldn't -- be satisfied with these options. My (admittedly optimistic) prediction? The companies that continue to crank out flimsy, under-designed plus-size garments will alienate customers and end up folding their lines. Good riddance. And that's when the few visionary designers who actually bother to make attractive, high-quality clothing for larger women will flourish, with increased volume compensating for extra overhead.

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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