In response to changing body shapes, mainstream retailers are taking on the specialists in the plus-size arena.
Size in fashion is an emotive issue. Never was this more apparent than in February, when premium retailer Whistles was slammed by eating disorder charity Beat for using female mannequins with protruding collarbones and ultra-thin arms at its store in Islington, north London.
The backlash brought into sharp focus the need for retailers to reflect real body shapes. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 61.2% of men and 50.8% of women in England aged 25 to 34 are overweight and obese. The ONS defines being overweight as a body mass index of 25kg to 30kg per metre, while obesity is measured at a BMI of 30kg per metre or more. Get to between 35 and 44 years and 72% of men and 56.4% of women fall into this category. Once you hit the 45 to 54 demographic, levels rocket to 79.4% and 62.3%, respectively.
While we are getting bigger we are also getting taller. In 2013, the average man aged 16 to 75 was 5ft 9in, versus 5ft 8in in 2003. Over those 10 years women have stayed roughly at 5ft 3in, despite incremental growth each year.
The fashion industry defines plus-size menswear as a 48-inch chest and 44-inch waist, the equivalent of size XL and over, while plus-size womenswear is size 18 and upwards. According to data from analyst Kantar Worldpanel, one in five women are a size 18 or above.
The statistics suggest plus-size women have a lower average annual spend of £492, compared with size 10 to 16 women’s £603. Of the 7,500 women questioned, only 51% of plus-size women enjoy shopping for clothing and footwear, compared with 65% of size 10 to 16 shoppers.
Ed Gribbin, president of US fit specialist Alvanon, believes UK plus-size women are largely ignored by retailers.
“Women buying size 18 are looking for fashionable, well-fitting clothes, but retailers work on a size 10 or 12, grade up to 14 or 16 and then stop. As growth slows in other fashion sectors, this underserved market represents a real business opportunity,” he says.
While estimates differ, retail analyst Verdict argues the plus-size womenswear sector has the potential to grow 6.2% in 2015 to about £5.9bn, representing 24.9% of the total womenswear market. Marks & Spencer, Primark and N Brown Group are identified as the top plus-size players.
M&S’s womenswear mainline ranges from size 8 to 22, going up to size 28 for online-only collection Plus, which features key silhouettes and fabrics from the mainline. Fit-and-flare dresses enhancing the waist are proving particularly popular.
The N Brown Group spans 20 fashion brands including womenswear label Simply Be, which is enjoying success both on and offline with 10 high street stores nationwide. Simply Be dropped to size 10 for the first time in August 2014 for its collaboration with model Kelly Brook (extending the range from 10 to 32), in a bid to take the brand in a more ‘trend-led direction’ to appeal to the target 25 to 35 demographic.
Not to be outdone, sister brand JD Williams launched its first collection designed by TV presenter Lorraine Kelly for spring 15 in January, following a range endorsed by the daytime TV queen during the previous season. Specialising in sizes 12 to 32, JD Williams is looking to position itself as the go-to brand for the female over-50s market, the UK’s fastest-growing fashion sector, according to research by Kantar Worldpanel.
Over the past year these major players in the value and middle markets have faced fresh challenges from mainstream retailers looking to extend into plus size, notes Verdict senior retail analyst Honor Westnedge. In January, Phase Eight announced the launch of standalone plussize brand Studio 8 for autumn 15. Catering for sizes 16 to 24, the collection will be aimed at women over 35 and priced at a similar level to Phase Eight’s mainline. The company is unable to give any more pricing information at this stage.
Other brands to enter the fray include Colebrooke by Windsmoor, a size 12 to 24 offering from womenswear business Jacques Vert Group, and Missguided+, a 66-piece collection from young fashion etailer Missguided. Available in sizes 16 to 24, Missguided+ is based on the trends and silhouettes of the mainline to appeal to the same young female shopper. Missguided is in competition with etailer Boohoo.com, which launched its first collection of size 16 to 24 dresses, trousers, tops and coats in March 2014. The collection features a collaboration with plussize blogger Nadia Aboulhosn.
In comparison, Asos.com and New Look are plus-size veterans. New Look’s Inspire collection launched in 2000 for sizes 18 to 28, rising to size 32 online. The range is modelled on the core collection, with jersey tops, long-line shirts and dresses most in demand.
“We are constantly evaluating our fit-and-hold sessions where customers give us regular feedback,” says group buying, merchandising and design director Emma Worley. “We fit our garments to flatter, but strive to offer the same silhouettes as the core collection.”
Launched in 2010, Asos Curve adds 100 new styles each month in sizes 18 to 30 to keep pace with its fast-fashion consumer. “The customer is loving bodycon dresses and body-fit jumpsuits. Tunic tops are a key trend piece and denim is performing well,” reports Carmel O’Connor, Asos Curve senior assistant buyer. “Every other season we review and refine our fit and grading, which led us to extend our range to size 30.”
Westnedge argues that with the likes of Asos, New Look and Boohoo expanding their plus-size offers, specialists such as Simply Be and Arcadiaowned
Evans must follow the latest trends to prevent themselves losing market share. Evans has risen to the challenge by introducing pieces from the eponymous collection by The Only Way is Essex star Gemma Collins in 15 of its 167 stores from March, as well as improving the fit of its own size 14 to 32 stock.
“We’ve introduced denim and trousers cut specifically for a pear-shaped figure, which have been extremely successful,” explains Evans brand director Fiona Ross. “We are increasingly focused on shape as well as the absolute dress size. We aim to provide total outfits and styling that flatter each of the four key body shapes: apple, pear, busty and hourglass.”
The plus-size specialist beefed up its fashion credentials for spring 15 by exhibiting at London Fashion Week, presenting signature looks created by designers such as Giles Deacon and Clements Ribeiro, reworked using Evan’s shape-specific data.
However, there is just as much movement in the men’s outsize market. Here, N Brown Group retailers Jacamo and High & Mighty dominate the market on and offline. With 18 high street stores and an ecommerce site, High & Mighty splits its offering into two collections – Mighty (sizes L to 5XL) and Tall (3XLT – to extra-large tall). Jeans and trousers go from a 29-inch to 40-inch leg, with footwear available up to size 17.
Launched in 2007, Jacamo offers garments from 5XL and size 16 shoes for the 35-year plus market, sold online and in 15 dual-branded stores with fellow N Brown fascia Simply Be. The brand carries out fit tests with live models to ensure that each style translates to real shapes. “We’re actually buying more trend-led products than ever before as our customers have been requesting slimmer, more tailored cuts in our ‘tall’ range, which we have focused on improving over the past 12 months,” says Jacamo buyer Claire McGee. “Our customers find dark colours the most flattering and we also offer comfort solutions such as stretch fabrics and longer lengths. We have become more reactive to high street trends, making sure we have more design-led casualwear collections. We are also offering more fashion formalwear than ever before.”
As the men’s market is in separates, most mainstream retailers simply accommodate larger male body shapes with a boxier and straighter cut rather than introducing a dedicated plus-size menswear label, notes Alvanon’s Gribbin. Of the mainstream players, M&S offers a Big & Tall range of tops, shirts, knitwear, coats and trousers based on popular items from the main collection. These designs are scaled up to size 3XL, with trousers rising to a 52-inch waist and 37-inch leg.
While an increasing number of players have flooded the mid-market for both plus size and outsize men’s fashion, the premium sector is sadly lagging behind. “The premium market remains reluctant to really tap into the growing plus-size market, which we forecast to outperform the total UK womenswear market over the next five years,” says Westnedge.
One retailer bucking the trend is Navabi. Launched in 2009, the German etailer stocks more than 100 premium brands in sizes 14 to 28, including Gerry Weber, Gina Bacconi and NYDJ. The UK is one of Navabi’s top three markets along with Germany and France. Prices average £100 to £300, rising to £500 for a Roberto Cavalli White dress. Dresses sell strongly all year round, in particular monochrome, desert hues, prints and leather.
Navabi co-founder Zahir Denhnadi describes the premium plus-size market as “the biggest untapped ecommerce sector”. Over the next year Navabi will invest £19.1m in brand development, including its own labels, which currently account for 25% of sales.
As Britons get bigger, so does the opportunity for retailers in the plus and outsize market. While the mid-market is becoming congested, the largely neglected premium plus-size and men’s outsize sector represents real potential for future growth.
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