Shopping as a fat woman is a wholly different experience than five years ago. Once relegated to the Macy's basement, the shitty end of the mall, God forbid the catalogs, now we've got access to neon and sophisticated florals and horizontal stripes and crop tops and two-piece bathing suits. Even the whack garbage is heartening because hey, at least they're getting adventurous enough for some bold failures. So: what now?
This week's New Yorker has a long, thoughtful examination of the state of plus-size fashion. Author Lizzie Widdicombe attended Full Figured Fashion Week, watched as bloggers excitedly examined a new lineup from the relaunched Eloquii, and met with Lane Bryant CEO Linda Heasley. The piece, which is worth reading in full, ranges from race to fatshion blogging, from trunk shows to big retailers' snooty attitudes toward their larger customers. It's written for the reader who's never heard of Asos or Simply Be, but it's a great gloss on the history of the business, and it offers some hints of where the market might go next.
While there's lots of talk about new brands, one of the interesting sections takes a look at ye olde Lane Bryant. There's probably no brand name so thoroughly associated with larger ladies, but they're trying to ride the fatshion wave to industry approval with moves like the Isabel Toledo collection. Thing is, they're still trying to serve their existing customer. And if the chain has seemed even more like an incoherent pile of gauze than usual, you're not imagining it:
Heasley is trying to solve the problem of the divided consumer base by breaking Lane Bryant's line into "sub brands." Half are designed for a more conservative, self-conscious shopper, whom the company calls "Ava." The other half are designed for "Jennifer," who feels great about her size. The denim brand, Lane Bryant Denim, is broken into life-style ideas: "rocker cool," "out and about on Saturday," "great American sportswear." The intimates brand Cacique has taken inspiration from the film roles of Angelina Jolie. Heasley said that her design team had put together a "tear sheet" with images. "We have her doing all sorts of things," she said. "She's Lara Croft, she's Nina the nurse, she's Adele the teacher."
Because the thing is, fat women come from all walks of life. The fact that you're a size 22 doesn't really say that much about your personality, or your taste, or your income level, which are the kinds of things retailers generally use to hammer out a specific brand identity. "'You can go into an Ann Taylor Loft and you say, 'I know who their customer is.'' But in a Lane Bryant store, she said, 'you see so much variety, it makes it harder to get a direction,'" Heasley told the New Yorker.
Let's hope they figure out the balancing act, though, because plus-size shoppers can't necessarily count on our fashion Renaissance lasting forever. The economy is a cruel, fickle mistress:
"A decade ago, plus size was hot, and it was hot for capital investment," Cohen said. "2004 and 2005 was a real hot era." Then the economy dipped, and many plus-size brands went under. Cohen predicted that plenty of today's upstarts will suffer the same fate. Retail executives are business people first. "If the business isn't big enough—no pun intended—to be able to sustain a profit, they're going to walk away."
So help me God, if our options collapse back down to Lane Bryant and Evans, I'm just gonna learn to sew.
Photo via AP Images.