It's no secret that the retail world in Australia is hurting. In the land of the never-ending sale, shop closures and the pinch of collective belt-tightening, it's not a great time to be selling anything – particularly clothing.
But picture an entire segment of the market that's crying out for product. And wanting more choice, more fashionable and better-quality product. In this environment you'd think this group would have their every need catered to by retailers, but when it comes to plus size clothing, this isn't the case.
Although plenty of Australian women are a size 14 or larger, you wouldn't know it when you look around the average retail store. A casual browse of the racks reveals a size range that usually starts at a 6 or 8 and comes to a crashing halt at size 14, with the occasional size 16.
As a result, shopping for clothes can be a nightmare for larger people.
What our readers say
If I buy a size 18 from the normal clothing section it doesn't even come close to fitting, but if I buy a size 18 in the designated "plus" section it's way too big, and if you go to a store that specialises in larger clothing you can also expect double the price.
I go to the shops frequently and I try on everything I think might be OK, in the hope of finding something. There are a couple of designer brand plus-sized clothes that are reliable and true to size, but they are costly so I try to wait for sales.
The costs are excessive. Instead of paying $39 for a plain white T-shirt, you pay $59. It's the mid-range clothes, that you might team with an outfit, that I resent having to pay so much for.
I love fashion, but trying to find clothes that are in style, not shapeless sacks and affordable is a major challenge.
Plus-size price tags
Sarah Donges, stylist with the Sydney- and Melbourne-based business The Beauty Tutor, says her larger clients not only have less choice about what they can wear but will pay through the nose for the privilege of finding clothes that fit. "If I have a client who works in a corporate environment and who needs decent work clothes we would need a $3000 budget if she wanted a basic wardrobe. If the same woman was a size 12 I could do it for $1500 easily."
Donges is also critical of the quality of the garments, saying as a rule of thumb that whatever you can find in a standard size will cost an extra $100 for the same quality in a plus size. CHOICE confirmed this with a walk through some plus-size stores: one retailer was selling a simple size 20 black jersey T-shirt for $179, while another stocked simple poly/cotton mix dresses for over $300.
There is an argument that plus-size clothes are more expensive to make. A spokesperson from the Council of Textiles and Fashion Industries of Australia tells CHOICE some manufacturers claim larger sizes use more fabric and very large sizes require much longer stitching time.
Fashion designer Sacha Drake says larger consumers do need to spend money to get a better-fitting garment. "As a generalisation, 14-plus customers do have more body-shape issues, and can be harder to please. They don't want black, they don't want a tent. I'm a size 14, and as a designer I find the most flattering way to go is to use good fabric and take the time to design a garment that fits and flatters. That's what you're paying for with my designs."
Donges sees many clients who have money to spend but don't fit what those in the fashion industry deign a standard size. "As soon as I have a (female) client over a size 16 it's a struggle, there's only a few retailers that do up to 18. After that you have to go into specialty stores – if I have a client that is corporate and needs decent work clothes, there's really one or two places to go, and they are expensive."
And it doesn't matter whether you have money to burn or not, says Tracey Porter, former editor of Australian fashion industry magazine Ragtrader. Porter, who is a tall and fit size 16, says she could never fit into any of the clothes that crossed her path as editor.
In one of her last editorials for the magazine she wrote about her frustration with the clothing industry and the consumers they continue to ignore. "Despite having curves, money, an interest in fashion and being exposed to literally thousands of fashion brands, I still struggle to find clothes that allow me to be me. And I have no qualms about telling you that you are missing out on a hell of an opportunity with consumers such as myself."
At a size 14 to 16, plus-size Australian model Robyn Lawley has graced the covers of Vogue Italia and French Elle but says in Australia she struggles to find clothes that fit. In a recent interview she said she'd like to support Australian designers but can't, because many don't make clothes that fit her. "The fact is that some don't go up to my size… and if they do, it sells out quickly. I think there is a lot of fashion snobbery. It feels like they don't want a size 14 or above wearing their clothes."
Is it just snobbery?
Many of the fashion industry insiders CHOICE spoke to admitted that there is some reluctance when it comes to designing for larger body types.
"There tends to be an attitude that larger women don't have a sense of style," says Porter.
Designer Sacha Drake, whose clothing line ranges from size 8-18, says many of the buyers working in retail encourage the preference towards smaller sizes. "Many buyers are very slim and tend to buy accordingly. When I brought out a range of size 14-plus dresses years ago most of the buyers I went to said they loved the garments and then ordered them in a size 8, 10, 12 – which totally defeated the point."
Ironically, many designers wouldn't even fit into their own designs, say some fashion industry insiders. Queensland stylist and fashion blogger Nikki Parkinson says at times she feels like the fashion industry has "forgotten what it's there to do, which is to sell clothes".
One designer bucking the trend is Leona Edmiston, whose curve-friendly dress range launched a plus-size label catering up to a size 20 last year. General Manager Melissa Macalyk says the new line came about as a direct result of customers asking in-store or via social media for bigger sizes.
"The line has been doing well. There's a real gap in the market, but I know there is a reluctance from some designers to go there. They can have big egos and don't want to see something they created not look good on someone."
Is the industry shaping up?
All the experts we spoke to agreed that while the market isn't ideal for plus-sized customers, it is improving. Nikki Parkinson says if shoppers are savvy enough they should be able to mix and match budget finds with selected designer labels. "Avella from Big W is a good-quality budget line – previously you would have had to spend more, but there are a few more options now."
Tracey Porter agrees there have been some small improvements, but still shakes her head at a market that is under-catered for. "To overlook a whole market segment is madness, especially in this retail climate. If dollars aren't enough incentive – I don't want to know what is."
What about men?
Most of the industry contacts CHOICE spoke to said, in general, men have it a little easier. Men we spoke to complained about lack of length in trousers and sleeves as well as an overall bad fit, but the consensus is the differences aren't as extreme as with women's clothes.
Tips to shop smart for plus-size clothing
- Get in quick: New season designs are released months before you might actually need to wear them. For retailers it's less of a risk to over-order size 10, 12 or 14, so larger sizes sell out first.
- Shop around: Don't discount the budget brands for basics and keep an eye on the labels for well-designed pieces.
- Look online: Overseas markets such as the UK and US offer a much wider range of sizes and options.
- Be heard: If you see a label you like but they don't make your size, let them know. Most labels have a social media presence – let them know they are missing out on you as a customer.