Ashley Graham Throws The Fashion Industry a Curve

Ashley Graham Throws The Fashion Industry a Curve

"We’re lacking communication between designers, buyers and the actual customer," says the model and social media star.

Sizing does matter: Although U.S. women average a size 16 to 18, retailers and brands continue to be lethargic in incorporating a broader range of fit options. While there are exceptions — Michael Kors, Prabal Gurung, Eloquii, Lane Bryant — the plus-size vertical has remained mostly on the periphery of the fashion industry.

“We’re lacking communication between designers, buyers and the actual customer,” said model and social media star Ashley Graham, a champion of the body diversity movement. “Designers — Prabal [Gurung], Michael [Kors], Christian Siriano — go up to a size 20, but the buyers won’t buy it because they don’t think the customer will come into the store. That customer has been told for so long that that size doesn’t exist for her, so how does she know?”

Experts agreed that incorporating the plus-size consumer into a brand strategy should be considered just as seriously as implementing a new social initiative, selecting a solutions provider and deploying an in-store experience.

“We are the norm — the average size of the American woman is a size 16. Is this interesting and different? Not really, but for fashion it is,” Graham said.

In an environment where retailers and fashion brands are struggling to deliver consistent top-line growth, maintain brand loyalty and win new customers, sales trends show promise in the plus-size segment. According to NPD Group, “U.S. sales of women’s plus-size apparel (including plus size, petite plus and junior plus) increased four percent from $20.4 billion in 2015 to $21.2 billion in 2016.”

Though a notable increase, this is still a minor share of the global fashion and footwear industry’s worth — an approximate $1.7 trillion in 2016, Euromonitor reported.

“Luxury still needs to catch up to the consumer. Those brands that add in greater diversity will be rewarded. Progress is still slow, which is unfortunate given the scale of the opportunity,” said Katie Smith, senior analyst at Edited, a retail analytics platform.

Although these challenges aren’t reserved for the luxury category alone, the vertical is perhaps the most indicative of the state of the market, the progress and the ground still to cover.

“Brands should start by choosing the right vernacular. Pick a language and a story that welcomes customers and doesn’t alienate them. Select faces that they can connect with,” said Gil Eyal, chief executive officer and cofounder of HYPR, an influencer search and discovery platform that specializes in real-time analytics. “A second component is in actions. If you don’t carry certain sizes, or your store is plastered with Photoshopped bikini bodies, you’re going to make certain people uncomfortable. Put your money where your mouth is and make sure your stores and offerings match the inclusive language you’re using.”

Updating in-store and social messaging is the tip of the iceberg — offering curve-friendly sizes requires large shifts, from patternmaking to sourcing and the supply chain onward.

“There are significant barriers to entry in producing plus-size garments. Firstly the expertise in fit, but also the economics when you consider that typically 60 percent of the cost of a garment is in the fabric. At N Brown Group we have 11 brands providing plus sizes to different demographics so we can buy significant volumes,” said Angela Spindler, chief executive officer of N Brown Group, the parent company of Simply Be, a retailer specializing in women’s sizes 8 to 28.

Pushing the plus-size agenda forward in a sincere and authentic manner is paramount to resonate with all consumers, but especially plus-size shoppers. This requires consistent strategies across runways, social channels and additional demonstrations of dedication to body diversity.

“Michael [Kors], Christian [Siriano] and Prabal [Gurung] have put curvy girls on the runway in a way that’s not tokenizing us. They’ve also done it in a way so it’s not a group of us in the end or the middle. They’re scattering us through like the rest of the girls. They’re making it very normal,” said Graham, who has walked the Kors runway for the last two seasons.

Eloquii, a predominantly online retailer dedicated to sizes 14 to 28, which has 127,000 Instagram followers, has capitalized on social media to reach its core shoppers. “This customer segment has a tiny sliver of traditional fashion media devoted to her so social media is crucial. It allows her to create the content she wants to see as well as allows brands like Eloquii to drive visual content marketing through a channel that connects directly with our customer in real time. Social takes on increased significance for this market because of the dearth of fashion content that exists for her,” said Mariah Chase, chief executive officer of Eloquii.

HYPR’s Eyal echoed Chase: “One important side effect of the social media revolution is that it opened doors to all kinds of mini celebrities and influencers. Audience data proves what should have been obvious to us all — women don’t flock after swimsuit models. They connect with and follow the advice of women like them.”

Enter the importance of fit.

To ensure superior-fitting product, N Brown Group has deployed technological tools. “We are the first business to introduce 3-D avatars for fit and sampling on every size from 8 to 28,” explained Spindler. “Testing has shown this significantly improves the accuracy of our fit. Most fashion businesses produce the perfect sample in one size and then scale up and down. We work on three sizes for sampling.” 

The efforts have paid off. The U.K.-based company has embarked on widening its U.S. footprint for the coming year. “For 2018 we will roll out a U.S. state tour of the Simply Be brand with immersive pop-up stores so that the country can touch, feel and ultimately experience our market-leading fit. We also have unexpected partnerships and collaborations launching through 2018,” said Rich Storer, U.S. vice president of marketing at N Brown Group.

“You don’t want to scale up a straight sample size four to an 18, 20 and so on. You want to invest in an additional fit that you can grade up and down to address proportions properly,” Chase said. “There are also specificities with regards to design and merchandising. I think the big thing is committing — expect to learn over several seasons to develop the basis for a robust business and partnership with this customer. In today’s retail environment, committing to something that might not be immediately accretive can be a tough proposition.”

For Graham, commitment is innate — and rising — as her brand iterates and evolves. “IMG’s approach in all talent we manage is to focus on their own individual brands. We delve into their passions, messaging and authentic voice to best market and promote them,” said White.

Showcasing Graham’s magnetic personality has contributed to the ongoing expansion of her brand — a signal to other retailers and brands that wish to navigate the largely uncluttered category. The model has a book under her belt (titled “A New Model: What Confidence, Beauty and Power Really Look Like”) and come January 2018, will release a luxury denim line with Marina Rinaldi.

“There’s a lack of premium denim in the curvy world. You can’t find luxury that fits well and is cool. I can’t wait for all the girls out there to know what great quality and cuts are,” Graham said.

Photographs by Nyra Lang
Styling by Mayte Allende
Hair by David Lopez using T3 Micro and Kenra Professional at Next Artists
Makeup by Morgane Martini at The Wall Group
Nails by Miss Pop