The growing push for size inclusivity in fashion is hitting some hurdles

The global plus size women’s apparel market is expected to reach “a market value of over $264.4 billion in 2027, while the cumulative growth opportunity […] over the forecast period is $1.57 trillion,” according to Credence Research.

As fashion apparel brands take steps to include the size, they face some challenges. Old Navy, for example, launched a program, Bodequality, but sales began to decline after launch. Elizabeth Segran, Senior Writer at Fast Company, discussed this in a recent report.

Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Segran about the fashion industry and plus size inclusivity. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kai Rysdal: What was wrong with Old Navy and Bodequality?

Elisabeth Segran: Oh my God. Well, for starters last August, Old Navy said it was unveiling what it described as its biggest launch in the brand’s entire history. And basically what he said was that he was going to make every style of clothing in his line, from size 0 to size 30. Most fashion brands specialize in making clothes that only go up to size 16. And there are brands that go into plus size, which only specialize in making clothes [size] 18 and over. So it was very important. Because, until now, if you went shopping with a friend of yours, and you were 8 and your friend was 18, you couldn’t buy in the same stores. And for a long time, plus size women said they felt really marginalized by the whole fashion industry,

Rysdal: So if Old Navy had picked this sweet spot, so to speak – and I’ll get to that with other companies in a minute – but if they had said, “Let’s start with the mid-range of all women, instead everyone, zero to 30”, that could have worked, right?

Segran: Yeah, so the problem was they couldn’t tell what sizes to put in what stores. When you walked into an Old Navy store, there were tons of mid-size clothes that had disappeared because everyone else had bought them. And basically there was a lot of inventory that was either too small or too big.

Rysdal: So can we talk about women in this economy and what they are buying, in terms of size, when they walk into a store? I’m sure someone knows – and it’s probably you, actually, in this conversation – what the median woman is in this economy, and how you design the size distribution when you’re a buyer, and you’re trying to figure out what to do.

Segran: What’s really interesting is that the average woman in the United States is 18. And plus-size women make up more than half of the market. And yet, plus size clothing represents only 19% of all clothing on the market. Fashion brands do not really meet the needs of their customers.

Rysdal: It just seems crazy because companies are leaving money on the table, the business opportunity in plus sizes seems to be considerable.

Segran: This is a huge wasted opportunity. And part of the problem is that it takes a lot of craftsmanship to be able to make a garment that fits both a size zero and a size 30. And so brands don’t really have not taken the time to invest in this kind of technology. But Old Navy did.

Rysdal: Oh wait, say more about that.

Segran: So Old Navy spent two years developing all this really cool design technology, so that everything they made would fit perfectly no matter what size you are. And they’ve also redesigned their stores so women can shop by garment style rather than having to go to a special plus-size section if they want to buy a particular garment. And that was a very important thing for them to do, to move the industry forward in terms of size inclusion, because most brands don’t do that.

Rysdal: OK, so look. Old Navy tried that, it didn’t work spectacularly, and in fact, it cost the president and CEO of the Old Navy line her job. It hit Gap really, really hard. Now, what happens with this – what could be a really profitable segment of the women’s market more – if Old Navy is released?

Segran: So Old Navy said they were reducing the program a bit. But I think what’s really important for Old Navy is that it actually takes time to understand, you know, all that back-end data that it needs to be able to make those smarter decisions. If they can fix some of these technical issues, they’ll be much, much more successful. It’s just growing pains.

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