In theory, startup culture is supposed to valorize innovation and reward merit, but it’s increasingly difficult to ignore the shell game that so many consumer-oriented startups are playing. As we speak, Uber and Lyft are in competition to invent buses for the public transit-averse. Juicero recently ceased production of its signature juicer after Bloomberg reporters realized it squeezed juice out of the company’s proprietary bags about as well as the human hand. GrubHub makes money by obviating the need to make a phone call to the same three places you always order takeout from anyway. Silicon Valley is solving the inconveniences of affluence, one startup at a time.
Central in all of these business models, though, is the question of whose problems are worth solving, and maybe nowhere are those judgments clearer than in the world of fashion startups, with their dedication to reinventing the wheel for what is already the world’s most extravagantly well-served apparel consumer base: thin women.
The statistics about American women who wear plus-sizes are so oft-cited that they feel like cliches. According to a 2016 study in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education, the average American woman is now between a size 16 and 18. According to Bloomberg, the plus-size retail apparel market represents a $20 billion opportunity, with growth outpacing the overall market 17 percent to 7 percent in 2016 and a consumer base starved for quality clothing. For fat women in the US, it’s fast fashion or almost nothing.
In a sales climate where traditional retailers feel creeping dread over shoppers shifting their discretionary spending toward “experiences” like food and travel, it appears to have occurred to almost no one to make clothes for fat people, who are begging for more options, often in public and on social media. Brands want to do business on a mass scale, but they don’t want to dress mass bodies. Fashion startups are well-equipped to take on this challenge—they’re generally building supply chains and product lineups from scratch, often with an emphasis on rethinking and improving fit, which gives them the opportunity to serve whichever consumer bases they choose from the get-go—but just like the traditional retailers they claim to improve upon, most of them have declined.
Everlane, the most prominent apparel startup, makes basics like T-shirts and jeans at a relatively affordable price point. The hook is what it calls “radical transparency”: Everlane will tell you how much all the elements of its products cost and how much it’s marking up the final product. The clothing itself is simple and sharp, with shrewd seasonal acknowledgements to trends among affluent millennials, like wide-legged cropped pants and retro loafers. It’s the kind of stuff you want to have in your closet when you sleep through your alarm and rush into work for an important meeting. If you’re above a size 14, though, you’d better make sure that alarm is set, because the company does not make any clothes for you.
In 2015, I wondered aloud on Twitter whether Everlane had ever commented on its limited sizing (at the time, 12 was the largest size available), and the brand’s official account responded that it would love to venture into plus once it had the capacity to do so. That same year, Everlane pulled in $51 million in revenue, and its 2016 projections were north of $100 million. Since then, Everlane launched a kids collection (“kids deserve quality too,” according to its website), as well as new products like denim and footwear. The company also recently opened its first store, in the expensive Soho neighborhood of Manhattan. There are still no plus-sizes, but the company has added a 14 and an XL, meaning it now makes a fuller spectrum of straight sizes, though not as full as traditional “elevated basics” brands like Gap or J.Crew, which go to a 20 and a 16, respectively.
Everlane did not make anyone available for an interview, but the company did send us the following statement: “The Everlane story is one that has been built slowly and carefully. Our customer understands that Everlane is a democratic and honest brand and we want to be inclusive of all people. Given that, it is on our roadmap to do plus-size, but we need to take the time to do it right. To do plus, it requires more than extended sizing. We need to launch plus as a separate brand with new fits, new models and new fabrics to ensure that the styles fit and look great. As we gain scale and get new customers, we will be able to focus our energy on launching this line.” The statement echoes a sentiment that I heard from every straight-size CEO I spoke with, even those who have begun to make their brands more inclusive: that plus-size people need to be patient while others solve the egregious problems of their bodies. Women over a certain size are always a burden, never a priority. They’re expected to wait while others are served first.
Reformation, a young, California-based company that makes cool-girl party dresses and separates, is another brand that embraces forward-thinking values in some areas while still leaving out the majority of US women based on their size. The company puts an enormous emphasis on sustainability and sound manufacturing practices for its clothing; its sizing maxes out at a 12. If you’re slender and also short, though, you’re in luck — Reformation launched a petites range in 2015. And while expanded sizing across the board and in all directions is certainly welcome in fashion, a company’s willingness to go ever smaller while so far avoiding the business of average-size American women feels like it confirms all the worst suspicions plus-size customers have about when the industry might give them better options, and why it’s chosen not to.
In a statement to us, though, Reformation promised that its near future would be more inclusive: “Size diversity is incredibly important to us at Reformation and we are working hard to address this in 2018. We've already made efforts in this area, featuring models with different body types and launching collections for larger chested women and petites. But we fully recognize that there is still much more we need to do. We always want everyone to look and feel their best in our clothes and have been methodical in our approach to make sure we're doing it right. We're excited to introduce an expanded size range in 2018.” Not only is the brand’s upcoming expansion good news, but it’s sadly refreshing not to see it blame the delay on some imaginary feat of technological innovation required to make a casual dress in a larger size.
Galling in a different way are startups that brand themselves around the importance of serving people of all sizes while only serving those who can walk into any store in the local mall and walk out with a bra. Bra manufacturer and retailer True & Co first came on my radar with Facebook ads promising “bras for every woman.” Although the company’s social media copy has shifted (perhaps in response to the horde of commenters under every ad who asked why “every woman” didn’t include their size), its website still prominently features the following description of True & Co.’s aims: “We are a new kind of intimate apparel brand based on one simple ideal: for all of us, every woman, to feel comfortable in our own skin.” The brand’s cupped bras max out at a size 38DD, a band and cup combination easy to find at Victoria’s Secret or any department store lingerie section.
Via email, True & Co. co-founder and CEO Michelle Lam says this is indeed a question they hear frequently from consumers, and that the company is working on it. “Bigger breasts need different design details to ensure that they will support you without discomfort,” she says. “So when we design our bras, we don't take shortcuts for the sake of a bottom line, and you can't rush that.” What she doesn’t address is the fact that plus-size people don’t all have enormous breasts — larger band sizes are extremely difficult to find in A through D cups as well, so why not make those available now, instead of making everyone with a larger band size wait until the company perfects the H cup?
“It is a long and very detail-oriented process that we are currently in the middle of,” Lam continues. “We do not simply scale up our bras. A team is working on the next phase of size expansion to get us a little closer to our desires. We do make product for every woman — we just might still be making it.” Other than True & Co. wanting credit for Schrodinger's Bra, which both does and does not exist, implied in this (very common) logic is a sense of which people are considered priorities, and which are not. The technology exists to make bras for larger people, and it can be done alongside making them for smaller people. It can be done before a brand launches. Companies are always asking women over a certain size to wait just a little longer, apologize just a little more about the scale of difficulty their very common bodies represent, and be just a little more grateful that anyone is getting around to them at all.
If you read the “about” pages on apparel startups’ websites, it’s clear most of them take care to envision their ideal consumers and what they value. The end result often paints a picture of a curious, engaged shopper who cares about manufacturing practices, material sourcing, and the social or political statement made by spending money with a particular company. A shopper who thinks about fit and is interested in how technology might solve the problems in their closet. None of the brands say it so bluntly, but the shopper they want is intelligent. In that context, it’s all the more jarring that so few entrepreneurs could conceive of a fat person who is also smart.
Slowly, though, it seems like founders are acknowledging the opportunity. AYR, which makes trendy-minimal basics from luxurious materials, recently launched its first plus-size option, a skinny jean that goes up to a size 22, which will soon be extended to a 24. Maggie Winter, AYR’s co-founder and CEO, told me that once demand was clear, it felt in line with AYR’s independent ethos to go in a direction few others had tried. “Just because it’s always been done a certain way doesn’t mean the future can’t be different,” she says. “But if you want something to change, you have to show up and make it happen.” So far, she says, the response from shoppers has been great: “In the first 30 days, we sold through 50 percent of our order. We’re running out of sizes, and are working on cutting more.” AYR has plans to expand its size range throughout the brand, starting with the popular Robe coat. It’s the kind of piece that’s basically impossible to find for plus-size shoppers now.
Similarly, bra startup ThirdLove launched with products that covered the size range served by most brands, with a slight twist: The brand also included half-cup sizes. ThirdLove’s sizing options have slowly expanded, though, and CEO and co-founder Heidi Zak told me that after a beta test of sizing up to a 46H, the brand will now have one of its most popular bras available up to that size by the second quarter of 2018. “It’s been a big focus from day one to offer as many sizes as we can, and to not make product that’s different for extended sizes,” she says. “That was a big learning point for us when we were extending our size range.”
Even better, though, are the few startups that have treated plus-size customers like priorities all along. The most established of this small stable of companies is Universal Standard, which makes apparel in sizes 10 to 28. The look is precise and high-end, and the pieces are often sexy in a sophisticated way that’s usually reserved for women without wide hips or large chests. Co-founder and creative director Alex Waldman told me that starting with such an underserved market was obvious. “I think this is the first time this consumer has had the kind of clothing that she sees her straight-size friends buying,” she says. “We really don’t see other plus-size brands as our peers. We look at Rag & Bone and Theory and Helmut Lang. If you put something on from those brands, you just look cool, and we thought, why can’t a woman with a double-digit size look cool? There’s this imaginary line that says you can look cool up to this size, and after that, you’re just not allowed.” Waldman was also the only founder I spoke with who acknowledged the need to serve larger plus-sizes; even if the industry is making incremental gains for some plus-size women, those over a 24 are still roundly ignored.
Also promising is denim newcomer Warp + Weft, which makes its full line of jeans in sizes 00 to 24. Founder Sarah Ahmed acknowledged that in the development process, people occasionally raised the concern that serving plus-size customers would harm the brand’s image, but she brushed it off. “I simply said, ‘Look around you,’” she says. “‘Look at your friends, your family, your coworkers, and you’ll find that we all are actually part of any incredible mosaic of where we come from and what we look like.’” Ahmed also said that developing product for plus customers hasn’t been as alien an experience as designers often make it out to be. “The plus shopper is like any other girl when it comes to what she wants in her denim — for it to hold its shape, be comfortable 24/7, and make the butt look good.”
Even with this handful of bright spots, it beggars belief that apparel startups are so profoundly averse to fat people that the vast majority of them won’t deign to take their money. The problem is larger than the assumptions made by entrepreneurs, though. Everlane founder Michael Preysman is revered as a “radical” who could potentially fix all of fashion retail, but I could not find evidence that a single reporter had ever asked him why his company has avoided an apparel market that is begging for exactly what Everlane already makes. Press that covers Silicon Valley and the fashion industry are notoriously credulous and PR-friendly, and there’s little incentive for them to go to bat for a class of people that they, too, often don’t consider worth the fuss. That so many brands fumbled for answers to even the most basic questions about their sizing practices seems indicative of how infrequently they’ve been asked those questions in the past.
All of these companies are allowed to court whatever clientele they choose, but fatness doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and the choice to exclude people based on their bodies is not value-neutral. Black and Latina women are much more likely to be overweight than white women, and the fashion industry has longstanding and well-documented problems with race. Also, many of the worst, most dehumanizing stereotypes about fat people — that they’re lazy, stupid, and slovenly — are deeply ingrained in fashion’s culture and attitudes, so much so that entrepreneurs can be dissuaded from making plus-sizes by the fear that both customers and others in the industry will see them as down-market.
We’ve been taught so effectively to loathe fat people, and especially women who refuse to make themselves small and convenient, that not even the endless drive for profit can convince some of the world’s most enthusiastic capitalists to consider them a priority. At this point, most of them seem content to let $20 billion in low-hanging fruit wither on the vine.