Confession: I haven’t bought a piece of clothing from a brick-and-mortar store in a year. It’s not because I’m making major contributions to my savings account or that I’m too millennial to shop IRL; it’s because I just gave up on trying to find well- fitting, fashion-forward, size-14 pieces in an actual store. “It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack,” agrees Ashley Taliento, Glamour’s photo director, who also wears a 14. Like many women our size, she shops mostly online—but wishes there were more options. “I want to walk into a store to buy a Proenza Schouler skirt or Topshop jeans, and I’d spend the money in a second if it was there in my size.”
That’s the problem: It often isn’t there. “Retailers shy away from stocking larger sizes,” says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD, a market research com- pany that focuses on retail trends. “There are old beliefs that women who wear plus- sizes are less likely to buy clothes, so stores focus on expanding beauty and accessories, which have higher sell-through rates.” In fact, plus-sizes make up only 16 percent of all apparel sales—a shockingly low figure considering that 67 percent of women in the United States wear a size 14 or above. Some retailers use these numbers as a sign that bigger women don’t love fashion—but Cohen and others (ahem, me) argue that women aren’t buying because stores aren’t offering. “If you build it, they will come,” he says. “You’d think that if women are getting bigger, retailers would adjust sizing to reflect that. Not enough stores do.”
Turns out there are no hard numbers on how much clothing is actually offered to shoppers who wear plus-sizes, so I made it my mission to find out. I went to 32 of Manhattan’s biggest clothing stores (excluding plus-size-only ones)—and enlisted four fashion bloggers to do the same in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New Orleans. Together we shopped at 69 locations. The result: At 41 of them, we did not find any plus-size clothing. At several, sales associates insisted we would fit into smaller sizes. At one department store in New York, I was shown a size-4 Monse button-down and at another, two size-10 black ponchos. Spoiler alert! Nothing fit. In L.A., blogger Nicolette Mason of nicolettemason.com, also a size 14, said, “One salesperson offered the consolation that they used to carry maternity wear—perplexing as I’m definitely not pregnant.”
Of the 28 stores that did sell plus-sizes, 23 had the clothes in a back corner or upper level (at one they’re on the same floor as a fast-food place—WTF); 20 had just a few racks, most with dated fare; and 8 had stylish enough selections worth going back for. Here’s our cheat sheet for where to find the best stuff:
• Macy’s came out on top for all of us. At the Herald Square flagship in NewYork, the plus-size department on the seventh floor is stocked with designers like Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Melissa McCarthy, and Rachel Roy. Marie Denee of thecurvyfashionista.com, a size 16/18, gave Macy’s in Atlanta similar raves: “It was the best representation of plus-size fashion in a department store, taking up half the floor.” Amarachi Ukachu of amarachiukachu.com, a size 18/20, felt similarly welcome in the New Orleans location: “I found a sign that read ‘sizes 16 to 24’ with an arrow leading the way—which made me immediately happy.”
• Half of Lord & Taylor’s sixth floor in the New York location is dedicated to plus-sizes, with a diverse offering of day and evening wear—and the active wear category is especially strong.
• At the Bloomingdale’s flagship, I found a decent department on the third floor, with conservative pieces from brands like Eileen Fisher, NYDJ, and Basler. Worth noting: The only luxury plus-size line, Marina Rinaldi, is on sale here. But in L.A. Mason visited two locations and found “the largest size on the rack was a 14.”
• JCPenney scored well too. In New York, I was impressed that the plus-size section (called The Boutique) was on the main floor. The fare is mostly staples, but I found one rack of hero pieces like faux fur jackets. In L.A., Mason found a similar section on level one too. No 10-minute ride up escalators at JCP—praise!
• T.J.Maxx and Marshalls also had plus-size clothing adjacent to sizes 0 through 12, though the selection I found was mostly leggings, jeans, and sweaters. Verdict: good for basics.
• At Burlington, racks in the back of the main floor were messy and overstuffed, but had everything from Calvin Klein suiting to Columbia active wear to trendy one-offs from lesser-known brands. Like a diamond-in-the-rough experience? Go here.
• The best of fast-fashion was Forever 21, thanks to the “posters of plus-size models, thoughtfully dressed plus- size mannequins, and actually cool clothes,” says Natalie Craig, a size 14/16, of natalieinthecity.com, who reported from Chicago. Mason’s discovery at Westfield Culver City was similar. “The plus-sizes are located at the entrance of the store,” she said. “There’s proper signage, loads of mannequins, and new pieces that aren’t even online yet. It’s the mecca of plus-sizes.”
While it’s clear that most retailers have a long way to go, I found some designers are pushing for change, since they want their clothes where women of all sizes can buy them. After having no luck getting luxury department stores to sell his line in plus-sizes, Prabal Gurung launched a Lane Bryant collaboration (in sizes 14 to 28) this spring. “We’ve offered sizes up to 22 for private clients since 2009, but we don’t have an outlet that buys them,” he says. “Here we are complaining about a challenging retail landscape, and this is a multibillion-dollar industry that is absolutely underserved. There’s a solution right in front of us, and nobody is addressing it!” He’s not the only one suggesting that tough times for stores will lead to a wake-up call. Adds Cohen, “I think retailers will eventually figure out that they are looking for growth and this is the missing piece of the puzzle.”
At JCPenney this theory worked. Two years ago the chain added plus-size sections—some as large as 2,500 square feet—in 185 of its stores. And, “in 2016, sales for the plus-size area were better than the rest of women’s apparel combined,” reports John Tighe, chief merchant of JCP. The retailer also makes an in-house clothing line called Boutique+ in sizes 18 to 26, which launched in 500 locations but is now available in all stores. “It’s the first time we’ve designed for the plus- size customer from start to finish,” he says.
Meijer, a chain of superstores in the Midwest, has also made headway. Every women’s wear clothing style there is available in 6 through 24—with all sizes sitting on the same rack. (This integration is #goals, people!) To make that happen, Meijer had to convince vendors who didn’t make plus-sizes to create them. “We often find that people in the industry assume that one style is better suited for smaller sizes or plus-sizes—but we think all women deserve to be treated equally,” says Annette Repasch, group vice president of Meijer. “It’s up to our customer to decide if she wants to wear a crop top—not us.”
And signs of better times are coming: Most recently, Neiman Marcus introduced 750-square-foot departments for sizes 14 to 24 in five of its 29 outlet stores. So what can we do? If you’re over a size 12, shop from companies that support you in stores. Plus-size sales climbed by 17 percent between 2013 and 2016, compared to just 7 percent for all apparel, and if that keeps up, retailers may finally realize that plus-size is good for business.
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