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Why brands shy away from plus-size customers

The fashion industry for long has promoted a specific body type and rendered the others invisible. If a brand continues to use skinnier models in ads while producing a range of sizes, it is not promoting inclusivity, say experts and discuss why the industry needs to make enough efforts to break stereotypes

Nothing baffles Pooja Sukhwani more than the segregation of plus-size clothing from the regular sizes in the name of acceptance. Why is there a need for a separate brand, a separate shelf altogether for plus-size customers if brands claim to be inclusive enough, she wonders?

“It’s beyond understating that we (plus-size women) even need a separate shelf. If the brand is size-inclusive, then why does it need to separate it from the regular clothes? Why would one want to go into a store and ask where’s the plus-size section? Why do the brands such as Pantaloons (who had all regular sizes to it, and came up with another brand ‘All’ for plus-size customers) want to segregate us from the crowd?,” the plus-size content creator asks.

Calling out the brand, she says such companies are anyway getting an opportunity to earn more because plus-size clothing is way more on the higher side in terms of price than the regular sizes, merely because they use more cloth.

Customers such as Sukhwani have been ignored by straight-size retailers for years. And now when the retailers are finally ‘embracing inclusivity’, they are charging more for plus-size clothing. Customers find this offensive and insulting as the retailers continue to openly prioritise the smaller-size customers.

Even brands targeted at kids often take this approach. Why is it that one sees an overweight child eating in a supposedly funny ad and a slim and fair child in a fashion brand?

Nisha Singhania

Calling out such brands, Nisha Singhania, Co-founder and Director of Infectious Advertising, said these kinds of biases need to be stopped and marketers need to be mindful of them.

Traditional norms of beauty are today a myth — be it colour, shape, size, gender, sexual preference. Brands need to be open enough to embrace the new beauty norms and appeal to everyone, she said.

Historically, the industry and society have been (incorrectly) slave to fixed notions of beauty. And those fixed notions were both benefiting from and reinforcing that singular version of beauty and fashion in a sort of vicious cycle.

Kapil Arora

But today’s society, according to Kapil Arora, Co-Chairman and CEO, 82point5, has changed drastically. Youngsters, especially, are so much more self-aware, confident of who they are and inclusive in their thinking. And they expect the same from the brands they use, the society they live in.

Although, he said that he can’t recall many fashion brands in India actively promoting or reflecting body positivity in their communication.

Globally, the industry is increasingly seeing established brands such as Versace, D&G, Chanel and Victoria’s Secret starting to feature plus-size models in their ads. And then there are these new-age brands that are built without the baggage of the draconian past. Brands such as Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty celebrate confidence and inclusivity at its core.

This is also something beauty brands such as Dove have championed. But something fashion brands still need to take serious note of. Because access to today’s set of consumers isn’t just about access to relevant sizes and fits, experts say.

“It is about access to a common belief system that respects and reflects their point of view, in everything the brand does, including advertising,” he said.

Although awareness and acknowledgement have already set in, he said things will change the day brands truly embrace inclusivity in their belief systems. Not because they have to do it or just because it is a sizable market. And when done right and with authenticity, it will pay back handsomely as well. 

Even though a few brands have started to include all sizes from XS to XXXL in their products, the advertisements still are inclined towards skinnier models and they tend to exclude plus-size models.

Unfortunately not many brands are brave enough to be inclusive when it comes to their communication, as that is a reflection of their brand.

Kiruba Shankar

Kiruba Shankar, Marketing Lead, Fashinza, said that when speaking of inclusivity, it is not just enough to cover a range of sizes but brands should also address the fact that traditionally the fashion industry has promoted a specific body type and rendered the others invisible.

“If a brand continues to use skinnier models only while producing a range of sizes, all they care about is increasing sales for a larger segment, not promoting inclusivity. Advertisements should make space for models of all shapes and sizes,” he said.

The inclusivity discourse in the fashion industry, though, has been a growing trend.

Petal Gangurde

Petal Gangurde, Vice-President Brand and Marketing, XYXX Apparels, said the idea of relatable people and authenticity in communication is honestly a very exciting space to be in for a brand. It can help a brand shed a lot of the perception baggage. This direction is further propelled by the pandemic and the socio-political environment today.

XYXX Apparels is just getting started with a huge ambition to champion the inclusivity cause and add value and create impact on both the brand and product front.

Arindam Chakravorty

Arindam Chakravorty, Brand Head, Aurelia, said there has been a significant increase in advertisements that are more inclusive of different body types. But a lot still needs to be done by individual brands and the industry as a whole.

He said it is essential that there is more focus on communication that puts the spotlight on inclusive fashion, making it a topic of public discussion and mainstreaming it.

The brand did a sustained communication under its ‘Rise Above Size’ campaign, where there was a concerted focus on strengthening the discourse on feeling proud of and owning one’s body.

Why do brands refrain from producing plus-size clothes?

There certainly has been a movement in the positive direction where some brands are embracing inclusivity and defying the norms of ‘beauty’. But yes, it is still not mainstream enough.

Singhania said many brands would not go beyond certain sizes as they look at volumes and so cater to the average sizes.

Pooja Sukhwani

According to Sukhwani, while brands are still trying to be more inclusive, the designers in India are just experimenting and don’t know what the right size is. She said they’re not catering to the apple-shaped or pear-shaped bodies, and are just making cylindrical products—failing to understand the body types and the needs.

Gangurde thinks it is not intentional for brands to not be inclusive.

“These brands just don't know better. For legacy brands, they may be afraid to lose a loyal consumer base. For new-age brands, it is imperative to not be seen as an outlier. Change is hard and sometimes the cost of change is prohibitive with massive impact on both business and brand. There are a lot of big brands stuck in a time warp. There are also a lot of new-age brands cause-vertising for the sake of it. I find both problematic. For the former, it is the lack of foresight and inability to gauge the pulse of the consumer as well as missing the opportunity to truly make an impact beyond sales. For the latter, it is the lack of understanding of their brand purpose and inherent differentiators,” she said.

“I do not think there can be any justifiable reason for not being inclusive. Over the past few years, I have noticed a number of plus-size brands come into being that promote body positivity. Also, mainstream designers such as Sabyasachi Mukherjee have been attempting to promote body positivity by including women of all shapes, sizes, and colors as models for their brand,” Shankar said.

Nike too has been working on a plus-size women’s collection.

While every brand has a different strategy in place, Chakravorty feels communicating inclusive fashion for any brand will be the utmost priority.

Even in case of brands that include models of all sizes in their campaigns and communications, the focus is mostly on plus-size women but we barely notice any representation of plus-size men or non-binary people at all. Shankar feels brands should take inspiration from the real world and reflect the diversity around us.

Sukhwani said plus-size men already had the shelves available before the conversation around plus-size clothes for women started. It has always been the women who have been on the receiving end, and men already had sizes up to 48 in good brands, she said.

There was always this massive market of diverse shapes and sizes available that was forced to fit into a dominant stereotype defined by the industry, experts say. 

While the world of content, entertainment and boutique brands have already started embracing that reality, Arora said it’s time for brands and their communication to step up as well.

Advertising is a reflection of society.  Fair & Lovely changing its name to Glow & Lovely is a step in the right direction. The Nike ad with para-athletes and the Dove Real Beauty campaign are great examples of how brands have made their inclusivity point.

The fat policing will stop when society evolves at large. Brands can bring about the change by promoting body positivity and building more diversity specific campaigns. They should choose real people in campaigns as opposed to models or celebrities, who can build a deeply rooted, emotional connection with consumers, experts argue.

By disassociating from the conventional and stereotypical narrative, the fashion apparel brands need to create a conscious disruption of bringing about change. Chakravorty said that it’s a change in progress and it will take the due course of time. 

Furthermore, extensive research is required to ensure that brands are fully aware of all cultural intricacies before they even begin production of the campaign.

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