Lenore Hume's friends and family think she's a rabid shopaholic. But what few of them know is that her fervent shopping trips, consisting of hours spent combing through racks and trying everything on, rarely results in an actual purchase. At 6 foot 2 and anywhere from a size 14 to 18, Hume, 36, has always had a tough time buying clothes.
"When I was growing up, I would have trouble with proportions like arm holes and lengths and all that kind of stuff. But when I went to the only plus-size store in the mall, everything was too big," says Hume, a Winnipeg-based social-media editor.
"There was a disconnect."
Two years ago, Hume launched a blog, Lather Write Repeat, to showcase refurbished furniture, but she quickly became engaged with the online plus-size fashion community, a group of bloggers across North America that discusses everything from which "straight size" labels (tailored to sizes 12 and under) cut larger to where to find stylish plus-size clothing to how to wear said clothing in a fashionable way (outfit photos included). Hume joined the conversation and started sharing her own fashion tips as well as posting photos of herself, with details about what she was wearing.
Although Hume and bloggers like her are generating plenty of buzz online and in the press – several were recently profiled by both The New York Times and The Times Magazine in Britain – conventional retailers have been slow to answer the call for a better bricks-and-mortar shopping experience for customers size 14 and over, despite the interest in the category and the size of the market. According to the research firm NPD Group, one-third of Canadian women are considered plus-sized.
In Britain, on-trend retailers such as Dorothy Perkins and New Look carry sizes as large as 26 as a rule. In most Canadian cities, however, it's still very much a straight-size world. "There are 160 stores in the [average] mall and maybe two of them have plus-size stuff," says Hume, who credits fellow Canadian bloggers such as Sarah St. Fleur of Queen Sized Flava, Karyn Johnson of Killer Kurves and Sarah Anne of Big Hips Red Lips for introducing her to the British stores as well as such U.K.-based e-tailers as Style369.com and Asos.com, which ship to Canada. "As far as retailers [in this country] go, it's still an issue."
The shared sentiment among the bloggers is that traditional plus-size retailers like Penningtons and U.S.-based Lane Bryant have lagged in the style department, although some in the category are making a concerted effort to change that. Addition Elle, for instance, recently relaunched its flagship in Toronto and is redesigning a number of its stores, hoping to attract a younger demographic. To that end, the retailer wooed influential bloggers at a dinner before the Toronto store's launch party and has also started collaborating with Killer Kurves' Johnson on regular blog posts about her favourite Addition Elle items.
According to Toronto-based Karen Ward, the blogger known as Curvy Canadian, mainstream straight-size retailers ought to follow suit. It's not that they're indifferent to the plus-size market, she notes. Several, including Old Navy, Gap and American Eagle Outfitters, produce plus-sized lines, but they sell them online only. A few designers, such as Roberto Cavalli and Michael Kors, also cater to the category, although Cavalli doesn't include its plus-size line on its website – it is carried by thirdparty e-tailers only – while the Kors site shows conventionally thin models wearing pieces that come in "special sizes," making it difficult for shoppers to imagine how the cuts will sit on fuller figures.
Ward, who wears sizes 18 to 20, resents the way this online-only approach blocks plus-sized women in Canada from being able to shop the way women sized 0 to 12 do – travelling from store to store, trying things on, shopping socially with friends. The message in her view is: "Stay out of our stores because we don't want you messing up our brand identity."
Reitmans, based in Montreal, is one of the few straight-size retailers that carries plus-size fashion in its stores as well as online. In response to what a spokesperson describes as considerable demand, Sweden's H&M also announced recently that it will be carrying sizes 18 to 28 in select Canadian stores come September. Old Navy and Gap, meanwhile, ship larger sizes to Canada from the United States and offer free in-store returns, but do not carry the larger sizes in any of their stores here. Hume, for her part, wears American Eagle Outfitters jeans almost exclusively. Because they're size 16 long, however, Canadian stores don't carry them, so she has to order an "extended size" online.
Even in straight-size stores that do carry a selection of plus-size fashion, it's often at the back of the shop in a poorly lit area, Ward says. "You have to do the walk of shame to the back of the store to go shopping," she complains.
Often, Ward adds, retailers will charge more for plus-size clothing, attributing the cost to the additional amount of fabric used, even though a size 2 is the same price as a size 12. In her own effort to give plus-sized women a more positive shopping environment, she opened a Toronto boutique in December called Your Big Sister's Closet, which caters to sizes 12 to 24.
As a retailer, Ward empathizes – to a degree – with the fear among straightsize retailers that carrying plus-sized clothing is a risky venture. But the idea that plus-sized women won't spend money on clothes because they are hoping to lose weight is a misconception, says Ben Barry, assistant professor at Ryerson University's School of Fashion and the founder of Ben Barry Agency, which represents models of all sizes.
Clearly, the clamouring among plus-sized bloggers for stylish fashion and greater shopping options reinforces his point. "It's not diversity just for the sake of diversity," Barry says. "It's diversity for the sake of business."