Tuesday, May 5, 2009

design for "plus size" women: it's not about the cookie from the cutter

by frédérik sisa
“…the average U.S. woman, who's 162.9 pounds and wears a size 14, is treated like an anomaly by apparel brands and retailers -- who seem to assume that no one over size 10 follows fashion's capricious trends.”
Thus writes Emily Vesilind for the LA Times, who observes with well-spoken acidity: “It often seems that it's easier to find and buy stylish clothes for Chihuahuas than for roughly half the country's female population.”Forget the capricious trends, though; what about finding a consistent wardrobe of staples – pants, skirts, blouses, and so on – that looks good and encourages self-confidence? It goes without saying that clothes are so intrinsically tied to identity and psychology that it’s stupid for an essentially elitist industry to wield so much power over people’s self-conception. Beauty is not runway-deep; it comes in all sorts of forms.

I’ve been thinking about ways to get past all that. Part of the solution may rest in the concept of mass customization. As a perspective, the idea is: you don’t fit customers into the clothes, you fit clothes to the customers. And where clothes fit, self-confidence and personal style is sure to follow. As a method, mass customization is all about leveraging industrial capabilities to manufacture customized apparel on a large, and therefore economical, scale. Examples include Converse, Café Press (not exactly “fashion” but...), and, although fairly pricey, IndiDenim. Of course, mass customization isn’t necessarily the right solution for everything – like highly artistic, idiosyncratic creations - but I’m not referring to these. I’m referring to the basics for any good wardrobe.

Even if a product isn’t set up for customers to choose details down to stitching colour and pocket style, it is possible to come close enough. Dickies, for example. Sure, it’s not the kind of brand that bedazzled label-mongers will name-drop as proof of their street cred, hence easy to overlook. But so what? We’re talking about an established brand that offers affordable, durable, and diverse products in different colours with an entirely respectable dose of style. (Example: when I had it in mind to find a pair of red pants, ’cuz I’m crazy that way, Dickies delivered. Oh, yeah. Eat your heart out, Levi’s. Red pants!) Finding a pair of Dickies pants that fit well and look good is easy. Choose your waist size, your inseam length (or get it unhemmed), your pant style and material and, yes, your colours – it really is as close to custom as it gets. For work-and life-friendly clothes that have an appealing, utilitarian chic (“proletarian” chic?) and come with really good customer service, Dickies actually has many so-called “designer” brands beat in both looks and quality.

But I digress. The life lesson from Dickies is that the ability to choose clothes that fit one’s measurements, that come with some amount of customer input, goes a long way to feeling better about what one wears. Mass customization, or at least a very good manufacturing process that gives customers options and variations, strikes me as good antidote to the current cookie-cutter view fashion has of customers. If, in addition, women’s clothes were measured directly, instead of weirdly numbered, I suspect that we’d be well on our way towards a fashion of self-confidence instead of a fashion that marginalizes and alienates. My feeling is that as mass customization takes hold of big brands, like Converse, there will come a point when designers won’t be able to cower behind the notion that designing for multiple body types is more “challenging” than merely designing for that broomstick in the janitorial closet; customization is all about the individual, not the cookie from the cutter. That should be the fashion industry’s mantra.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for saying something on this topic. As someone in that awkward in-between state between "regular" and "plus" sizes, I applaud you. FIT is key to feeling good, and when you FEEL good, then you. look. mahvelous. (sorry for the dated SNL reference.) When will the apparel industry get it?!

Frederik Sisa said...

Thanks for your comment. I'm glad to bring this subject up.

I suspect the apparel industry will only get it when consumers start exerting their considerable purchasing power. And that depends on rejecting conformity to trends and what the fashion magazines proclaim to be the latest and greatest. Of course, magazines raise a lot other issue, albeit a related one.

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