Heavier ‘fatshionistas’ drive market trends

In a midtown Manhattan showroom, fashion blogger Amelia Pontes picked up a pair of “jeggings” – jeans tight enough to be leggings – from a table filled with trendy jeans.

“The tighter the better for me,” Pontes explained to Liz Munoz, an executive from plus-size fashion retailer Torrid.

“I prefer mine just a little loose,” said Munoz, tugging on the fabric of her jeans at the hips.

“And check it out, you can wear these on an airplane,” she added, bending down to show Pontes how stretchy her jeggings really were.

This cocktail party and jean “sampling” was thrown by Torrid earlier this month for some of its best customers: young bloggers who proudly call themselves “fatshionistas.”

It was part of the Young Fat and Fabulous Conference, a collaboration between fashion blogger Gabi Gregg, a 23-year-old Chicago-based blogger who runs the blog YoungFatandFabulous.com, and several plus-size retail outlets including City Chic, Faith 21, Evans UK, Torrid and American Rag.

“I got the idea when I went to the Weardrobe conference,” says Gregg, referring to a conference that assembled style bloggers and retailers last year. “There were no plus-size girls there.

“I try not to separate, because really, it’s all just about fashion. But when we weren’t included, I thought, ‘We’ll just make our own event.’ ”

Gregg rallied her tight-knit community of fellow “fatshion” bloggers, including Washington, D.C.-based Christina Lewis from MusingsofaFatshionista.com; Australian Hayley Hughes from FashionHayley.com; and the two Finnish bloggers behind MoretoLove.fi, who have become like celebrities in their country with 20,000 readers a week and a manager.

For these social media tastemakers, clothing is meant to be chic and not necessarily slimming. The new attitude is part of a growing size-acceptance movement with fashion at the forefront; the fact that the bloggers or readers might be a size 18 or 24 is secondary.

Most of these websites showcase photos of the bloggers wearing outfits they’ve styled themselves, often by mixing “straight fashion” with plus-size pieces, resulting in looks that are more structured jacket than colorful caftan.

“I don’t know how to say this without sounding elitist, but I’ve never shopped at a plus-sized store,” says Nicolette Mason, who runs a personal blog and also blogs for Vogue Curvy, Vogue Italia’s online magazine.

“They have limited options,” she explains. “And the quality is often poor. It’s so easy to modify straight sized clothing and make it work.”

Over the last two years, U.S. retailers have taken note. Forever 21 added an extended sizes line, Faith 21. Target added Pure Energy last year and American Rag debuted its plus-size collection this month.

According to the most recent figures from the NPD group, a market research firm, the 18 billion dollar plus-size market is a growth area. While sales in the overall women’s apparel category remain flat, the plus size niche increased by 2 percent between May 2009 and May 2010.

The bloggers are at the forefront of that change.

“When different designers launch their collection they’re coming to us to help get the word out,” says Marie Denee of TheCurvyFashionista.Marie Denee.com.

“Traditional media does not offer these options to spread the word. It’s kind of been built in the culture of the plus-sized community to get social.”

Many plus-size retailers advertise on the most influential blogs, some of which garner hundreds of thousands of page views per month.

Torrid President Chris Daniel said the bloggers’ influence can’t be underestimated.

“These bloggers have a very sharp eye,” says Daniel. “They almost always pick the best-sellers – whether they become best-sellers because they pick them, or vice versa, it’s hard to say.”

Daniel says he understands the growing need for high-fashion looks that work for Torrid’s size 12-28 market; they’re listening to these fiercely demanding customers who want over-the-knee boots, trendy denim and fitted leather jackets.

“The (bloggers) have stopped apologizing for the way they’re made,” he says. “They see right past the size 2 girl that has on the Dolce and Gabbana dress to say, ‘I want that dress.’

“At Torrid, we never assume any look can’t be adapted to be beautiful and sexy for a plus-size girl.”

To get the latest, on-trend looks, the U.S. bloggers will often cross the online seas to British sites like Evans U.K. or their hands-down favorite, ASOS.com.

“The overseas companies owe a huge debt to these bloggers,” says Deb Malkin, who runs the Brooklyn-based shop Re/Dress NYC, which sells vintage plus-size and designer looks.

“When Evans, Dorothy Perkins and ASOS launched their curvy lines, I had never seen a group of women so passionate about their products. Maybe because it’s exotic and it’s not Lane Bryant.”

To its credit, Lane Bryant also held a meet-and-greet with a different set of bloggers in June.

At one of the final Young Fat and Fabulous Conference luncheons, held by American Rag in the penthouse of Macy’s, executives asked the bloggers, “What piece do you need more of in your closet?”

One answer, short shorts, prompted a debate. Some bloggers felt their readers wouldn’t go for short shorts; others thought that if “straight size” girls can wear it, well, so should they.

“You’re fat, you’re full-figured,” says Mason, “You’re not supposed to show your legs or you shouldn’t wear that. We’ve all been socialized to think this way.

“But if everyone sees Gabi wearing a certain look on her blog and they say ‘wow, she looks great in that,’ it changes everything.”

Deb Malkin of Re/Dress puts it another way.

“I imagine the kind of suffering I could have avoided if this kind of imagery was available to me when I was young,” she says. “I don’t really see plus-size, I see a young, confident women who looks fantastic.”


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