It took a while for my love of fashion to develop; as a teen, I couldn’t find trendy clothes for my size-16 frame. Like many surburbanites, I was always up for a trip to the mall, but would steer my pals toward Claire’s and away from Jean Machine. When I moved from Whitby, Ont. to Toronto at 18, I discovered a new world of stylish gear that actually fit me at stores like Addition Elle, Forever 21 and later, when it finally arrived in Canada, Torrid.
These days I tend to stick to those brands because I know they’ll work for me. I love shopping for new looks, but if I can’t get them at one of my go-tos I generally can’t be bothered. Then last fall, I was planning for a work trip to Manhattan and discovered there was a JCPenney down the street from where I’d be staying. I had heard the incredibly stylish Tracee Ellis Ross launched a collection for them, so (crossing my fingers) I Googled to find out if the line included extended sizes. It did—up to 3X, which admittedly isn’t the greatest offering, as it still leaves so many women out of luck, but I happen to fall within that range. So I pinned the location of the department store on my phone and made sure I had a little extra room in my carry-on bag.
When I found the collection, in the middle of the main floor of JCPenney, I was stunned by the chic display of bright prints and bold colours, sequins and rich velvet. The plus collections I tend to find in Canada are pretty vanilla by comparison—it seems like brands find it safer to stick to neutral basics when branching into extended sizes. We’re slowly catching on (see: influencer/Kylie-bestie Jordyn Woods’ collaboration with Addition Elle), but American brands, such as Premme, are offering a lot more trendy pieces in shades and patterns I used to only dream about.
The first item that caught my eye in Ross’ collection was a pair of tomato-red pants. I asked a nearby salesperson where I could find the plus sizes and she pointed at the racks in front of us, smiling. “It’s all here.” What? Not tucked away in a dark corner of the lower level with the rest of the plus clothing? Grabbing the pants and a patterned bodycon dress, I headed to the change room, thrilled. For the first time, my size was included in the proud display of a hot new collection.
Until this moment, I had accepted the reality of plus sizes having their own dedicated section. I figured it made things more convenient: so many straight-size brands don’t offer extended fits, and who wants to sift through them only to be disappointed? But feeling included in this collection changed my whole shopping experience and I finally understood why some, like Universal Standard co-founder and CCO Alexandra Waldman, are pushing for us to do away with separate sections altogether.
As part of an announcement that, in March, Universal Standard will expand their size range in both directions (they currently offer 10 to 28), Waldman wrote: “Having a separate category of clothing for women over a certain size is DONE. We don’t need separate departments or separate stores. Stop making us ‘the other’.”
When the “other” sizes are front and centre next to the straight sizes, it means we’re being seen and spoken to. And on a purely practical note, it also gives me the opportunity to shop alongside my straight-sized pals, not on separate floors or in separate stores.
JCP really nailed it when it came to reaching the plus market with the Tracee Ellis Ross collection. Not only did the design and display stand in stark contrast to what I usually come across at department stores here in Canada—a limited selection of somewhat-trendy mixed with somewhat-dated items; you won’t find many fancy displays that really show off what’s new and hot for sizes 14-plus—I was also shocked at the price point of TER’s collection.
I spent less than $100 on my two purchases and normally when I’m shopping for items like that I prepare myself to drop at least double that amount. Designers will often suggest that plus-size clothing is simply harder to make and the extra material required more expensive, which may explain why some items run so pricey—but that really doesn’t explain why they’re more expensive in Canada specifically.
Generally, I’ve been able to find cheaper items online from U.S. retailers. That’s partly why I got my hopes up when Nordstrom arrived in Toronto. I was pumped to check out some of the plus-size offerings I’d seen on their site—only to find out that pretty much all of their extended sizes are available only online. I don’t know about you, but as a budget-conscious single gal, I’m much less inclined to invest in a designer coat without trying it on first.
According to Addition Elle VP of marketing Roslyn Griner, the Canadian market for plus-size is $1.8 billion and is growing at 8 percent a year. In the U.S., it generates $20.4 billion of annual sales and in the past three years the category has grown by 17 percent, outpacing sales of women’s apparel in general. That’s why the Montreal-based retailer is about to expand into the U.S. market and plans to eventually sell in 150 Macy’s locations; more availability than it currently offers in Canada.
If U.S. chains like Macy’s and JCPenney see value in brands that offer plus shoppers the experience they’re looking for—helpful sales assistants, celebrity-approved merch and clothes that consistently fit well—I have a hard time understanding why Canadian department stores aren’t showing us the same level of love. The proof is in the numbers: when you invest in your customer, your market grows and your profits rise.
I’ll likely head south of the border for some shopping sooner than later now that I know what’s on offer for me. But I’d really love to keep my cash invested in the Canadian market—and I’d love it even more if I could proudly rock looks from the stores in my own city.