Do These Brands Truly Care About Plus Sizes or Is It All a Marketing Ploy?

Cult fave Universal Standard is expanding their size range—but apparently not the models they cast

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Universal Standard Extended Sizing: Three models wearing Universal Standard dresses; one is wearing a long-sleeved black, knee-length dress, one is wearing a yellow, short-sleeved dress with an asymmetrical hem and the third is wearing an olive green long-sleeved dress.
(Photos: Universal Standard)

For literal years, if not decades, plus-size shoppers have been asking fashion brands for something you’d think would be relatively simple—not to mention a v. smart business decision, considering how many Canadian women are considered plus-size: on-trend clothes they could actually wear. In 2014, the convo got a lot more attention when fashion blogger Sarah Chiwaya of Curvily started #PlusSizePlease, a social media campaign that she hoped would encourage popular companies like Zara and H&M to become more size-inclusive.

But it’s only recently that brands seem to be stepping up. Joe Fresh announced they’d be launching a plus line last summer, while J. Crew and Madewell both (slightly) expanded their sizing earlier this year. And of course, there are indie brands, like Universal Standard, that have size-inclusivity baked into their business plans.

But as retailers begin to see the financial value of creating clothes for fat bodies (the North American plus-size clothing market has reached $20 billion in revenue annually), the question becomes: Are these brands entering the market because they actually care about the fat bodies they are creating for—or are they just seeing big, fat dollar signs?

Take Universal Standard, for example. Launched in 2015 by BFFs Polina Veksler and Alexandra Waldman, it’s a fashion-forward company that sells chic basics in sizes 10 to 28. For many women, its sleek, sophisticated clothing filled a major gap—and its unheard of exchange policy, which allowed shoppers to trade in clothing that no longer fit due to size fluctuations within a year of purchase, got people talking on and offline. But as Universal Standard’s popularity grew, their customer base slowly started to feel alienated… Especially when the brand made an Instagram post declaring, “Plus-size fashion is over.”

The February 19 post was announcing an expanded size range in both directions, something the brand clearly saw as a move toward inclusivity—in an accompanying blog post on the brand’s site, co-founder and CCO Waldman explained their motivations by saying, “we don’t need separate departments or separate stores. Stop making us ‘the other.'”

But some customers had a hard time seeing past Waldman’s declaration that plus-size was over. It was a mighty bold claim, and a potentially insulting one, considering many fat activists were using the term plus-size as a way to take up space in the fashion world long before the company even existed.

Vancouver-based blogger Margot Meanie had been a long-time fan of the brand, but was shocked by their post. “I felt like they weren’t truly in touch with who their customer is. I just feel like they have a lack of understanding that fashion is political,” she says. Last week, the brand made another announcement on Instagram, this time revealing more details about the expansion, and Meanie’s criticism seemed increasingly accurate.

The short video was noticeably missing visibly fat bodies. Unsurprisingly, Universal Standard was promptly called out by many of their customers—including model Tess Holliday, who wears a size 22. “When you try to think of a model past a size 16, y’all didn’t think of me?” she said. Fans of the brand were rightfully frustrated that they decided to highlight only the smallest, lightest and tallest models, reinforcing the same narrow beauty standards so many activists and advocates are fighting against.

Universal Standard is not the only brand that’s facing criticism for faux body-positivity. On March 26, Reformation announced it would be making its first foray into plus-size via a collaboration with model Ali Tate Cutler, which would be available in sizes 0-22 and XS-3XL. Plus-size bloggers Alysse Dalessandro and Sarah Conley quickly pointed out that Tate Cutler had made troubling statements about fat people in the past.

And then there are the brands who, use plus-size models but don’t actually make clothes that would fit them in real life—Everlane, for example, has been showcasing their new underwear line on plus-size models in their campaigns, but they don’t offer clothing past a size 14. This marketing is the opposite of their preachy “radical transparency” and further perpetuates damaging beauty standards. (And let’s not even talk about the retailers that show their plus-size offerings on straight-size models.)

It’s great that retailers are slowly embracing plus-size consumers, but they need to do more than cast a few plus models and take our money. Because when marketing campaigns leave out bigger bodies while brands cash in on plus-size consumers, it’s disingenuous and doesn’t actually help to create equality in fashion. And isn’t that the end goal?

Related:

Why Is Plus-Size Shopping in Canada the Actual Worst?
Plus Size Swimwear You’ll Actually Be Excited to Show Off
These Canadians Are on a Mission to Prove Every Body Deserves Love

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