The Denim Divide

The Denim Divide

by Emili Vesilind

Here’s Why The Premium Denim Market Has Previously Excluded Plus-Sizes.

Let’s face it. Luxury plus-size denim is the great white buffalo of fashion. Every once in blue moon, you may catch a glimpse of it—but is it even really there?

Increased options for denim in extended sizes have cropped up online in recent years (though not from premium denim companies). But it’s still difficult for women who wear a size 12 and up to find a decent pair of jeans at an American mall.

"Olah says one of the hurdles brands are forced to jump when planning a plus denim collection is the dearth of mills that use looms that create denim with widths wide enough to produce fabric to cut larger sizes. “That’s limiting to how you cut your pants,” she says. “Lane Bryant has always asked for wide widths, and they [buy] from mills that can make it. But there aren’t many mills who have the looms to accommodate that. That’s a problem in the supply chain.”"

A recent study from Quartz that analyzed the women’s denim offerings inside the Mall of America found that only 13% of women’s jeans in brick-and-mortar stores are available for women “of average size or larger.”

The study, which compared the waist measurements of jeans to the median waist size for American women aged 20 and up—which is 37.3 inches—revealed that most popular retailers don’t even produce jeans in the U.S. for that average waist size, let alone sizes beyond it.

The report also found that though every fashion store offered denim sizes for shoppers with a waist smaller than 37.3 inches, only around half of those stores offered even a single option for women with waists bigger than average.

Among those that didn’t offer a wide range of larger sizes on the racks were a few that offered “online exclusives” for customers—which plus shoppers now well recognize as code for “we don’t serve your size in our actual store.”

With so many strides being made in fashion to embrace a size-inclusive ideal, why isn’t the denim industry keeping up?

Even with brands that have admirably extended their sizing—notably J. Crew, which dropped a collection with Universal Standard that runs up to 5X this summer—denim is noticeably absent from the menu.

According to the Wall Street Journal plus-size clothing represents 10 percent of retail sales, and has seen stronger growth than “straight” sized apparel for three consecutive years. But though pioneering designers such as Christian Siriano, Brandon Maxwell, and Zac Posen have embraced designing for women of all sizes, designer and luxury denim brands are largely still sticking to the same script. Premium denim brands AG and Acne only run up to a waist size 32, while Joe’s Jeans and Hudson offer up to a size 34.

Fashionista writer Tyler McCall, who did an informal inventory on top designer brands and their size ranges in May wrote that brands’ aversion to offering bigger sizes, “may be as simple as good old-fashioned snobbery.” After all, it’s a bias that’s been routinely revealed, by designers and brand executives, for eons. "What I designed was fashion for slender and slim people," Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld famously sniffed in 2004 when H&M produced his capsule collection in large sizes.

Emily Olah, managing director of Kingpins, arguably the most well-known denim trade show in the U.S., is quick to cite several brands that have seen the light when it comes to extending sizes—among them American Eagle, which now offers up to a size 20 in denim, and Madewell, which showcases models of different sizes on its denim pages (though its denim only goes up to a size 33). But she concedes that manufacturers of chic, upscale denim for sizes above a 12 are practically nonexistent.

The denim expert even relays a story where she once asked the designer of a trendy luxury jeans brand she was working with why he didn’t make jeans to fit her figure, which swings between a size 8 and a size 12: “He looked me straight in the face and said, ‘It’s nothing against you. But I design for a different market,’” she recalls. “There was nothing more to say.”

Olah says one of the hurdles brands are forced to jump when planning a plus denim collection is the dearth of mills that use looms that create denim with widths wide enough to produce fabric to cut larger sizes. “That’s limiting to how you cut your pants,” she says. “Lane Bryant has always asked for wide widths, and they [buy] from mills that can make it. But there aren’t many mills who have the looms to accommodate that. That’s a problem in the supply chain.”

But it’s one she thinks retailers and brands need to find a way around—and quick. “Brands can’t be close-minded to any market anymore,” she says. “I think the idea of expanding size ranges is only going to increase, collection by collection.”

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Shop The Story

Share This: