Wednesday, 11 July 2012

The Politics of Sizing

There is a lot of discomfort when it comes to discussing and producing larger sizes in the fashion industry. The majority of lines basically ignore the over 40% of the North American population that fall outside of a size 12. Many designers don’t even offer the equivalent of a size 12.

It’s common knowledge that women who fall above what is considered to be a “normal” size range are completely ghettoized when it comes to fashion. They have to shop at different stores and have to settle for fewer options and a lower level of service in general. The problem is that what is considered to be “normal” is no longer normal, and the fashion industry has yet to catch up or catch on.

My epiphany about size range came a year ago at a large semi-annual sale that we participate in called Braderie de la Mode in Montreal. Working as a designer, and primarily in the studio, I am not often present at the point of sale. It was an eye opening experience for me to see who was actually trying on the clothes and how they were fitting in terms of size.

One thing I noticed was that women tend to shop with friends in groups of 2-5. Within the group there is usually a range of body types and sizes and there is often at least one person who falls outside of the size 12 that is the upper limit for most designer lines.

Up until our spring/summer collection came out last spring, the largest size we offered was a size 12, which is equivalent to what we call our XL. Watching groups of women try on our clothes and seeing someone in the group not being able to fit into the largest size we offered was devastating for me. I felt like a complete jerk. It was obvious that our not having their size made them feel humiliated and defeated. Many women would either get angry or would apologize to me as if they had failed somehow. I felt unequivocally that it was me who had failed, not them.

After I got home and had time to process the experience, I was surprised at how emotional I felt about it. The whole reason I love this job is that I am able to share my vision and enthusiasm for clothing with other people and to create the same excitement in them. I felt like I had failed personally not only in not having clothes that fit everyone who wanted to try them on, but in seeing women who admired the line being shut out from enjoying the whole experience with their friends. I decided after that event that we would start to do what we could at Birds of North America to be more inclusive when it came to sizing.

As with anything that is not the “norm”, there are a million reasons designers say they can’t or won’t offer a larger size range. It is very hard to make a living with a small line of clothing in Canada, and I understand that a lot of designers try to cut costs whenever possible, but for me, all the reasons to choose not to do a broader size range have never quite added up to something I felt like I could get on board with.

Common rhetoric among independent fashion designers is that larger sizes of clothing use more fabric and are therefore much more expensive to produce. This is only a bit true. For a line like Birds of North America, which is produced entirely in Montreal, the bulk of the cost of the garment comes from the construction (basically the sewing). There is an increase in grading and cutting charges whenever any extra sizes are added, but in my opinion, it’s not a deal breaker.

When it comes to costing a garment, my philosophy is to look at the big picture. Like most lines, we sell the most pieces of clothing in sizes S and M. I have never seen this as a reason to base our entire production around these sizes. I don’t see the additional cost of producing a size 16 dress as being a 30% increase in cost for a size 16 dress, I see it as being a 5% cost increase on that particular style of dress in all sizes. Yes, if we only produced sizes XS-L we would make more money, but I didn’t get into this business to get rich. I do this because I love what I do and I want to share it, and I consider an inclusive size range a part of being able to offer good service to people who like our designs.

Because we are a small business, we have had to start modestly with the addition of two sizes in order to ease into the process. We did a trial run of five styles in sizes 14 and 16 this past spring season and have tweaked the fit a bit for fall. This fall, based on demand, we will have 11 styles available in size 14 and 3 styles in size 16. We will definitely be expanding the availability as interest increases. At the moment there is so little available even above a size 10 in most independent lines of clothing that I think people in the size 12 and up range have stopped even looking.

We are committed to offering these sizes and to adding more as they catch on. Help us get the word out!


  1. Will absolutely help get the word out! As someone who is currently around size 16-18, I definitely struggle with finding things that I love that actually fit, and shopping - formerly one of my favourite activities, has become exactly as you described - defeating/humiliating.

    When designers I really like have sizes I can actually fit into, it is just the most wonderful thing. I was delighted to see a few pretty pieces in your shop within my range, and happy to see that it will be a continuing thing! :)

  2. Thanks for your comment, Rebecca! I appreciate hearing your experience with shopping and it affirms to me that expanding our size range is well worth the effort. Shopping should be fun and uplifting, not defeating!