I was listening to an interesting podcast on soundcloud last week from NextView ventures, a Boston/ New York based fund that is focused on seed funding, on a segment featuring the co-founder of Dia & Co., Nadia Boujarwah, as she gave a very harrowing and detailed account of what it was like shopping as a plus sized woman.
Her account was one of essentially being treated like an outcast. In any brick-and-mortar shoppe, the models and window dressings all catered to thin figures, and the main stage of presentation was towards the same type; and to the top, away from all the flirty advertisements and seasonal marketing dalliances of colour, shapes and textures, was a section set aside by plain, unadorned, grey walls, into an isolated maid-like attic on the top of the building, where all the plus sized clothes were kept for people who didn't fit into smaller sizes.
Nadia Boujarwah, Co-Founder of Dia&Co, an eCommerce startup that focuses on plus-sized women.
This sort of journey for her was partly emotional; Ms. Bourjarwah has never been anything below a plus size all her life, and she has also never had a period when she wasn't interested in fashion. However, she realised that she was never the apparel market's primary customer nor focus demographic, despite the fact that the average U.S. size for women is actually a size 14 (UK size 18-20) and in fact, 67% of the women in the U.S. are above a size 14+ (UK size 18-20+). The rational side of her gave her the impetus to begin her journey to launch Dia&Co, an eCommerce subscription service, similar to BirchBox which focuses on beauty products, but for plus sized women to receive a monthly box of clothes and accessories to try on in the comfort of their own homes and then decide whether they would like to purchase the items or send back.
The typical runway model is a size 0 whilst the majority of American women are size 14 or above.
Another company Eloquii, a fast-fashion eCommerce site for plus-sized ladies has also recently raised $15 million just this past April. The ready-to-wear trend seems to be that "conventional" sizes no longer apply to the women of America or elsewhere. US sizes 0-8 (UK size 4-12) are clearly in the minority when the average size of the American women is a size 14 (UK size 18-20) and the average size of the UK woman is a size 16 (US size 12). Debenhams was one of the first UK department stores to display size 16 mannequins in an effort to break away from standard size 10 (US size 4) models a few years ago. However, the majority of the fashion industry still focuses on standard US sizes 0-10 with runway models averaging a US size 0 (UK size 4).
British uniforms in the War of 1812.
The history of ready-to-wear is an interesting one that launched due to an international conflict. The introduction of factory made clothes with standardised sizes began with the production of military uniforms in the War of 1812 between the UK and the US. However, during that time, the apparel market mainly catered to the upper classes; for women and men with means who could commission custom-made clothing and the rest of the population kept up-to-date by adding accessories, such as neck collars, ribbons and sashes to secondhand dresses.
The entire fashion industry was turned on its head by Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, when she moved away from the ornate dresses, corsets and petticoats of the era into more comfortable clothes that "liberated" women with androgynous styles and fabrics borrowed from traditional menswear by giving women the first skirtsuit in the early 1900s. Funded by the Wetheimer brothers, Chanel lead the U.S. ready-to-wear market after WWII, and the era of mail-order catalogues and factory made clothes started to take flight, with many designers following suit.
Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel liberated women from petticoats, corsets and elaborate garments to a more simplified womenswear that was androgynous and comfortable in the early 1900s.
In the mid-1990s, "fast-fashion", a business model developed by Zara radically changed the apparel industry via its utilisation of cheap labour in third world nations in an ever-continuing stream of weekly new inventory that could be easily disposed if unsold and many of the dominant retailers, including TopShop, H&M, The Gap, Banana Republic et al embraced that model for its short-term profits and quick return on investment. Their business model is one that is held up as a model study at top business schools, but also one which has gathered international criticism for its devastating effects on the environment and the millions of women and children it would exploit in the decades after. I have previously written about the challenges facing fast-fashion here. The post-1990s era would become the "sweat-shop" era in our apparel landscape.
Sweatshop workers at an apparel factory in China. These women make around $0.03 cents/day. The post-1990s era up to today is known as the sweatshop era in the apparel industry.
Now what used to be mail-order catalogues in the early 1900s has become eCommerce for us today which curiously takes us to this next stage of evolution in ready-to-wear. Currently, most eCommerce companies are focused on getting rid of inventory through hard sales tactics, although many companies, such as the Gilt Groupe have discovered, women are not really persuaded to buy things via the aggressive psychological emailing campaigns of Sale! Sale! Sale! and that people prefer a customised shopping experience.
Dia&Co and Eloquii are two startups that focus on solving an aspect of the ready-to-wear in our current retail landscape by catering to a disenfranchised population that has been previously ignored in the previous eras of the thin physique. I think though the deep-seated problem of sizing remains unresolved, and has not been addressed by many eCommerce companies that exist today - in that although the larger sizing issues can be partly addressed by including those larger sizes in an eCommerce site, women and men tend to have different body shapes that do not all uniformly fit into a particular size in the first place.
Although the clothing and textile industry is fragmented and diverse, and the global apparel industry makes more than $1 trillion annually in revenue, with the entire apparel industry given a valuation of $3 trillion, it is clear that simply aggregating inventory is not a viable long-term strategy for the typical eCommerce startup focused on apparel and accessories. Instead, we need to look deeper into how we can solve the complex issues that surround the production line from start to finish that will concomitantly have a positive environmental, economic and sociological impact. And it might just mean that perhaps this is the beginning of the end of ready-to-wear as we know it.