Elusive, Inclusive Sizing

In 2010, I got hired to be a patternmaker and technical designer for Eileen Fisher Inc. At the time, I had been working for Abercrombie & Fitch, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio. It was a pretty big change for me; the corporate cultures couldn’t have been more different! I wasn’t looking to move to New York (where Eileen Fisher Inc. is headquartered), but I couldn’t resist Eileen Fisher’s offer for three reasons: 1) To be a patternmaker (I’ll write more about this later). 2). To work for a company that was actively trying to produce things in an eco-friendly and ethical way, even if it meant less profit. 3) To work on plus size clothing.

I couldn’t tell you the delight I felt when I saw the size 16 mannequin floating around the product development department. I was scared and totally alone… I literally had only ever been to New York for the one interview that got me the job. But I knew I had made the right decision. Because in 2010, working on plus size clothing was not something one could do just anywhere. Plus size clothing was mostly limited to brands like Lane Bryant (a brand I have a lot of respect for!). Most companies just wanted to focus on the skinny person who had no fit issues.

Maybe I should explain why this meant so much to me.

In 2006, when I was a junior at the University of Michigan studying costume design, I managed to get a job working in a tailoring shop. By manage, I really do mean that. I was a good student and a competent sewer, but I had only ever worked on costumes before. What a lot of people don’t realize about costumes is they might look cool on the outside, but they can be a mess of super glue and stapled together pieces. The name of the game is that they look great on a stage, but they don’t necessarily have that finesse of a well tailored garment.

Connie, the tailor, was brave to take me on. But she did a great job of slowly bringing me on board. At first I did pant hems, hundreds of pant hems. I started thinking about things in terms of pant hems and how much I got paid per hem. Glass of wine after work with some friends? That was worth a few pant hems.

Anyway, I continued to work for Connie during my remaining years in college, and then full time for about a year after college. As I learned more and was allowed to work on more challenging alterations, I became aware of the impact some of these alterations had on people. I cherished the moments when a customer would try on their newly altered clothing and smile at themselves in the mirror. A person, of any size, deserves to feel loved by their clothing, and doing alterations let me see the power of that first hand.

I’ll admit that I was a little lost in college, unsure where I was going with a degree in costume design (if you can imagine!), but in those moments, when I saw someone happily leaving with their newly fitting clothes, I knew I wanted to be a part of that magic.

Fast forward about a decade and oh, how the world of fit has changed!

Plus sized instagram influencers, the #metoo movement and a realization that there are plus sized customers who are willing to spend money on clothing that makes them feel confident & beautiful has lead to a new outcropping of existing brands offering “inclusive sizing” (e.g., Anthropologie, Stitch Fix, Modcloth, J.Crew ) and new brands focused on the plus sized market (e.g., Premme, Eloquii, Torrid).

I am excited to see so many brands including people of all shapes and sizes, and I want to take this moment to point out the accomplishment that these brands have made. I don’t know if it is widely known that offering additional sizes (especially if you are trying to do it well), takes much more than just turning on a button on the “clothing machine”.

Sizing for the mass market is an incredibly complex problem to solve. Not only is it rare that anyone is a consistent size through out their body (how many of you have a smaller sized top than bottom? Or vice versa?), what “works” on a size 4 person, might not work on a size 0 petite person, or a size 14 person. Proportion, shapes, styling (for example, how big that pocket is on each size and where it’s placed), these are not things that can be determined by a simple equation.

To go a little deeper, here is how sizing works now. Every brand has what they call their “base size.” Often it’s somewhere in the middle of their size offering, usually a size small or medium. Every style for that brand is fit on a fit model, who has the rare (!) quality of someone who is the same size throughout their body and represents the body type of the typical (or aspirational) customer for that brand.

Once the fit and styling of that garment are determined, all other sizes are derivatives of that base size.

So, let’s say you have a size medium fit model. The brand you are shopping offers sizes XS, small, medium, large, XL and XXL. You are an XXL. This means that the size you are shopping for is three derivatives away from the base size! The likely hood of your XXL garment fitting you as well as the base size fits is low…. UNLESS the brand did their homework.

To truly be inclusive, a brand not only needs to offer extended sizing, but they need to fit and evaluate these extended sizes on a fit model as well.

If you are someone who is benefiting from extended sizing and has had the joy of putting on a garment that fits and flatters your body, it’s because that brand did their research. They considered not only the size small, but all the other sizes as well. They didn’t sit back and let an equation tell them what a size XXS or XXL should look like, they fit it on a person and made adjustments so that person can feel just as confident and beautiful as every other size.

As you can imagine, doing this kind of work takes time & money on the part of the brand. It could increase the workload per style many times for the technical designers and patternmakers! So, next time you put on something that fits you well, say a little “thank you” to all the technical designers and patternmakers in the world, for nothing would make us happier than to know that you love the way it fits.