The Plus-Measurement Outside Attire Market Is Booming

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While standing on a hilltop surrounded by beautiful Vermont foliage with my friend and fellow adventurer Arwen Turner, we were chatting up a guy who asked how we met.

Turner shared that she found my book Gorge: My Journey up Kilimanjaro for £300 at REI. The story inspired her to return to hiking, something she had fallen out of love with as a plus-size person because she didn’t belong with the great outdoors.

The guy turned to me, looked at my size 26 hips and asked, “So you metaphorically hiked Kilimanjaro?”

“No, in real life,” I said. “3 times.” Here we were again, emerging into nature and having to prove we deserved to be there.

As an advisor helping brands connect to the plus-size market (which Research and Markets predicts will become a trillion-dollar industry over the next decade, growing from $601.7 billion in 2022) , I think it’s important to get people to believe in the business potential of expanded sizes is also a rise laden with stereotypes and stigma.

There are cautionary tales about Old Navy sizing missteps. There are the long-standing protests that making larger sizes is too difficult and too expensive. There’s even a moral judgment about weight, the perception that someone’s “blame” for their size, and the resulting questions: Why should we, as business owners, fit people in larger bodies? Why can’t they be responsible for themselves? (Even though food culture has repeatedly disproved itself.)

You can’t tell a person’s story through their body. Take me for example: I’ve weighed 300 pounds or more for most of my adult life. I carry most of it between my navel and my knees because of a condition called lipedema and I was battling and recovering from binge eating disorder. And yet I have also climbed Kilimanjaro three times. I’m always looking for my next adventure (Mont Blanc summer 2023 or bust).

My own social media channels (@kararichardsonwhitely on Instagram) are magnets for the “promoting obesity” outcry about BMIs and muscle tone. If these naysayers and trolls were so concerned about their weight, wouldn’t they want to encourage people to exercise and seek the physical and mental benefits of nature?

Height does not reflect a person’s desire to be outside. Plus size people don’t feature in much (if any) marketing materials. We are locked out of the in-person retail experience and encouraged to find our sizes online. When it comes to falling off chairs or making that disastrous splash while jumping into a pool, we’re not worried.

Kelly Davis, director of research for the Outdoor Industry Association, said skiers, especially plus-size women skiers, were excluded because they couldn’t find appropriate winter clothing or gear. The International Journal of Fashion Design noted that the average American woman is a size 16-18, which is often equivalent to women’s size 2X. Many outdoor apparel brands including Columbia, Eddie Bauer and Athleta are working to make plus size clothing available, but finding technical outerwear that fits is still a challenge for plus size women.

“It goes from a size issue to an access issue,” Davis said. “All Americans should have access to the tools, including technical clothing and hardware, to enjoy the great outdoors in comfort and safety.”

The problem goes far beyond clothing. It extends to the travel, homeware, vehicle and personal care markets and the fact that many business owners are not looking into it is frankly an oversight. In fact, 40 percent of the US adult population is obese. 67 percent of American women wear a size 14 or larger. If your brand only sells its products and services to people of normal height, you’re missing out on two-thirds of the total addressable market — and vying with your competitors for the same 33 percent.

And some people in larger bodies have had some pretty traumatic shopping experiences: being whisked out of stores and told to shop online, being judged and shamed with things like unsolicited nutritional advice.

Bad experiences aren’t just something to shake off. They can be humbling events that make guests swear off travel or try new things. And when it comes to the plus-size market, our pockets are full (more than $40 billion in spending power on apparel alone) and our memories are long. There is much to be done to rebuild trust and create a connection that not only leads to profit, but deep brand loyalty and appreciation for your business welcoming us outdoors.

The good news is that there’s plenty of room for real growth in this segment of the outdoor industry. Below are three brands that are already catering to the plus-size market and increasing their profits as a result.

Alder clothing

Mikayla Wujeck, co-founder of plus-size gear brand Alder Apparel, took her company from zero to $5 million in annual sales in three years by creating products exclusively for this underserved market. In 2022, Alder also received an investment from Path Ahead Ventures, REI’s newly formed venture arm supporting diversity in the outdoor industry.

“The outdoor industry has a very narrow understanding of what it means to be outdoors,” Wujec said. “The white torn guy hanging from a glacier. I felt really isolated from that narrative.”

Along with her co-founder Naomi Blackman, Wujec designed a clothing line that ranged in size from XS to 6X. They created a brand identity that is colourful, playful and joyful to spread the message that plus size people can have fun outside like everyone else.

Wujec said a non-negotiable agreement Alder has with REI is that any size up to 6X must be worn for each piece displayed in stores. The brand also has a returns policy that allows for a 45-day try-on window, and if they don’t work, Alder will provide a prepaid return label.

There were other considerations when contacting the plus size customers. Wujec noted that plus-size shoppers take much longer to make up their minds about a purchase — and to make more purchases. This is true because the customer journey for plus size people has been riddled with trauma and disappointment.

When a company says it “can’t make larger sizes,” Wujec says, that’s usually “bullshit” — a moral stance masquerading as a business argument. “It’s more of a statement of who should wear their clothes,” she said.

REI and Smartwool

(Photo: Courtesy of Smartwool)

A few seasons before the pandemic, REI reached out to Smartwool and said there was a need for plus-size base layers. Denise Anderson, Smartwool’s head of global marketing, said they were glad they took up the challenge and grateful for a larger partner like REI to make it happen.

Smartwool’s patterns and colors have been carefully considered and tested because a baselayer is so close to the skin and is the cornerstone of outdoor comfort.

Making it wasn’t the only challenge. Smartwool needed to attract a whole new group of customers who weren’t used to finding their sizes on REI shelves (or other outdoor retailers). Anderson said they had to take a grassroots approach to rewriting that narrative.

Smartwool engaged Fat Girls Hiking (a body positive hiking community), sent product kits to 200 plus size influencers and hosted a leadership retreat with members to share and get feedback.

Smartwool now has 11 styles (64 colors/sizes) in extended sizing and has sold more than 15,000 units to 140 customers including Eastern Mountain Sports, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Scheels for Fall 2022. REI carries the extended sizing products in all stores and on their direct mail/digital platform.

Smartwool and Alder aren’t the only brands available in plus sizes at REI Co-op. REI recently started a collaboration with Outdoor Afro, with pants ranging from 28-50 for men and 0-26 for women, and tops and jackets up to 3XL.

LLBean

(Photo: Courtesy of LL Bean)

LLBean has been offering inclusive sizing for more than 20 years, but in Spring 2022 it’s upped the ante again. (Full disclosure: I work as an influencer for LLBean).

“A lot of this comes from listening to our customers,” said Alex Intraversato, VP of Merchandising, Men’s & Women’s Apparel, Equipment at LLBean. “They wanted the same colors and sizes as everyone else.”

According to Intraversato, the mix of medium sizes and extended sizes is very complex. “We didn’t want to add and take this away from the medium sizes. We had to add up intelligently.”

Bean now offers around 300 styles in Petite and Plus sizes for women and more than 300 styles for men up to XXXL.

The company has implemented a one-price policy, meaning people pay the same whether they’re XS or 3XL. (Plus-size pricing is common. According to a 2021 report by Statistica, the average retail price of plus-size jeans in the U.S. was $3 more than regular-size jeans.) And Bean regularly showcases different body types across all of its channels , from e-commerce to catalogs to social media.

The result: Its expanded size range is projected to sell 20 percent more in 2022 versus 2021, and Bean is just getting started. In 2023, hardgoods including size will be added – camping chairs, sleeping bags and backpacks.

“Offering inclusive sizes not only makes economic sense, it’s also the right thing to do. Our goal is to inspire people and allow them to experience the restorative power of being outdoors, and that applies to all people and all body types,” said Intraversato.

Kara Richardson Whitely is CEO of The GORGEous Agency, helping clients achieve growth and connection with the plus size market. The name is a reference to her book Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds, which is being made into a film with This Is Us actress Chrissy Metz producing and starring. Learn more at www.thegorgeousagency.com.