Since this piece published, Patagonia has pulled their 2008 blog on plus sizes, but the page is still accessible through archives here.
Patagonia is hot right now. Their sales have quadrupled over the last decade to over a billion dollars (which is a big deal, makes them over half the size of J. Crew and twice the size of Eddie Bauer – or right in line with Lands’ End & LL Bean). And the growth makes sense – they’re doing a number of things that really resonate with millennial and gen z consumers, like transparent sourcing, recycled materials, taking strong stands on social causes, and working to include more diversity across their workplace and their athlete teams. But we need to stop singing Patagonia’s praises for a moment to talk about an area that degrades at their corporate reputation: plus sizes.
Before I start delving into this, I want to acknowledge the people who are leading the way in building a size-inclusive outdoor community, like founder of Unlikely Hikers Jenny Bruso, founder of Big Girls Climb Too Sam Ortiz, Health-at-every-size trainer Tasheon Chillous, and size inclusive rock-guide-in-progress Bennett Rahn. They’ve been using their voices to make waves about weight discrimination in a multitude of ways in outdoor recreation. I want mine to serve as backup vocals that have experience in the women’s apparel industry.
In addition, it’s important to clarify why plus size apparel isn’t as simple as just making a bigger size. For straight sized apparel, designers generally work off fit forms (or digital ones) that usually match a size small or medium. Some forms are standard mannequins built by fit researchers at a company called Alvanon, but they also work with bigger brands to make custom fit specs based on the brand’s fit research. After some garment fitting on the form, a fit model then comes in to try prototypes on. These aren’t traditional models; they’re people with body measurements that match the brand’s fit form. They’re able to show what the garment looks like in motion and provide feedback that you can’t get from a mannequin, like whether it’s comfortable, supportive enough, or whether those leggings pass the see-through test when you bend over. Once the specs are finalized, they’re graded up and down to cover the rest of the size run. For quality plus size apparel, you want to start with a new set of specs. And that’s a little harder. Every woman has their own unique weight distribution, but above a size 14, there’s more variance in where women carry weight. (Hence why most brands gravitate towards pieces that are drapey or stretchy – since both are more forgiving when it comes to fit). The company adds more dress forms – whether standardized or custom – and finds another plus size fit model. Some companies will also hire additional technical designers who have strong knowledge and expertise in plus size fit, but that’s sometimes easier said than done. Most fashion students learn on forms that are size 6 or smaller, and given the growing importance of inclusive sizing, there’s a lot of demand for a once-niche position in the fashion world.
But these aren’t the challenges Patagonia cites. They shared a blog in 2008 addressing inclusive sizing, stating between minimums (ensures mills and factories are able to leverage economies of scale) and capacity (factories make product for a variety of retailers and need to have production time reserved), it didn’t make sense for them. They’d have to cut orders on their stronger selling sizes to produce fringe sizes, and excess units on the fringe sizes would become waste. The problem is, that’s not how demand planning works.
First, minimums. Mills and factories lose money with every minute they spend stopping their production lines to swap out what they’re working on. It decreases what they can output in a day and degrades at economies of scale. It’s more dramatic in mills than factories, where switching out colors in a dye tub takes more time and cleaning than switching from one style to another on the sewing line. And fittingly, fabric minimums tend to be much higher than style minimums. And then color minimums tend to be roughly half of a style minimum (since a bit of time is lost switching out thread & fabric on the sewing line).
The good news is that plus size styles would share the same fabric. Plus versions would be subject to style minimums, based on the style tweaks using a plus size fit form and model. And those should be easy for Patagonia to hit. They have the volume in Nano Puffs and Down Sweaters to support 10 different colorways each. They have up to 11 colors for their bestselling fleece. At that point, your color minimums have put you well past the style minimums. Even if you expect plus to sell slower than straight sizes (especially at first, as it takes time for demand to ramp as customers to discover new sizes and convert), you could shrink the selection down to 3-4 colorways, cover your minimums, and start building a viable plus size business. If you can put 10+ prints and colors behind a straight-sized style, you absolutely have the volume to build a plus size business.
I’m also pretty positive that Patagonia has the volume to support a plus size business based on their presence in the baby category. The US baby market is $8.4m (for 2019) vs. a projected $24m for plus in 2020 (up from a measured $20m in 2015). If you can meet minimums for infant baby bunting suits, a plus size style should sell 3 times as much if you’ve built your fit and assortment well.
Reason #3 plus size product should be totally viable is that the rest of the industry seems to make it happen. As I mentioned, they’re twice the size of Eddie Bauer, who manages to get 15% of their women’s assortment extended into plus, including most of the building blocks for a technical outdoor layering kit. LL Bean is the same size and has 41% of their assortment extended into plus. And they’re doing with all the recycled fabrics and responsible down that Patagonia’s built a brand on, and added extra touches like Pertex Quantum in their puffies. And even still they’re offering their plus version of an 800 fill midweight puffy for $20 less than the Down Sweater Hoody. Columbia finds the plus size business so important that they’ve rolled it out in Prana and have Mountain Hardwear extensions in the pipeline.
But sure, let’s pretend that they’re right and plus size styles won’t meet their usual minimums. (Emphasis on the word “pretend”). Minimums are negotiable. Factories regularly take smaller minimums on new business or strategic growth opportunities in hopes that it’s a short-term set up. Or they’ll honor the smaller order quantities, but counter with an upcharge that maintains their profitability. Likewise, for seasonal product, if you’re willing to produce ahead of schedule and give a factory business during one of their slower seasons, they tend to make more concessions. Same goes for capacity – you can increase the amount of production time you reserve or onboard new factories to your matrix (Patagonia’s admirable factory standards notwithstanding. If their current matrix is bursting at the gills, you can guarantee other factories are making the improvements to meet that bar and capture responsibly-sourced business). Also, if capacity is that strained, how has Patagonia managed to make enough product to satisfy growth and achieved the increase in color offerings since the mid 2010s?
But let’s pretend again that they can’t meet minimums and there’s no wiggle room to creatively problem solve. Doug Freeman, now their CEO shares a quote on product overproduction:
“This indeed is a problem of waste…. Discontinued items cannot be sold for market value, which keeps us from running profitably. This cuts into our environmental donations; worse, if these items don’t sell, they become waste, and this impacts the environment to the fullest extent possible.”
Any woman who has ever shopped the Patagonia Web Specials knows exactly what sizes chip away at profitability. We have all gotten excited about a 50% Re Tool fleece only to find that the only size left is an XXS. And their XXS lives up to the name. Their bust measurement for an XXS is 31 inches, which corresponds to a 30A or 28B sized bra. And while there isn’t published data on bra size distribution for women, we do have indexed search data from Google Trend Analytics that shows search patterns for a 30A against a 36C (believed to be one of the most common sizes), and a 38DDD (a 44 inch bust where women traditionally start trading into plus sizes). That data looks like this:
Bra sizes 38DDD, 40DDD, and 42DDD all have higher search occurrence over 30A as well. Interestingly, the XXS assortment at Patagonia is 65% larger than the XXL selection, even though the search analysis suggests that the market for XXS sizes is 52% smaller.
So why not get into the business?
My main theory is that Patagonia is underestimating the size of the market. They carry XL and limited XXL options, the size charts aren’t drastically different from Lane Bryant or Eloquii, but say they don’t have success. But as I mentioned, scaling up to an XXL and making a 2XL are vastly different. Patagonia doesn’t share what size their fit models and specs are, but I did find one of their former fit models from the late 90’s on LinkedIn who’s an 8. That’s on the small end of a Patagonia medium. That’s also around a 34B or 34C bra size. Imagine the difference in bras you would need as a 34B vs. a 38DDD – thicker straps, padded straps, smoothing fabric in the back, probably a burly ass cup & underwire. The rest of a plus size wardrobe needs adjustments as well. These are Patagonia’s base layers on model. All of their pants and leggings seem to hit below the belly button. Google image search for plus size leggings and there is nary a belly button. It’s not about covering up bigger bodies. It’s about hitting the narrowest part of her body where it’s most comfortable, flattering, and going to stay in place. Patagonia has offered a super small assortment of probably poor fitting garments (just by nature of their fit spec), and then said “We told you ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ “ when no one bought it. You guys, you didn’t really try.
But I also get these inkling little vibes that it could boil down to bias. Doug Freeman’s quote argues that extended sizes will be sold at discount and degrade their profit & ability to make environmental donations. But they do seem willing to take that risk on the XXS pieces that have less of a market. Guess it’s fine to stomach if it’s for skinny chicks. Or it could be about plus size women not being perceived as outdoorsy, or outdoorsy in an aspirational way. Which A) 90% of Patagonia down puffies in Seattle are worn by my developer coworkers, usually in the rain, and B) that’s totally bullshit, scroll back up to the women at the top of the page. It could be about a brand that’s so white and entrenched in a kinda racist industry (but in a low-key, Democratic voter kind of way). In a recent piece about diversity in the outdoors by Outside, consultant Ava Holliday drives home that America will no longer have a white majority in 25 years. If your work force is homogenously white, it’s going to have a serious impact on the caliber of talent a company can attract. Patagonia’s recruitment manager recounts how attendees at a Morehouse College event barely knew about the brand. However, they need to realize that women of color are overrepresented in the plus size market, and the growing diversity in the country partially explains the growth in plus size demand for younger age groups. Plus size extensions absolutely needs to be part of a diversification strategy. Resistance against it can be interpreted as partially racially motivated. And that’s especially lame because here’s 70 pages of environmental policy polling numbers what show people of color are consistently stronger supporters of meaningful legislation to protect the planet.
So what next?
First, I’ll tell you what shouldn’t happen. Patagonia promised if enough people reached out requesting a particular size, they would add it. And at first I was like “let’s start a petition,” but then I realized that, as a size XS, I’ve never had to ask a company for clothes or coordinate with my similarly-sized friends to prove that inventory turns would meet their goals. Companies hired people who did research on easily-accessible apparel industry data. And when they made their first forecasts and cut their first orders, it was a risk and a liability and prayed that I’d show up. Plus size should be no different.
But I’d suggest Patagonia find talent and test a real collection. You will not fuck the planet over with a test run true plus assortment. On the flip side, if it takes off, you’ve increased your profits, which means you can do more to help the Earth. And if you want to hedge your bets, find a smaller brand that shares your values, has a solid plus size assortment established, and do a collaboration. (I nominate Girlfriend Collective). They leverage your size and scale, you leverage their tech design expertise. Make it a goal and find a way to execute.
Feeling a little triggered about your favorite brand? Don’t worry, I also shower them in praises over sustainable business practices here.