Dolce & Gabbana and Donatella Versace talk plus-size fashion

By guest author Jess Sims from Vogue Business

Many fashion brands have invited plus-size models to their runways. Fewer are creating collections designed for this customer.

After plus-size models walked the Versace runway for the first time during the Spring/Summer 2021 shows last year, the Italian brand has hired plus-size model Precious Lee for a recent campaign. Chanel too had its first plus-size model in over a decade when Jill Kortleve walked the Paris runway in March 2020, while Kortleve and Paloma Elsesser became the first plus-size models to walk for Fendi last February. But increased representation in advertising campaigns and on catwalks hasn’t corresponded to extended sizing in stores.

That may be starting to change as Italian luxury brands are among those finally embracing plus size. Donatella Versace says she is considering extending sizes at Versace, in an exclusive Vogue Business interview. “I can only speak for Versace of course, and I can say that you will [see more size inclusion],” Donatella Versace said via email, without sharing specifics on a timeline or what additional sizes may be produced for retail. “My hope is that we are becoming more open to inclusion and that we will get better at it.” Dolce & Gabbana, which became the first luxury heritage house to offer ready-to-wear pieces above a size US 16 when it went up to US 18 in 2019, says the response has been positive.

After years of creating custom clothing in a wide range of sizes, “we decided to give consistency to this offer and officially expand the size offering of our collections”, says Stefano Gabbana in an interview with Vogue Business. “We never looked at fashion and beauty standards. What we have always been interested in is dressing authentic, beautiful women without conforming to any rules.” Dolce & Gabbana does not release sales figures, but 11 Honoré, an online retailer specialising in plus-size designer clothing, saw a 70 and 80 per cent sell-through rate for Dolce & Gabbana’s first two collections, respectively.

There is a long way to go to amend the broader luxury differential between representation on the catwalk shows and plus-size clothing in stores. Other brands are entering the market, though they are mostly independent labels, like Mary Katrantzou and Diane von Furstenberg. Carolina Herrera is trialling more inclusive sizes, while designers like Adam Lippes and Christian Siriano are sold on 11 Honoré, which launched in 2016 with 15 brands and today carries more than 80 brands in sizes US 12-22. “We’re opening up a market by creating products for that market,” says co-founder and CEO Patrick Herning. “We are creating a space for women who did not previously have it.”

But high-profile luxury houses are largely reticent even as surveys suggest Gen Z demand it and there is a clear business case given more than 65 per cent of US women wear at least a size 12. Dolce & Gabbana’s push into plus size signals both customer demand as well as designer capability: many luxury brands are already accustomed to designing one-off pieces for clients in a range of sizes. Versace’s current RTW line is available in up to a size IT 52 on its e-commerce site and IT 50 in its retail stores (equivalent to a US 16 and US 14, respectively). The brand says the sizing is based on client feedback and custom items in additional sizing are available, but only on request, to a select few. At a time when the retail sector is suffering, one has to wonder if that is the best business model.

The aftermath of the pandemic, which sent luxury sales sliding 25-30 per cent in 2020, according to Bain, could open an opportunity for more brands to address the need for extended sizing. While production costs are typically higher, there’s money to be made in this largely underserved sector. Fast fashion and mass retailers are already benefiting. H&M, which saw record profits in 2020, overhauled sizing in 2019 to extend straight sizes to a US 18/20 and extended its plus-size range to a size US 28. According to e-commerce intelligence platform Pipecandy, the percentage of plus-size items selling out in 2020 increased by 15 per cent year over year, which researcher Sujay Seetharaman sees as a sign of positive market growth, especially during a period of overall decline for the fashion industry.

“The next important and necessary phase of growth for this industry is treating this [plus-size] customer as an equal,” Herning says. NYC-based plus-size influencer Abby Bible agrees, “Unfortunately a lot of luxury designers exclude the plus-size market because they think we’re all living in temporary bodies.” Bible, who has collaborated with several premium brands that offer extended sizing, wonders why brands won’t tap into this market, citing the spending power and loyalty of plus-size customers, “the plus-size community isn’t going anywhere and we have lots of money to spend, so why not invest in a community that is loyal?”.

Making that investment into the plus-size community now could set brands up for success as a younger generation gains purchasing power. “[Gen Z] are specifically holding brands accountable,” says Seetharaman. “In our research we found that the Gen Z consumer cares about movements; they will stand with plus-size consumers even if they themselves are not plus size and we expect this [attitude] to trickle down to other consumers.”