Investigating the UK plus-size clothing market with River Island

It’s clear that the plus-size industry in the UK is taking off. In recent years, the number of retailers exclusively stocking plus-size clothing has increased and a variety of well-known women’s clothing companies now have their own specialised plus-size sections in-store and online.

But what does the future hold for the plus-size market in the UK and which factors are responsible for its success? We investigate the impact of the plus-size clothing market on the UK fashion sector and take a look at upcoming trends in the industry.

The UK plus-size industry

The fashion industry in the UK is split between brands who exclusively stock plus-size clothing and general plus-size (from retailers who stock plus-size clothing along with their other ranges). As of 2017, the plus-size market was worth approximately £6.6 billion, according to a PwC report, and £4.7 billion of this was for female plus-size clothing only.

When compared with the general markets for womenswear and menswear, plus-size clothing has experienced significant growth over the past few years. Reportedly, the plus-size market had a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 3.3% during the 2012 and 2017 period, while the men’s and women’s clothing sector grew just 2.4% in the same timeframe. What’s more, the value of the plus-size industry is anticipated to develop at a 7.1% CAGR from now until 2022 and potentially hit a value of £1.3 billion by 2019 — but why and what trends can we expect to emerge as a result?

How is the plus-size industry progressing?

There are a number of factors driving the plus-size market to success, from influencers who help to raise the profile of plus-size brands to advertising campaigns.

The impact of influencers

In recent years, there has been a surge in body positivity which has been accelerated by prominent fashion influencers. This has certainly helped to encourage the popularity of plus-size and project it into the mainstream.

Prominent fashion brand leaders have also come out in support of plus-size; Donatella Versace, vice president and artistic director of Versace Group, said: “Plus-sized women shouldn’t think of themselves as a size. They should think of themselves as women with rich goals in life.” Comments like these from powerful people in the industry have supported the plus-size market, making it more attractive to not only buy into from a consumer perspective, but invest in from a brand point of view.

Plus-size models have also become more popular on the catwalk, which has undoubtedly helped the market. In September last year, audiences at London Fashion Week saw female models up to a size 26 take to the catwalk — including the notably outspoken plus-size models, Tess Holliday and Callie Thorpe. Similarly, the New York Designers Spring-Summer 2018 Show also sent plus-size models down the runway — although, only two out of a cast of around 70. Despite a rise in the inclusion of plus-size models at major fashion events in the past few years, the number has disappointingly fallen in the most recent fashion shows, according to The Fashion Spot report — only 30 plus-size models took part in each of the four major cities (Milan, Paris, London, and New York).

Perhaps it is the models themselves rather than the fashion brands that deserve recognition for driving the success of plus-size. Recently, the world has seen a surge in plus-size influencers and models which may have been a greater assistance to the growth of the sector. For example, on Instagram, US plus-size models Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday have 7.2 million and 1.6 million followers respectively, while Brits, Callie Thorpe and Felicity Hayward, have 196,000 and 192,000.

The driving force behind the growing popularity of the market could very well be down to plus-size influencers and models. With their photos regularly receiving thousands of likes and their willingness to speak out against ‘body-shamers’ — most recently by Felicity Hayward and as part of a protest at London Fashion Week — the campaigning and activity of plus-size models for greater acceptance and awareness is gaining traction.

Let’s take a look at some of the popular social media mentions surrounding plus-size:

The hashtags #LoveYourBody, #BodyConfidence and #BodyPositive all saw a significant increase in use on a global scale from 2015-2017.

It is clearly time for fashion brands and fashion show organisers to sit up and take note of the plus-size movement if they are to show their support for this growing industry, whether that involves featuring more plus size models at their runway shows or employing more plus-size brand ambassadors.

Technology and plus-size

As mentioned in the PwC report, plus-size consumers shop online more than general womenswear consumers for everything from plus-size lingerie to beachwear and plus-size dresses. In 2017, consumers in the UK spent over £16 billion on online fashion shopping, and globally over the next four years, ecommerce revenue is expected to exceed $712,9 billion. Clearly, digital platforms are crucial in the industry — but how is technology affecting the plus-size sector specifically?

One of the key factors influencing the success of plus-size is the way in which plus-size retailers and brands connect with their audience online. What’s more, development in fashion ecommerce sites and online channels have also helped to grow sales in the sector to a greater extent than if there was less online availability for purchasing plus-size clothing.

As more and more well-established fashion retailers introduce their own plus-size ranges, it’s likely that they will develop their virtual technology to improve the customer journey. For example, many brands are currently investing in virtual stylists, body scanners and online fitting rooms — all of which create an interactive and enjoyable experience for plus-size customers that will help bring this specific sector of fashion onto a more even playing field with the overall womenswear market.

Digital influences on the market

With advertising on social media becoming more prominent and progress in digital marketing methods, plus-size will be boosted in terms of both visibility and accessibility for the average online consumer. Instagram Shop is making it easier to buy online without having to visit a store site, while many plus-size retailers are capitalising on the almost 40 million UK Facebook users by channelling their marketing efforts onto this platform.

Social media advertising is also helping to bring plus-size clothing to a younger demographic. According to a study into social media use by age in the UK, reported by eMarketer:

With the help of advertising on social media, plus-size clothing has become more visible to younger generations. eMarketer reports that:

  • 59% of Instagram users and 75% of Facebook users are aged 16-22.
  • 38% of Instagram users and 80% of Facebook users are aged 23-34.
  • 16% of Instagram users and 69% of Facebook users are aged 35-49.
  • 9% of Instagram users and 58% of Facebook users are aged 50-65.

Evidently, these platforms are more widely used by younger people, which is likely why marketing promotions and adverts have been used here by plus-size clothing brands. With more popular high-street brands stocking plus-size options and a rise in social media coverage of the sector, the plus-size market is able to target a more youthful audience and expand its reach.

Predictions for the future of plus-size

The number of searches for ‘plus size’ has also increased over the past five years according to Google Trends, with the term reaching an all-time high in the UK in June 2018.  So, if this trend continues, what’s next for plus-size fashion?

According to a report by IBISWorld, the growing consumer base and rise in retailers of plus-size clothing will help develop the market even further. So much so, that the sector is expected to be an important contributor as a growth market to the wider economy in the next few years. Essentially, IBISWorld believes that the establishment of plus-size brands and a greater relationship to significant markets will be two key factors in the expansion and future success of the plus-size women’s clothing industry.

With fashion retailers continuing to develop their virtual technology and focusing on the customer experience, it’s likely that we will see more of a connection between plus-size consumers and online shopping. Similarly, key plus-size influencers are likely to gain more authority in their campaigning of inclusivity for plus-size fashion in the mainstream world. With the news that global fashion shows are falling behind when it comes to the exposure of plus-size models on the runway, organisers may react positively and include more of these models in future events, too.

Additionally, as brands and retailers become more aware of the increased profit that plus-size can bring, it is highly likely that more of them will invest their resources into developing their own plus-size offerings. Overall, the future looks bright for plus-size women’s fashion and we should expect more innovations and developments as the industry gains momentum over the next few years.