Is Plus Size Fashion too Big to Fail or fails because it’s too Big? Indie Designer Renee Cafaro aims to take on the Big Brands
Plus size fashion is trending right now everywhere we look — from curvy models on runways to body positive influencers and self love articles. Makes sense that 70% of women in the US are over a size 14 and they would be driving a multi-billion dollar market. But where is the diversity in choice for brands and designs? The market is dominated by young, trendy fast fashion or matronly department store brands, but in the last 5 years more famous retailers are trying to expand into this plus size market.
Stores that were once off limits above a size 12, like Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret have released extended sizing and declared plus sizes a priority, but more often than not those plus size collections are swiftly brushed under the rug claiming poor sales. One independent designer, Renee Cafaro, thinks it’s no more than a publicity stunt without the proper planning. “The reason some plus collections don’t sell is because either they don’t put the full weight of their marketing team behind it for us to know they now carry plus, or if we do know, we are often disappointed when the 4x fits like a 1x or fall apart after one wear. The big issue is that fast fashion lazily grades up from their main size chart, not accommodating for the measurement gap between Missy and Plus sizes or fitting on real people so you end up with wonky long sleeves or bizarre fit issues. I think a lot of the time it’s a quick attempt to grab the 68% of women who are plus size consumers but when they don’t offer anything we actually can and want to wear, it goes by the wayside.”
NYC-Based plus sized designer Renee Cafaro is dedicated to changing the game by focusing her time and money on perfecting fit and innovating solutions for bigger bodies, including her best-selling patented built-in bra dress, aptly named The Game Changer. “Originally it was called the convertible dress since you can wear it 6 different ways and is the perfect travel dress. Only after many media outlets and influencers called it a Game Changer did I decide to change it,” Cafaro explains. She knows what the consumers want and what is wrong with the industry after years as a plus size fashion expert and US Editor of Slink Magazine, an international print publication for curvy women. “For years I would interview big brands or designers about why they hadn’t done plus size sooner or why they don’t carry over an 18, and a lot of the time they’d say ‘oh size 24+ is too big to fit for properly or the clothes are too big so the fabric would cost too much money.’ As a small startup who is doing up to size 32, I now realize those are just excuses. The yardage isn’t that different from a 16 to a 26 and these companies can afford it even if it was. The mainstream fashion industry just doesn’t see plus size as a priority. I think we are a trend right now that has already started to fade away after the pandemic,” she continues. “Companies may still hold that archaic belief that bigger women don’t care about fashion and if they expand too big no one will buy it. It’s not that we don’t want to buy clothing, it’s that we are rarely given anything we want to buy! The biggest hole in the market that I saw was plus size luxury…chic designs made of quality fabrics for the elder millennials like me who want to look like a girlboss, make an entrance and still feel sexy in our clothes without it being clubwear,” Renee concludes.
During quarantine when many of her friends in fashion were out of a job, Renee hired many freelancers to create masks and hospital gowns that she then donated to NYC hospitals in need. As the pandemic wore on, she enlisted a few of those freelance patternmakers to help her create this vision of a plus size collection that fit well, looked luxe and filled that gap in her wardrobe as a professional, fashionable woman in her late 30s. After thinking about the flat-packing, moisture-wicking built-in bra technology since 2009, she finally created the first samples in 2020 and filed a patent application shortly thereafter.
Still in the early stages of the pandemic, RCA Public Label was born. RCA stands for Renee Cafaro Atelier, the haute couture parent company that has already graced runways in New York, Paris & London and red carpets from the OSCARS to the BAFTAs. “I try to explain it as like Armani and Armani Jeans,” Cafaro explains. “One is the haute couture atelier with one of a kind creations that can cost thousands, made with the best materials and Public Label is my ready-to-wear brand that is at a more attainable price point. It’s still expensive and our [plus size] community isn’t used to spending $250 on anything that isn’t a ball gown, since we are mostly only able to shop fast fashion. A size 6 woman in NYC wouldn’t think much of spending that much on designer jeans since ‘aspirational fashion’ has always been part of the zeitgeist. I want folks to know that, I’m trying to price as low as I can actually. 90% of my sticker price comes from how much it costs to pay fair wage and manufacture ethically and locally in NYC.”
RCAPublicLabel.com offers installment payment plans which you might need if you want to order a customized moto jacket that starts at $550. Most brands who consider themselves ethical or sustainable are pricey but add NYC living wage and luxury fabrics in the mix and you might find yourself unable to access anything but fast fashion. So where does that leave the industry? Most in this economy can’t afford more than what is offered at Walmart or Shein, so are these smaller indie brands doomed to fail? Cafaro weighs in, “Possibly. I hope not. There are many other small brands out there in my price point trying to break out into the plus size market and I think we are all hopeful that in the millions of people who are plus size, we will find our consumer base and succeed. I am working hard to prove that it is possible to make a profit while also doing the right thing and not exploiting workers or having a massive carbon footprint. I came from the labor movement, I care deeply about workers’ rights, paying living wages and bolstering the small businesses in [NYC’s] Garment District by making everything here, and that’s the hill I’m willing to die on I suppose.”