Why we’re still struggling to buy clothes online… at least women are

Last week, Tim Gunn (you know him from Project Runway) wrote an interesting op-ed about how fashion designers were ignoring a large section of American women. “There are 100 million plus-size women in America, and, for the past three years, they have increased their spending on clothes faster than their straight-size counterparts. There is money to be made here ($20.4 billion, up 17 percent from 2013). But many designers — dripping with disdain, lacking imagination or simply too cowardly to take a risk — still refuse to make clothes for them.” Mr Gunn also added that “most designers max out at size 12” yet “the average American woman now wears between a size 16 and a size 18.”

So why is this in a tech blog? About a year ago I wrote about challenges in online clothes buying unique to women and how little fashion retailers and brands were doing to personalize the experience. One year later, beyond the personalized shoppers, most sites still go for the standard display: a grid of clothes, mostly modeled on a tiny (Size 4? Size 2?) model or laid out on the floor. The better sites offer a wide range of filtering options but only a few offer any kind of ability to see different sizes modeled.

Elizabeth Suzann's wonderful size lineup.

Elizabeth Suzann’s wonderful size lineup.

Yesterday, a Racked post talked about a small brand in Nashville, Tennessee, making the effort to show their clothes on different body types: “Elizabeth Suzann will now show every item of clothing in their Signature Collection on models who represent every size in which the item is available.” See, for example, this beautiful LBD shown first on the customary waifish model and then on six different sized models, along with their height and weight. Having this information makes the buying decision much easier, reduces post-delivery dissatisfaction, and might help prevent a return.

Detailed review on Rent the Runway.  Includes size worn, overall fit, occasion rented for, size usually worn, height, age, bust, body type, and weight.

Detailed review on Rent the Runway.
Includes size worn, overall fit, occasion rented for, size usually worn, height, age, bust, body type, and weight.

Before Elizabeth Suzann I had only seen Rent the Runway’s solution: for each outfit, different women shared of how it looked them, how it fit, and some personal stats. Most share height, usual size, chosen size, and fit; some shared age, weight, bust size, body type, and occasion. Most importantly, all share a photo of them wearing the dress. For someone who needs to choose a dress to wear to a special occasion, such information is invaluable. A random dress I picked out in the “popular” section had 167 reviews with 126 (!) photos. That is an incredible number of reviews and offers users a chance to see what a dress looks like on different body types. Rent the Runway also offers a way to filter reviews and photos to show only “Women Like Me” (by size, height, bust size and age.) Viewing this information can make the rental decision easier and more satisfied customers.

So what will it take to see a shift, if not in the range of sizes offered women, at least in the way clothing is represented online? If Elizabeth Suzann manages to significantly increase revenue, it might prompt other brands to show different sized models. If not, as Elizabeth Suzann is a relatively small brand, (making this effort exceptionally impressive) it might take a larger brand to influence others. The other alternative for online retailers is what Rent the Runway does with its detailed reviews, which, for huge collections, might be a bit more feasible. Either way, it’s high time for a change.

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