“Damn – where are all the fat girls supposed to shop now?” Aisha Fairclough wondered when she saw the news that long-standing Canadian women’s clothing retailer Reitmans, which owns brands like Addition Elle and Penningtons, had been granted creditor protection. “If someone needs an outfit immediately, it’s unfair that some people will have to shop exclusively online. It leaves the plus-size consumer without spontaneity and dignity,” says the co-founder of Body Confidence Canada, an advocacy group for size diversity.
If Reitmans closes, social worker Michelle Korak will have to make regular trips to Prince George, B.C. – from her home in Terrace, seven hours away – and dole out for gas and accommodations in order to shop, she says. It’s an unfathomable situation for women who can easily browse online or pop into any fashion boutique, but Korak says she doesn’t have the luxury of either. Online shopping is tricky for those who can’t rely on fit-model images, and shipping unwearable merchandise back is often pricey, and shopping at straight-size stores can also be painful. “On two separate occasions, I’ve gotten stuck in dresses, hoping to God they would fit, only to have to call a friend to come to my change room – from a few blocks away – to pull the dress off me so I could leave the store.”
Serving the plus-size community has been a cornerstone for the 94-year-old company, which carries sizes 0 to 22 and XXS to 3X in regular, petite and tall. (Addition Elle and Penningtons both carry sizes 10 to 32 and 1X to 6X.) “We believe that style should never be limited by size,” says Jackie Tardif, Reitmans president, explaining that the group’s brands offer the greatest size diversity in Canada. “Filing for protection under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act was the hardest decision we had to make as an organization in almost 100 years of history. Unfortunately, due to the impact and pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic, we had no other choice.”
Creditor protection is intended to give the company some time to restructure and, hopefully, avoid closing its 576 stores (including the RW&Co and Thyme Maternity brands) permanently. But Reitmans was forced to shutter 18 stores earlier this year before the pandemic even hit, according to a CBC report, and 200 were shut down over the past five years. Critics argue that the brands have struggled to keep up with consumer tastes. Orator, writer and humorist Candy Palmater, who is a size 28 and identifies as “large and in charge, baby,” is well-known for her flamboyant sense of style built on bold colour and plunging necklines. But she has to source most of her clothing stateside, she says, because the Canadian landscape remains bleak. “Almost all tops large enough to fit me used to have kittens or puppies on the front,” she says. “If a straight-size shirt comes in leopard print, the plus-size shirt has an actual picture of a leopard on the front. Give me a break! I am fat, but I would still like to get laid.” Or as Fairclough succinctly puts it: “Not all fat girls want to wear the same outfits.” Plus-size shoppers forced into certain silhouettes, season after season, feel like they have no sense of agency. “Every time I shop, I see the styles I wish I could wear – and the styles that are chosen for me,” says engineering student Sydney Smith. “If I have to wear another cold-shoulder, loose-fitting blouse, I’m going to scream. I probably cry nine out of 10 times I go shopping. I end up buying lots of jewellery that I’m not going to wear just so I can buy something.”
“Every time I shop, I see the styles I wish I could wear – and the styles that are chosen for me. If I have to wear another cold-shoulder, loose-fitting blouse, I'm going to scream.”
It doesn’t have to be this way – real-estate marketer Ash Lockyer points out that new-to-Canada brand Torrid, which is geared towards a younger audience, “basically built a brand by offering pop-culture clothing to plus-size people. Our country has seen a lot of growth in our media and culture, and our fashion brands need to catch up.”
But as more and more plus-friendly brick-and-mortar stores close their doors in Canada – including Forever 21, which folded last year – plus-size women are fearful that they will be shut out of the market. “Addition Elle and Penningtons were instrumental in shaping my identity as a fat person, and they continue to be one of the first places I go, so I honestly full-on panicked when I heard the news,” says photographer and Ph.D. student Calla Evans. “Ordering online, usually from U.S.-based companies, is a gamble that I cannot afford, literally, most of the time.”
After all, shopping online can be daunting – and very, very expensive – for plus-size women. Many retailers charge a premium for larger garments and shipping, which shoppers have dubbed a “fat tax.” American retailers may often have more varied options, but they also have potentially significant exchange rates, duties and delays. “So losing Reitmans would be a huge personal and communal loss,” says Evans.
Reitmans’ brands, though not perfect, have offered an oasis to many Canadians, creating a small haven for women often derided by society. “Visiting these stores was always in my comfort zone because I knew there would be clothing that fit and I would be treated well – no stares that said ‘you don’t belong here,’” says trade union national representative Maureen Dawson. (Stores are also thoughtfully designed to have larger change rooms and fans so shoppers can feel comfortable.)
As a teen, Lockyer, like Smith, spent shopping trips with friends pretending she just wanted to look at the accessories. After all, it was the late ’90s and plus-size options were scarce, especially for those who didn’t have much cash. One day, she came home after a day at the mall with her thin friends and her grandmother asked why she was empty-handed. “I just broke down in tears of shame,” says Lockyer. “Fashion screamed at me daily: Flannel is for you and silk is for them. My grandmother grabbed her purse and took me to Addition Elle and insisted that we were buying me lingerie. She wanted me to know that I deserved beautiful things, that I have a body worthy of satin and ribbons.”
“Ordering online, usually from U.S.-based companies, is a gamble that I cannot afford, literally, most of the time.”
Senior law clerk Shannon Dickson still struggles with finding larger garments that make women feel special, feel sexy. She wants to invest in quality clothing, but designers rarely know how to cut clothes for plus-size people. “You can’t just extend out a garment from a size small to an XXL based on the ratios of the size small,” she says. “The body has different dimensions.”
Some homegrown independent brands like Hayley Elsaesser and Tanya Taylor, and more recently Hilary MacMillan, have included larger sizes for years. And now straight-size retailers are attempting to snatch some of that plus-size market share with more inclusive sizing options – albeit with varying results. (“Extending your line to size 20 isn’t good enough,” says Fairclough.) Hudson’s Bay offers an assortment of size-inclusive brands across a number of categories like apparel, activewear and swim, according to fashion director Tyler Franche, including Levi’s, Missguided, Nike, Good American, Theory and Frame. Like many companies, their plus-size brands and sizes are often more abundant online, so the company is trying to heighten the in-store experience, although many items end up being shipped anyway. Associates can source sizes from other locations, but they are then still mailed directly to customers’ homes. The Hudson’s Bay app has a feature that allows the customer to scan an item in-store to search for a size – and then it’s shipped to their house. The retailer is also working, however, to integrate their plus-size clothing into all racks as much as possible, says Franche, so that the full size offering from a brand lives together rather than shuttling plus-size shoppers off to a different floor.
Aritzia, which previously only carried sizes 00 to 12, started offering extended sizes for spring and summer but only up to a size 16 and only in select styles. H&M is making the switch from numeric sizing to alpha sizing (e.g., L, XL) and expanding its range to 2XL; this has been rolling out for ladies’ tops, blouses, dresses and blazers already and will continue.
Old Navy is the rare mega-retailer that remains a perennial favourite for plus-size shoppers. “We believe everyone deserves great style in their size that is easily accessible,” says Alison Partridge, vice-president of women’s merchandising and plus at Old Navy. The brand makes good on that claim: Its women’s line comes in 74 sizes and eight lengths, spanning sizes 0 to 30, XS to XXL and 1X to 4X in regular, petite, tall, short and long. There’s also a girls’ plus line. The Plus specialty collection is offered in sizes 16 to 30 and 1X to 4X and is designed by a dedicated team that uses “curve-proud” fit models.
“You can't just extend out a garment from a size small to an XXL based on the ratios of the size small. The body has different dimensions.”
The issue of accessible, thoughtful plus-size clothing extends well beyond retail opportunity and market share, however. “Not having clothing options for those at the largest end of the fat spectrum completely negatively impacts their ability to participate fully and richly in society,” says Evans. “Everyone, no matter their size, deserves to have clothing that allows them to access all spaces and situations. We need to directly address the fatphobia and fat discrimination that is rampant in the fashion industry. It’s a human rights issue.”
As Reitmans regroups to survive, questions have been raised about how their plus-size offerings might change. (“It is too early to talk about our strategy since our restructuring has just begun,” says Addition Elle and Penningtons president Michael Strachan.) But, according to Tardif, they are working to come back stronger. “As difficult as this situation may be, it reminds us that we would not exist without our amazing customers. We do what we do because of them.”
A vast community will be watching, waiting to see if – for once – their voices are truly being heard.
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