Not a size 8? Retailers realise potential of full-figured market

Kate Mayeye-Okaranime, creative director, African Fabric and Designs Kenya Limited at her establishment off Marcus Garvey Road on March 3, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

What you need to know:

  • For the longest time, the plus-size clothing market, which is size 14 and above, was underserved.
  • But now retailers are making good money from full-figured consumers, and some are losing interest in the size zero clothing business.

Kenyan retailers are mulling ditching the petite clothes market as plus-size buyers spend more.

For the longest time, the plus-size clothing market, which is size 14 and above, was underserved.

But now retailers are making good money from full-figured consumers, and some are losing interest in the size zero clothing business.

Grace Moreka, the owner of Amore stores in Nairobi, has been in the clothes business for years now. Her biggest business is the plus-size segment.

“85 percent of my clothes are plus size. But because we order in sets from size 6 to 14 and onwards, we have been struggling with dead stock (unsold items) for sizes 6 and 8. Petite women have so many options including second-hand clothes, but the plus-sized woman has limited selections,” she says.

With the growing demand for more plus-size apparel, Ms Moreka says that she is considering shifting fully into the full-figured market as small-sized clothes do not sell as much and as fast as the bigger ones.

“Since the end of 2019 business has been tight and now suppliers have to shift to what consumers demand. If sizes 4 and 6 don’t sell I won’t be in a position to order more of them,” she says. The next biggest revenue earner is the fabrics that are suitable for making plus-size clothes. These cater to the fast-growing made-to-order market but for full-figured consumers.

To understand what would appeal to her customers, retailers have had to understand that quality viscose, polyester, chiffon, velvet, and satin or a mix of the materials that work for plus-size women.

“When suppliers release new collections, they also send us fabric guides, so we’re able to tell which fabrics flatter a plus-size body,” Ms Moreka says, adding that if Kenya can revive local textile-making factories, they can produce good fabrics and the clothes are stitched locally.

“I’ve realised that there’s nothing so unique about imported dresses, it’s just the fabric composition. If you look at big brands like Gucci, Calvin Klein, and Louis Vuitton, they play with the fabrics. A lot of money in the fashion industry goes to research and designers, and that’s what we need in Kenya. If we have a factory in Kenya that can sort out the fabrics, our prices will be lower,” says Ms Moreka. So what are the plus-size women buying?

“Decent apparel. That is what’s on demand. Most of the clothes designed for small bodies are flirtatious. A plus-size woman is already endowed, she doesn’t need to show her cleavage or thighs as they are visible through her clothes.

She does not need clingy clothes. But decent does not mean boring,” said the retailer. Catherine Mayeye Okaranime, the founder of African Fabric and Designs also caters mostly to plus-size customers.

“Only 10 percent of my clients are petite, 30 percent between size 10 and size 14, and 60 percent is size 16 and above,” she says.

However, she is of a different view. She says the plus-size market is not new because Africa has always had big women.

Bra and bra accessories for the plus-size at My Curves store in Nairobi’s Sarit Centre on March 2, 2022. PHOTOS | DIANA NGILA | NMG

“I take offense to people saying that the plus-size market is growing. I’m sure 90 percent of women in Africa are size 14 and above. The plus-size market has always been there, it’s just that the women have not been seen or well dressed. They’ve been told that if you’re a certain size you should cover up a lot. The Western culture made many plus-size women believe that if you’re a size 16 and above you’re obese and should start exercising as you don’t fit society’s standards of modelling,” she says.

Her inspiration to design and make clothes for plus size was not intentional, even though most of her clients are of size 14 and above.

“I have been asked many times why I don’t style petite women, but I do. It’s just that the plus-size are the majority. I really love dressing African curves. I make dresses that a woman doesn’t have to wear corsets or bras underneath. When I design this way, it eliminates the fact that a lot of women don’t know how to wear the right bra size, so the clothes fit perfectly,” she talks of her clothes which range from Sh12,000 to Sh100,000 depending on whether she has used lace, hand-woven kente or Ankara.

What appeals to the plus-size consumer is her flattering designs.

According to Ms Mayeye, most of her clients desire to have a snatched waistline. “What sets me apart from other designers is what I put in my clothes. I stitch the corsets to the dress so one doesn’t have to wear other accessories underneath which make them uncomfortable,” she says.

Ms Mayeye believes that Kenyan apparel sellers have not yet fully embraced women of all sizes.

“I don’t participate in the Kenyan fashion shows because Kenya has not yet embraced plus-sized models, and they are not yet seen as much on the runways. A size 12 is not plus size. You rarely see size 14 on a runway. I am yet to see that sea change,” she says.

Body confidence

Connie Aluoch, a fashion stylist, says the growing plus-size market is making a positive shift as many stylists have long struggled to find the right apparel for their clients.

The global plus-size women’s market was worth an estimated Sh17 trillion ($152.8 billion) in 2020 and is expected to garner a market value of over Sh30 trillion ($264.4 billion) in 2027, thanks to increasing body confidence which has grown the demand for plus-size apparel to suit the latest fashion trends.

“It’s great that retailers are embracing different shapes. We are even seeing more of them on runways, both locally and globally,” she says.

Does the fast-growing plus-size market mean that the petite consumers will soon be relegated to cheaper, low-quality corners in fashion stores, with no variety in designs and colour?

Ms Aluoch says she gets an equal count of petite and plus-size clients and this dalliance is not necessarily disadvantageous to smaller women.

Even mannequins

For the longest time companies that dominated malls and fashion adverts helped decide which bodies get to be perceived as sexy. This dictated even the models used and mannequins displayed outside stores. Most times, the mannequins and models were size zero figure, typically a bust size of 31 inches, waist of 23 and hip size of 32 inches.

Bra and bra accessories at My Curves store, Sarit Centre on March 2, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

Ms Moreka of Amore has had to change her models.

“We use plus-size models which resonates with the average Kenyan woman who is a size 16 UK,” says the retailer who sources her reasonably-priced dresses from France, London, and local export processing zones (EPZs). Authenticity is key because apparel retailers have traditionally given the cold shoulder to plus-sized women. So now they want to see their own trying out the dresses.

“We use real women as our models, we don’t download pictures. This encourages women to be comfortable in what they are wearing,” says Ms Moreka who started her business to cater for her needs, her family's and friends.

“Most of my family members are plus size. Looking for good-quality outfits was hectic and expensive. One dress from Turkey would be upwards of Sh10,000. I started shopping for myself, family and friends when I travelled abroad,” she says.

Then she saw potential is in this demographic. “Then I decided to open a store to sell plus-size outfits at affordable rates, though pricing is still an issue as shipping rates have gone up. Over the last eight years, shipping charges have doubled 100 percent, in addition to paying taxes.

Plus-size lingerie

Wendy Waweru, the founder of My Curve, a lingerie shop located in Nairobi says about 80 percent of her customers are plus-size.

But adds that “some of our customers are size 10 or 12 but very busty. To me plus size is about the bust and hips.”

When she started selling plus-size, to serve her needs and her friends who could not get proper bras and underwear, she did not realise how many people had this struggle, until she saw the growth of her business.

“Now we’re under a lot of pressure to expand, especially from customers in Mombasa, Nairobi’s Karen and Junction areas,” she says, adding that despite the high demand she is cautious because rent prices in high-traffic malls are very high.

“But I do plan on expanding,” she says.

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