The Power of Licensing #10: What Do Plus-Size Apparel, Cannabis And eSports All Have In Common? Part One Of A Three-Part Series

July 29, 2019 | By: Michael Stone, Chairman & Co-founder of Beanstalk

If you live long enough, you see a lot of products and, indeed, entire product categories come and go. In the present time, much of this change has been driven by technology. CD players are gone; Spotify is here. Filofax disappeared, and we now have calendars and notes on our phones. Who needs paper maps when there is Google maps?

However, I’m particularly interested in product categories that have actually been around for a long time and don’t disappear, but rather, evolve and re-invent themselves – often giving rise to new brands – because of changing cultural, political, technological or societal trends that almost always intersect with positive economics. Keeping abreast of these trends and their consequences for the marketplace can be challenging. And, of course, there’s a distinction between a trend and a fad. Generally, there’s no way to predict; we must wait for the marketplace to speak. However, whether a long-term trend or a short-term fad, they both have value to brand owners as they seek to communicate and connect with consumers through products and services. Some trends are simply allowed to fade away. But trends that can be monetized, often with creativity and innovation, are likely to effect change in how and why we buy products and how the marketing message for those products is delivered.

For example, in the 1960s, the general population became acutely aware of environmental and product safety dangers, and the Green movement really took hold. The response (in the 1970s) was the evolution of existing product categories and, sometimes, even the birth of new brands, such as Tom’s of Maine in the footwear category and granola which, although always a niche product, evolved and became mainstream.

Generations, as we all know, have distinct characteristics and, as they age, drive trends by how and where they shop and what they want to buy or experience. As the Baby Boom generation ages, much attention is being paid these days to products that allow them (and Seniors) to remain in their homes longer (such as grab bars, ramps and special furniture). The category is taking on new importance. Then there’s Gen Z, born after 1995, who will, in 2022, represent 20% of consumers. They are digital natives and have their own distinct characteristics that will drive how brands communicate with them and offer them products and services. Their desire for product and messaging authenticity and brand purpose will challenge conventional marketing wisdom. Brands that don’t pay attention to the trends associated with Gen Z’s expectations will be left behind.

This is what plus-size apparel, cannabis and eSports have in common: they each represent product categories that have been around a long time but that have recently re-invented themselves due to cultural, political, technological or societal trends. With each of these, the “re-invention” continues at a fairly rapid pace. It’s challenging to keep up with the evolving terminology, the players and the news. I’ll look at each of these product categories in this three-part series. Part One examines plus-size fashion; Part Two will be cannabis; and Part Three, eSports.

Part One: Plus-Size Fashion

Over the past several years, the plus-size fashion category has gone through a period of disruption and blossomed with many more choices available at both brick-and-mortar and online retail. No longer relegated to a handful of key players such as Lane Bryant and Catherine’s, designers and private-label brands at retailers like Target, J. Crew, Nordstrom, Kohl’s, Anthropologie, Madewell, ModCloth and JCPenney are adding sizes – or complete collections – for the full-figured woman, often not even calling them out as “plus-size”, and bringing them “front of store.” And there are new retailers that cater exclusively to the plus-sized woman, like digitally native vertical brand Eloquii. The brand was shut down by The Limited in 2011 after less than two years of operation as part of a restructuring, re-launched online by former staff (and an investor) in 2014 and finally sold to Walmart in 2018 for $100 million. Gwynnie Bee is a rental/subscription service specializing in larger sizes for women and another subscription service, Rent the Runway, is also featuring plus-size collections. These companies and others are turning this once below-the-radar category into something more relevant and “real.” In addition, traditional celebrities such as Melissa McCarthy and digital celebrities like Gabi Gregg have licensed their names for plus-size fashion. New York Fashion Week has been featuring an increasing number of plus-size models on the runway for the past couple of years. And these are just a handful of examples of what’s changing in this category. The category is experiencing significant disruption as many new players enter the category and existing fashion brands extend their size ranges.

So, what’s happening? Two factors are contributing to the re-igniting of the plus-size category: economics and cultural trends. First, the economics: the sheer numbers and the sales opportunity. Over half of women ages 18 to 65 wear a size 14 or higher according to Walmart, and plus-sized shoppers represent $21 billion worth of buying power. According to research by Hanesbrands, 35% of women are plus-size by age 25 (here comes Gen Z!) and 44% by age 33. Buying power in this category is growing at a significantly faster rate than that of the rest of the apparel industry. Yet, plus-size represents less than 20% of women’s overall clothing sales, mainly due to availability. Until very recently, instead of offering comprehensive or consistent assortments, brick-and-mortar retailers offered frumpy clothing (if any) in separate sections at the back of the store, driving marginalized customers away and online. Often cited as an obstacle is the cost of redesigning clothing and the extra fabric in the manufacturing process. Many designer brands, in particular, are still reluctant to offer a range of body types, clinging to a narrow view of what body type is beautiful. Nevertheless, it has been clear for some time that a significant market exists that was not getting attention other than by specialty retailers like Lane Bryant and Catherine’s. It has been a terribly and traditionally underserved market. So, number one, there has been a lot of white space, a lot of consumer demand and a lot of sales opportunity to grab. The men’s category, known as “big and tall,” also has a lot of white space and, while there has been some progress, the category isn’t evolving as rapidly as it is for women. However, it won’t be far behind.

But, second, and more importantly, the American concept of beauty has been changing, there’s a cultural trend afoot that is also driven by political trends. Of course, there is nothing new about a changing concept of beauty. Notions of beauty have gone through many changes throughout history which have had consequences for fashion. For example, in Ancient Greece a beautiful woman was considered to be full bodied; full hips and a rounded stomach were in during the Italian Renaissance; the full-figured woman with a cinched waist was how beauty was defined in Victorian England; curves and an hour-glass figure were the defining attributes during the Golden Years of Hollywood; and, of course, willowy and thin were in during the Swinging Sixties. But something more is happening today. Our concepts of beauty today are a part of other, more macro cultural and societal trends, such as the #metoo movement and the democratic nature of social media, both of which empower people to speak out and celebrate more diversity of all kinds, including diversity of body types.

Beauty is increasingly being defined today, thankfully, by individualism and confidence, and a celebration of body positivity and the diversity of body types, not by size or weight. Women are demanding more choices. Full-figured women don’t necessarily want just plus-size collections; they don’t want to be separated from other fashion collections. Advertising is featuring more ranges in body size. Retailers are using influencers as demonstrated by Lane Bryant’s association with plus-size blogger Rochelle Johnson. In particular, younger demographics, such as Gen Z, need to feel a connection to a brand – which is challenging when apparel is being designed for a minority of consumers, and the models don’t represent consumer body types. In short, younger consumers don’t relate to frumpy clothing offered at the back of the store.

Consider other “cultural” events that have had an impact on the definition of beauty. Whether you like them or not, the Kardashians represented a more curvy figure; a plus-size model, Robyn Lawley, was featured on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 2015; the following year Mattel launched Barbie dolls with different body types; and in 2017 TV program Project Runway featured plus-size models. Even the moniker “plus-size” is fading, giving way to “inclusive sizing” or simply an offering of a full range of sizes. Inclusive sizing has become a movement.

The intersection of an un-met market need, that is economics driving retailers, designers and manufacturers and cultural and societal trends giving voice to the full-figured woman, has resulted in a re-invention of the once-tired plus-size apparel category.

Look for Part Two in this three-part series – Cannabis.