I looked across the gym one morning and between the grunts of barbel-lifting men I noticed something, I was the only one wearing black. Black leggings, black vest top, black sports bra and even black socks to go with my - you guessed it - black trainers. To the left of me, a lady in her thirties was wearing fluoro so bright Kim Kardashian would be envious and to the right a woman not much older than I was stretching out in a hypnotic pair of printed leggings. Even the grunting men had moved on from monotone singlets and sweatpants.
The fitness industry has a myopic view of beauty. It doesn’t allow for curves and rolls just muscle and leanness. With elastane stretched thin across thighs or contorted into a sports bra, the sartorial language of sportswear champions the confident. For those who are just starting out on their fitness journey or are simply not at ease with their body, there is no place to hide in this world of luridly bright Lyrca.
Much progress has been made in the name of diversity within fashion and beauty - it’s not just that more women of colour are cover stars but runways and advertising campaigns are no longer off-limits to plus size models. Yet, the fitness industry was failing to keep pace.
Sportswear brands occupy a rarified space as not just specialist retailers with international reach, but thanks to the growth of the athleisure market, they can now compete alongside luxury brands. Nike and adidas were named above Louis Vuitton, Cartier and Gucci on the list of ‘most valuable’ apparel brands by a recent Brand Finance study. Yet, for many years they plaid a willing ignorance of the curvy pound only catering for the already slim. Nike, Puma and adidas were some of the first mainstream gymwear labels to tap into the plus-size market (which in 2017 was valued at £6.6bn) by casting models like Paloma Elssesser and Naomi Shimada and extending their sizing.
According to LIKEtoKNOW.it, an app that makes social media shoppable, there has been a 234% increase in consumers searching for plus-size influencers (Feb - July 2018). Particular spikes were noticed in conjunction with British social media stars Callie Thorpe and Grace Victory. Instagram has helped democratise fashion, but now it’s up to sportswear to democratise it’s sizing.
As Mintel’s senior fashion analyst, Tamara Sender points out, there’s no point catering paying lip service to a community by purely featuring their champions in advertisements and having a handful of products in store points out. ‘Increased availability of plus and petite sizes is in high demand among women, and while many of the clothing specialists already offer specific ranges, these can be quite limited and are often merchandised in separate areas in-store,' told us. Instead, retailers could consider expanding the variety of styles offered and displaying the ranges throughout the shop floor, intertwined with the main trend stories using identifiable rails or labels, so that plus and petite-size buyers do not feel restricted to one area in-store.’
See: Plus-Size Activewear Brands
ASOS 4505, Sport Leggings, £21.99
Some brands are making strides. Just this week the model Jordan Woods launched a new 24-piece size-inclusive activewear line. Called SECNDNTRE (that’s pronounced ‘second nature’ in case you’re wondering), it goes from XS to XXL.
Likewise, Khloe Kardashian’s brand Good American has debuted a sportswear line, which is designed to fit XS to 4XL.
‘We fit every garments on two fit models, a size 4 and a size 16 in order to ensure that the item looks flattering on multiple body types’, Good American’s co-founder Emma Grede explains, ‘Then, before the fitted garment goes into production, we try the item on a focus group of real women representing all eight of the sizes (0-7 or XS – 4X) and ask them for their honest feedback.’
One thing Grede has noticed is that to accomplish the right fit for the curvier end of the market, certain elements need to be changed. For instance, customer feedback has found that on the top end of their sizing their shoppers prefer to reveal less skin so their leggings sit one inch higher than most on the market and their sports bras and crop tops fall half an inch lower. Additionally, she adds, ‘we’ve designed our bras with varying levels of coverage including triple fabric layering techniques allowing for maximum support if you’re a bit more busty’.
Similarly, ASOS’ 4505 range, which launched last year with a full range of sizes available from day dot, didn’t just extend its range but considered how the curvier consumer wants to feel and look in their designs. Luke Moorhead, ASOS 4505 designer, explains, ‘we consider many details across our ASOS 4505 inclusive ranges to enable the best possible fit by making elastic waists wider and drawcords added to leggings so that customers have full autonomy with their garments. We also considered sleeve lengths and legging lengths as well as necklines.’
It’s not as simple as just buying more spandex and adding more sizes, the plus-size customer shouldn’t be an afterthought. For so long as the sportswear market existed there was always a Catch 22 - to get fit you had to be able to already fit into the standard size range. But, now it finally feels like the tide is turning.