Weighing in on the plus size/size zero debate

marylou

Fashion brands TopShop and Evans are polar opposites when it comes to the images they present, but who is right when it comes to winning the weight debate?

Weight is a touchy subject not just for most women, but for fashion brands. The debate over the appropriateness of using size zero models was reignited by retailer TopShop last week after it used (a blatantly obvious) stick thin model in a recent campaign.

Its follow up actions – to claim that it was the lighting and angle that made the model look extra thin, and replacing the image with just another one of the same model – was a clear way for the brand to set out its stall that this image is how the brand wants to be represented. This is the image it wants its customers to aspire to. This is represented in the cut and fit of its clothing, and in comments from larger/older shoppers who say they find it difficult to shop there.

The incident has seen a backlash from consumers and health bodies who claim such imagery is irresponsible, and the TopShop brand has now been well cemented as being pro-skinny.

TopShop’s polar opposite, plus size retailer Evans, is on the other hand cleverly tapping into the nation’s growing weight issue and turning it into a lucrative business offering. Its new size 18 and up range for teens is in response to the fact that 1 in 4 British women are this size and over.

No doubt Evans will receive mixed reactions to its strategy. While it is merely responding to the market, and has indeed carved a niche as a provider of fashionable clothing to plus size women, it could be construed as adding to the nation’s obesity problem, and encouraging people with a weight problem to essentially stay this way.

Yet Evans has yet to be slammed in the same way TopShop was last week. Perhaps it is thanks to its tactical way of appealing to “real women”, as demonstrated by its intuitive use of market research.

Evans’ recent survey of 5,000 women has led to the introduction of a new range categorised not by size but by body shape, what some in the fashion industry might call revolutionary. The categories – busty, pear, apple and hourglass – resonate with many women, not just “plus size” ones, meaning there is potential for the brand to widen its appeal beyond its traditional audience.

The launch of Evans’ new range in September will be followed by a nationwide model search for a face to represent the brand, yet another way it plans to endear itself to the nation’s real women.

The trend for using ’real’ people in campaigns is not new, as brands such as LK Bennett and Dove have already discovered this strategy, alongside more functional FMCG brands involving real consumers in its campaigns too.

But the ’real’ strategy is popular for a reason, as shown by magazine sales, and more brands using real. Retail news and analysis website HighLow.com published statistics in March of the performance of magazines that have switched to a ’real’ strategy: Sales of Brigitte in Germany went up 4% after discontinuing the use of professional models, while Essentials here in Britain went up 12.7% in circulation after deciding to use only non-model covers; and its first non-model cover saw a 25% sales increase.

The same article also points to a Cambridge study of 3,000 women, which found the majority acknowledged they would be more likely to buy a product if they saw themselves – age, race, size, etc – reflected in its imagery.

Clearly there is sense behind a strategy to cater for the average woman and all her imperfections. But just as TopShop came under fire for being seen to promote underweight as healthy, Evans must be careful not to select a poster child for fat Britain.

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