Hello, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Blossom and I have been very kindly offered the opportunity to contribute to the Axis of Fat. I have been a fan and reader since the Axis’ inception, inspired by the wonderful writers and their sound good sense. I hope I can also contribute in some small way towards a more tolerant and understanding culture.
A bit about me: I am a fat middle-aged cisgendered white woman living in Canberra. I have a wonderful husband and several feathered and furry children. During the week I’m a mild-mannered fat public servant, and on weekends I am part owner of a newish ladies’ clothing and accessories boutique specialising in retro and vintage-style looks.
I’d love to share with you my experiences as a newbie to the fashion industry. This forum is social, not commercial, so apologies but I will not be revealing the name of my shop or be linking to it. This is a blog not an advert. For the same reason I’m happy to chat about the industry and my experiences in general, but I’ll be trying not to mention too many business names, although I might drop occasional brand names if the situation is appropriate.
I’m a latecomer to the fashion industry. It was never in my plans to own a frock shop: This was something that just sort of happened. I know plenty about historic clothing and the culture and sociology of clothes and fashion. I have always loved certain kinds of clothing and adore dressing up. I even – gods help me – used to read and enjoy fashion magazines. But I’ve never been a fashion plate – I’m an eccentric dresser, not a trendy dresser – and I didn’t know much about buying and selling garments.
Then our shop came along. (My business partner, fortunately, knows a lot more about fashion than I ever did.) When we opened the shop we made a deliberate, calculated decision to stock the largest range of sizes we could. We now sell as many sizes as we can get, currently from Australian size 6 to 36.
Why did we do this? It was because of our own sad experiences as consumers. I’m certain you know what I mean.
Those dreadful shopping trips with friends where you are the only in the shop who cannot wear a single stocked garment, so you stand around looking at earrings and helping friends in change rooms and trying to disappear. Those fruitless searches in shops that say they stock your size but can’t ever be bothered ordering anything that big or small, because after all nobody like you can possibly exist, right? Those trips into department stores where the two racks of frumpy, poorly-made clothing that you have even the slightest chance of fitting into are hidden in the darkest, loneliest part of the store so that nobody else has to look at your corpulence. The times you’ve paid premium prices for something ugly and unsuitable and ill-fitting because it actually goes over your stomach and you have to wear something. The times you’ve ordered a garment on the internet and when it arrives the alleged size 20 fits more like a size 14 and you want to cry.
So why didn’t we then stick to plus sizes only? Why the full range?
It’s as simple as this: we believe that everybody has the right to beautiful clothes. We believe that nobody needs to be made to feel bad about themselves when they shop, no matter what size and shape they are. We believe that a clothes shop should be a clothes shop for people – not just people who look a certain way.
So we set up our little piece of paradise and started to stock it. Herein lieth my first blog post: I’d like to share with you some of our experiences at stocking a shop for all sizes, and question why more shops don’t attempt to do the same.
We started with our few solid, reliable flagship brands, ensuring that we sourced the right type of retro-look garments only from companies with a good range of sizes. A good range means at least Australian sizes 8 to 20. We were lucky enough to find several, and some went up to 22 – 24, and down as small as 6, so that was a good start.
Good, but not good enough! We needed to make up a much better range in the larger sizes, so we went looking for plus-size suppliers who could go to at least Australian size 36. This was a little harder and we’re still looking for more stockists with clothing to suit our funky young customers, and with a better range of prices, all in that retro sort of style. Suggestions welcome!
We were ecstatic when we were offered the opportunity to stock a lovely Australian brand that supplies EVERY size in beautiful, well-made alternative clothing. You can bet we jumped at that chance – but this is only one label, and they specialise in a particular look. Furthermore, being all Australian-made they are very high quality but not cheap. And we’re not all made of money!
From time to time we get approached by new local designers. We love to stock Australian-made and love the idea of helping out new businesses, so we take them seriously. It is disappointing, however, that most of them stock very small size ranges – 8 to 14 is the usual. The reasons for this are twofold – firstly, that it is extremely expensive for a new designer to produce a startup label. It may simply be impossible to afford more than a couple of lines of three or four sizes to start with. Secondly, these are the sizes that are most acceptable by the majority of retailers. But honestly. Four sizes? When we try to stock sixteen? Some new designers have been good enough to agree to expanding their size ranges so we can stock them – and that is actually very brave and generous for a new designer who doesn’t yet know how well their designs will sell. There is a financial risk there for both designer and retailer.
Herein lieth our next issue. Sixteen sizes represents a lot of financial outlay. Simply, it costs a lot more to get in a lot more sizes. Perhaps this is one reason why more startup businesses don’t stock many sizes.
But you know what? We have laid out that finance and believe it is absolutely worth it. We sell widely across the sizes, with the majority of sales actually being in the 16 to 24 size range. So although it is costly to stock more sizes, it does translate into sales.
Of course a bigger size range also means that, with our teeny shop, we can’t keep a lot of lines in stock for each size. We simply run out of room! It can be a bit hard when we crow about carrying all these sizes and in reality we only have room for each size to have three or four different lines on the racks.
The way we get around this, of course, is to offer to order particular garments in for customers to try on – in other words, buying a lot of our stock to order. With two of our brands, this is a pleasure and so easy – we can get onto them and say ‘We’d like one of these, two of these, one of these’ etc. and two weeks later they turn up for the happy customers to try on.
Sadly, more often, we are at the mercy of the stockists, who are at the mercy of the designers, who are at the mercy of the fashion industry that demands a new line each season. So sometimes we order something for an eager customer, only to discover that it is no longer in stock, and will never be made again. Or else we order something from a catalogue and it hasn’t even been made up yet, and we have to wait three months before it is even manufactured. Or it simply takes three months to arrive, for no apparent reason … or, we simply don’t have the readies available to purchase to order and have to wait until we have more fluid finance before we can put the order in.
This means that we generally have quite a lot of garments on order sitting around in the back room waiting to be tried on by our poor, patient customers, who have to try and find the time to come out and see us. Unsold stock sitting around is a genuine financial burden for any small business. However we have learned that we need to be as flexible as possible to meet our customers’ needs while being sensible about – you know – staying in business. We need to offer lay-by, returns and exchange policies, and generally try to be understanding about what our lovely customers need in order to get what they want and have a nice time doing it. And sometimes we have to accept that an order will never be claimed, and put it back onto the racks and sometimes sell it at a big discount.
So to sum up: the challenges of running a shop that stocks a wider size range. 1) It is, sadly, fairly hard to find a full range of sizes that suit a range of ages and budgets and still fall within a particular style e.g. retro, vintage. 2) It costs more to stock more sizes. 3) It is harder to squeeze a full range of sizes into a small space. 4) The fashion industry is not really structured to allow easy purchase-to-order, and there are financial risks involved in trying to do so.
With all these challenges, is it really worth it trying? Absolutely. There are so many rewards. The first and best is definitely the customers. More sizes translates to a bigger marketplace, which is good for business. But there are other benefits. Funnily enough, selling to more people gives us niche appeal! We get a lot of gorgeous customers via word of mouth. If you like people, as we do, it is an absolute pleasure to have people coming in the door who represent all kinds of ages and backgrounds. To put it bluntly we probably have more fun meeting more people.
Like any clothing business we have our hits and misses, but when we hit we get a lot of return business and customer fidelity. Being a fatty I know exactly how nice it is when you can walk into a shop and find something that not only fits, but is funky and fun to wear and suits me. This is the kind of experience we really want customers to have, and when we are able to deliver, those people come back and bring their mates. That’s good news for us too, since we keep our faithful friends in mind when we order stock and often choose stock based on the preferences of the customers we know well. It’s a win-win.
To be honest we get real thrills out of fitting people with things they love. Yes it’s a business and we need to keep it running: we need to make a profit so we can do things like pay the rent and the other bills – but there is a definite personal benefit in participating in a happy sales experience. I can’t honestly begin to tell you how good it is for my own confidence and body image to see a customer waltz out of the dressing room looking knockout in a frock that loves their body.
Why does that make me happier about my own body? Because I can honestly tell you – hand on heart – that any customer can have that holy-cow-what-a-beautiful-human experience no matter what size or shape they are. Beauty comes in every size and every shape and every ability and every colour and every age and every gender nuance and every personal preference …you get the message. Seeing so many different types of people selecting their individual look and rocking it is very personally inspiring.
So my introduction to the world of fashion has led me to understand a little more about why so few shops stock more sizes, but also convinced me that it is possible and it is worthwhile on both a business and personal level.
Of course it isn’t all daisies and sunshine! In my next blog I’ll address some of the difficulties of creating a positive environment …
In the meantime – happy fashion!