When ‘plus-size’ is average, why consider it niche?

Women are leading the push for extending outdoor apparel sizes

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The first time Raquel Vélez went skiing, she wore a hoodie and sweatpants under a rain jacket and rain pants, not for fashion’s sake, but because the 37-year-old Denver-based Latina entrepreneur is a practical person. “The thing about starting something new is that, a lot of times, we try to use the gear that we have available to us at the time, right?” she says. “[Who’s] gonna go out there and be like, ‘I’m going to learn how to ski, so I’m gonna drop $3,000 on new boots and skis, gear and everything?’”

But after a few days on the slopes, Vélez’s crush on skiing had flourished into a full-on affair, and so she took herself out to buy snow pants. A size 14 at the time, “I went to my local shop and couldn’t find anything [that fit],” she says. “That’s it. Nothing, not a single thing. And that was, unfortunately, a very common experience for me.” 

This conundrum—wanting to participate in an outdoor activity, but finding no technical clothing (or gear) to comfortably or safely facilitate it—is far from unique to Vélez. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the average woman wears a size 16 (typically translated to an XL); this has historically represented the end, or the beginning of the end, of many apparel size runs, when, logically, it should be the very middle. 

“To consider that she’s ‘plus,’ or somehow an addition to a market that already exists, it’s kind of crazy because she’s… the majority,” says CJ Riggins, a 20-year apparel industry veteran based in Lafayette who, in 2017, left working at Pearl Izumi to found her own apparel company, Rsports, one of the first niche brands catering to the so-called ‘plus-size’ athlete community (selling triathlon clothing up to size 6X). 

“Shouldn’t she be the standard?” Riggins says of Vélez. “There’s really no need for ‘plus,’ but, you know, that kind of history played out, and we just haven’t moved fast enough to make a change to that.”

The pace at which the needle has moved on extended sizing options in outdoor apparel has been excruciatingly slow, but it has accelerated somewhat in the last five years, thanks to industry-wide awareness and conversations about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in the outdoors, and, in large part, to folks like Vélez, Riggins, and many others on trails, in design rooms and at conference tables taking matters into their own hands… oftentimes literally.  

Raquel Vélez, founder and CEO of Alpine Parrot, learned to sew and create her own sew patterns before launching her company catering to so-called plus-size adventurers.

In 2020, Vélez left her job as a mechanical engineer in the software industry and, having recently learned to sew, began creating her own patterns for plus-size women’s activewear that were actually proportionally sound—none of the über-elongated arms or extra-wide ankle and neck openings that’re found when, as is standard in the apparel industry, the “sample fit” or “perfect fit” (size medium) clothing designs are blindly scaled-up to accommodate larger bodies. 

“This is an experience a lot of plus-size people have,” Vélez says. “A pant that is supposed to be a skinny jean on a size 6 is somehow a wide-leg jean on a size 24. And you’re like, why is that? Now, maybe [the designer] was like, ‘Oh, skinny jeans don’t work on big people,’ which we know is not true, because Lizzo looks amazing in skinny jeans. More likely,” she says, is that the standard grading algorithm that heritage brands have historically used is wrong. “Your ankle isn’t gonna change as much as the circumference of your hips—it’s just not how bodies work.”

Vélez explains two ways she found to fix the fit issue: one, create a new series of “sample fits” that move away from “size medium” to better represent the population majority and its various shapes and sizes; two, use better algorithms to create different scalable models. 

With this knowledge, Vélez founded her own plus-size outdoor apparel company, Alpine Parrot. “And now I’m an apparel engineer,” she says.

She’s focused the last two years on developing a line of hiking pants that begins at size 14, runs to size 24, and comes in two fit models—Mountain fit (bigger booty, smaller waist) and River fit (bigger waist, smaller booty)—that Vélez had tested on more than 30 different, active bodies before determining they were ready for the market. 

In April 2021, Vélez launched a crowdfunding campaign with a $10,000 goal to produce the first batch of pants. The goal was smashed in a matter of hours; by the campaign’s end she’d raked in more than $60,000. 

The demand, Vélez says, speaks for itself. By the end of 2021, Outside Magazine would name her one of its “Outsiders of the Year” as someone “who changed our world for the better.”

On the pants’ Kickstarter page it states: “If Alpine Parrot is for you, then you are well aware of the problem we’re tackling.”

The problem, of course, is a lack of functional, high-quality, plus-size outdoor clothing—but it doesn’t stop there. And it doesn’t start there, either. 

•  •  •  •

Sam Ortiz, founder of Climb Big, advocates for more technical plus-size gear in addition to outdoor apparel and lifestyle clothing.

One cold week in Washington, Sam Ortiz was up high in the mountains taking an alpine mountaineering course, learning how to use crampons, manage ropes, and stay safe when adventuring above treeline. “I really struggled during that class,” she says, “struggles that none of my other classmates had, because I could not find the gear that I needed to be warm and dry at the same time.” 

She’d found a pair of rain pants to use during the course, but they didn’t fit her size 18 body: “They were so tight that I could barely, like, lift my leg up to step uphill, and I couldn’t wear anything underneath them because they were already too tight.” 

Not having functional gear in snowy or wet alpine conditions can be dangerous; rain pants, for example, help prevent life-threatening backcountry conditions like hypothermia and irritated or blistered skin. “I very often have to make safety choices that other people who wear straight sizes don’t, and that’s still true today,” Ortiz says.

Now a size 24, Ortiz, who founded the organization Climb Big to help make “climbing more accessible for fat folx,” says “the market has been getting better, there have been more options, but I still could not find a pair of full-zip rain pants that would fit me comfortably today, and that’s what you need for that environment [in Washington’s alpine].”

Typically, she explains, she wears a size 3X, but likes to wear full-zip rain pants with a bit of extra room to layer warm clothing underneath. “So they’d have to be 4X pants,” she says, “and to be honest, that’s not something I still have ever been able to find.”  (For reference, today, Patagonia runs some women’s pants up to a size 22; The North Face reaches 3XL; Columbia, 3X; Outdoor Research 3X; Boulder County-based Pearl Izumi and Skirt Sports run to 3X.)

Beyond safety issues, ill-fitting and hard-to-find outdoor clothing restricts accessibility and discourages participation, which a lack of visibility and representation across traditional marketing materials only compounds. 

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” says Ashley Duffus-Jambor, co-founder and CEO of Cosmic Dirt, a Washington-based mountain bike apparel company that fits to size 4XL. She’s seen the shifting sands of outdoor culture and conversations about inclusivity as an invitation to more deeply and thoroughly reimagine how apparel is marketed—how it communicates with its audiences. “As a brand, we sat down and we were like, OK, we don’t want to gender our clothing, because that’s stupid (gender is a construct). So how do we, like, accurately communicate what this shirt is and how it’s going to fit?” 

Cosmic Dirt, co-founded by Ashley Duffus-Jambor, serves the mountain bike community up to a size 4X.

Cosmic Dirt’s solution: Rather than the traditional “men’s” and “women’s” labels, the brand uses “fitted shirt” and “relaxed shirt.” (On the topic of terminology, Riggins has stayed away from “plus-size” since the inception of Rsport, and instead uses “Athena,” a homage to the triathlon racing category for women greater than 165 pounds.)

Any day of the week you can find Duffus-Jambor hustling on two wheels, skiing, or participating in any of the other Pacific Northwest outdoor activities. “There’s nothing about being in a bigger body that says that you can’t do those things,” she says. 

Vélez echoes the sentiment: “I want to be able to go outside just as much as everybody else, like, I should have that access, and I should have access to gear.”

But if a plus-sized person was invited to go skiing tomorrow, and didn’t already own their own gear, Ortiz explains it’s highly unlikely they’d be able to go: “Somebody who wears ‘straight sizes’ (XS-XL) could go to the store, pick up ski gear, buy it, go skiing,” she says, whereas a plus-size-wearing person would need extra time “to heavily research every ski company to see if they have gear in [the right] size, to look up the exact measurements of their ski gear—how much give does it have, does it have any stretch? Or does it have the exact measurements where the hip fits, the thigh fits, the chest fits… and then she’d have to order it and wait, you know, weeks for it to arrive.”

It makes one start to wonder who is welcome, where and why.

“I felt like for a long time that I shouldn’t be skiing because the gear didn’t exist,” says Duffus-Jambor. “And like, getting back into it because the gear does finally exist is really empowering.”

On the podcast She Explores, Marielle Elizabeth, a Western Canada-based model, photographer, self-described “fat advocate,” and writer of the viral essay “Apparently, I’m Too Fat to Ski” published in The Cut, said: “It’s not just about not having the right thing to wear, it’s having the ability to take part and exist in those spaces.”

•  •  •  •

Many factors familiar to the fashion world—fat-phobia, research and product development costs—have contributed to why it’s taken so long for established outdoor brands to functionally extend their size options; and it’s left room for the recent surge of smaller companies like Alpine Parrot, Cosmic Dirt and Rsport to succeed in the interim.

In the U.S., 68% of women wear a size 14 or larger, “and yet my research shows that less than 20% of outdoor apparel is available in plus sizes,” Vélez says. “Are y’all really leaving all this money on the table like you don’t want it? I thought we lived in a capitalistic world, I would think you would want this. But it’s OK. If you don’t want it, I’ll take it.”

In 2019, Walmart was the most frequented retailer among plus-size shoppers when shopping for plus-size apparel needs, according to Statista, a company specializing in consumer data and marketing. “There is still room for growth in the plus-size apparel market, to reflect the reality of U.S. women’s sizes,” the report states. In an Outside Business Journal op-ed by Kara Richardson Whitely, author of Gorge: My Journey Up Kilimanjaro at 300 Pounds, she puts it plainly: “The ROI on plus-size gear is hard to ignore: Outdoor brands are finally starting to see that building clothing and gear in plus sizes is a boon for the bottom line.” 

The plus-size women’s apparel market was valued at $29.8 billion in 2019, Richardson Whitely writes, but it was projected to grow to $46.6 billion (13% of the total U.S. apparel market) by 2021’s end.

“I see the competitive landscape changing, I see more brands finally coming to the table,” says Andrea Kelly, senior merchandiser of extended sizes at Columbia Sportswear. “I also know that it didn’t happen yesterday, like, the ‘why now’ actually started years ago.”

Over the last decade, Kelly has championed the development of plus-size outdoor clothing the brand. In the early 2000s, 17% of Columbia’s women’s clothing was offered in extended sizes; Outside Business Journal reports that by spring 2023, that’ll grow to 50%.

“One of the obstacles (for larger brands) that existed in the past was having access to intel of what people actually needed,” Kelly says. “So they would take their best guess and watch what product they thought people wanted, which wasn’t necessarily what people wanted, so it didn’t sell… and again, you get [a] circle of: we built it, they didn’t buy it. 

“So I think that’s been, for the industry, a big learning moment about the value of engagement with consumers, and really getting to know what they actually need and having conversations with them.”

Both Ortiz and Duffus-Jambor have participated in conversations and acted as consultants with several big brands like Columbia, Outdoor Research, Patagonia, REI and others in the last couple years.

Ultimately, while progress is slowly happening across the heritage brands, “the smaller companies are doing the work of really paying attention to what plus-size bodies need… and so they’re making products that fit better than some of these larger companies,” Ortiz says. “I’m hoping that the larger companies take note.”

Duffus-Jambor says she sees bigger brands are watching, from however afar. “I’m finding that because of what we’re doing, all of these larger brands are paying attention. And they’re like, ‘OK, like, how is this gonna go for [us]?’ It’s almost like we’re a guinea pig that has less to lose. But it’s going really well for us.”

Alpine Parrots’ Ponderosa hiking pants on two different fit models. Left: the ‘River fit’ for bigger waists and smaller booties; Right: the ‘Mountain fit’ for bigger booties and smaller waists.

Vélez has big plans for Alpine Parrot expanding far beyond hiking pants and her current direct-to-consumer business model. “In addition to everything that we’re doing, one major byproduct that I’m convinced we’re going to have is more people fighting for the planet. … There’s no reason for you to care if you don’t have the opportunity to bond with what’s outside,” she explains. “You can’t [form that bond] if you have literal physical barriers to entry.” 

The market demands combined with her expertise and engineering instincts are pushing her to develop and expand Alpine Parrot as quickly as possible. “I’m impatient,” she says. “I’m trying to grow a lot faster because there’s an obvious need, and people don’t want to wait 10 years for me to have a full line of clothing. They want to be able to go to their local store [today] to be able to find everything they need for their camping trip.

“I don’t want plus-size to be a niche product,” she adds. “68% of American women are a size 14 and up—that’s two-thirds of us.” 

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