But as the world progresses, this notion is ageing like milk.
Body positivity is making leaps and bounds in the fashion world and celebrities like Naomi Watanabe and Yumi Nu are helping Asians embrace size diversity.
Fashion brands are also slowly waking up to the widely untapped plus-size market in Asia. Although a small step, many local brands are now extending their size range to include Australian size 16 and above.
“In Singapore, most female clothing stores usually cater only up to XL, or UK 10 to 12. We’ve seen a rise in regular stores trying to be inclusive, and bringing in XXL or UK 14 clothes,” said Phyllis Tan, co-owner of Be You Co, a plus-size boutique based in Singapore.
Changing prejudice and creating representation
Despite having a relatively low obesity rate on average, Asia still has the highest number of overweight people in the world. A study published in The Lancet medical journal found nearly 11 per cent of men and 15 per cent of women in China are overweight – 43 million men and 46 million women, in total. But very few brands choose to enter this market due to the prejudice that surrounds plus size women.
Japanese comedian and model Watanabe has been an instrumental figure in breaking this stigma. Watanabe has made a big impact on the entertainment industry; her unique and bold style has landed her in multiple ‘best dressed’ lists and the front rows of the fashion weeks in Europe.
She explains that the Japanese public can be incredibly critical of plus-size women, with many even experiencing verbal abuse on the streets. As a result, most plus-size girls tend to cover up and wear black.
Although a champion of body positivity, Watanabe is not immune to the stigma. “I don’t want to show my legs because they might be too thick. But I flip that and show my legs [on purpose].” She also prefers to wear white, as it makes her “look more expanded”, she says, and tighter-fitting clothes to “show my body line”.
Watanabe’s unique style has allowed her to be a highly important fashion icon to all body sizes, not only in Japan but also all over the world. In the early days of her career, Watanabe was considered too fat to have such a successful career. Haters even said she shouldn’t have a good-looking boyfriend, but she has certainly proved them wrong.
Feeding the funnel from the top
While many brands and designers are still apprehensive about catering to plus size women, the glaring financial opportunities are hard to ignore. As one of the fastest-growing markets in the world, the purchasing power of the Asian plus-size woman is anything but weak.
Due to the increasing average caloric intake per individual among middle class and high-income households in the Asia-Pacific region, it is anticipated to register the fastest compound annual growth rate from 2020-27, at 6.5 per cent.
But for the fashion industry to take the plus-size market seriously, it must begin from the top. The most recent Spring/Summer 2022 fashion shows had some of the most plus-size models to ever grace the runway. Breakout stars of the season included models Precious Lee, Jill Kortleve, Paloma Elsesser, and Alva Claire who walked at Versace, Fendi, Michael Kors, Moschino, Gucci and more.
Diversity in all forms was the main concern for designer Anifa Mvuemba, when she debuted Hanifa’s first runway show. After making massive waves with her 3D animated collection video, Mvuemba was determined to get women from all walks of life and sizes to model her first-ever show. With Hanifa’s latest collection, Mvuemba extends her sizing range all the way up to XXL which is equivalent to a size US 16.
She tasked casting director Kat Mateo to find models that would most resemble Hanifa’s real-life consumers. “If our consumers are everyday people, why would we have them looking at a standard that’s not real?” Mateo asked. “The runway reflects the times, and the times of just a blonde girl walking are over. We should be representing what we see on the street every day.”
Establishing local demand
Taking cues from Watanabe, Dai Ying founded Garden Lis to offer fashion-forward, runway-inspired pieces for plus-size women in China. Being a pioneer within the plus-size niche, Ying grew her brand to more than 200 physical outlets, as well as a strong e-commerce presence.
“I was personally very wedded to the concept, as a lot of women in my family have a gene that means it is very hard for them to lose weight. I have grown up watching my mother and cousin really struggle to find bigger clothes,” Ying said. Unlike most brands, Garden Lis’ clothes begin at size 16.
“I feel there are many prejudices in China relating to size, but it is getting better,” Ying continued. “Ten years ago, if you said you were a plus-size shop, nobody would want to admit they were overweight, so they wouldn’t ever go in there. That’s why I launched the brand online, and when it was successful, opened shops and found distributors around the country. I would notice that, at first, overweight girls would come in secretly, hoping to find a size that would fit them. But with time, they would come in with their friends and be proud of the pieces they were buying.”
Sophia Huang, owner of plus-size boutique The Amber Loft, found herself in a similar situation in Singapore. “Whatever was on offer in the plus-size market at that time was dismal – there were dowdy and expensive plus-size clothes in department stores made for women much older than me, or cheap and poor quality ones,” Huang said. “I simply wanted clothes in which I could communicate visually to the world who I am.” The Amber Loft is now one of the most size-inclusive local brands, its range runs from UK 12 to 22.
Tan of Be You Co, whose sizes run from UK 12 to 20, mentioned that while the size range at Singaporean brands is becoming more inclusive, “most of these clothes are not very true to size and usually only fit regular-sized ladies with a slightly bigger build. So despite being more inclusive, there is still a gap or demand for larger sizes.”
All of the brand owners credit seeing more plus-size women in media and the runway for growing demand. The consumers of today are longer interested in a glossy, picture-perfect lifestyle, but wish to see authenticity. If brands want to continue to stay relevant, they must cater to the needs of their customers.