As a blogger, I've had certain opportunities to interact with brands and retailers as a partner and privileged shopper. I've received deals, freebies and coupons as a result of my blogging, and with the understanding that I will use those bonuses to write or broadcast something positive about said brand. As a relatively small-scale blogger, this has been a minimal part of my online experience to date - there are bloggers with high-profile relationships and dealings with brands and international retailers, who have navigated the waters of online partnership far further than I. However, at this point in my blog career, something stinks in the water - particularly when it comes to working with plus-size brands.
Why do plus-size retailers feel that they can offer the bare minimum of interaction with bloggers, and we're meant to fall over ourselves with promotional posts, praise and tweets to our followers extolling the virtues of their mediocre offerings? I realise that many plus-size retailers are only dipping bare toes into the world of online communication and promotion, but god DAMN people - hire someone with social media and blogger relationship-building experience. To disregard the explosion of the plus-size community online is to ignore the future of your target audience.
I'm speaking directly to public relations people, media flaks and social media interns working with plus-size clothing brands directly: how can you, as communications professionals, so willfully provide sub-par outreach on behalf of your employers? Why are you emailing us with links to lookbooks with pitiful images, maintaining boring-as-dirt facebook accounts, and generally ignoring our requests for information and content? In the past two months, I've had two PR firms ignore my emailed requests for high-res images and send me a link to the same old home page of a clothing brand as evidence of their client's exciting new appearance. It's like the lights are on, but no one's home.
Of course this is old territory, familiar to other bloggers and plus-size shoppers - the brand refuses to participate, listen or engage. I'm just astonished that they're employing PR folks willing to maintain the cycle of bullshit and lackadasial outreach. If you're sending me a lookbook for a brand, you should be excited to tell me about it - not tossing it out, almost as an afterthought. That kind of attitude directly affects my interaction with the brand and impression of the collection - why should I look, if the person sending it to me can't be bothered to a) read my blog and see whether it's relevant to my interests/focus, and b) get fucking interested in the product and talking about it with a blogger? The underlying tone of failure is palpable.
I've made it clear to brands and their representatives that I will only write about a product, store or collection if I wear it regularly and like it - full stop. The reactions I've received to this policy have ranged from disappointment to silence; I regularly receive emails from brands asking for my coverage, with no reply when I explain my position. There's literally no effort made to retain my patronage or pull my interest. I realise there are thousands of other bloggers, many of whom have more followers and clout than I, yet I can't help but think this kind of destructive relationship pattern hurts brands more than they anticipate. I won't be writing positively about your brand if you've ignored my emails and requests for information.
In this age of internets, it behooves plus-size brands to be aware and participate in their growing online audience - that's where the future of the community lies, whether they're prepared for it or not. Today's bloggers will be the dominant consumers in the future of plus-size. You don't get a gold star for lazily waving a PR release in our faces and posting photos on facebook - read the blogs, learn our names, watch out for our tastes and desires, and show some fucking interest in your audience.
Wandering the rooms of City of Craft in December, I was instantly drawn to Sabrina Chin's table, Love at First Blush. Her leather accessories were gorgeous, and it the delicate leather feathers stayed in my mind for weeks afterward. Based in Montreal, Love at First Blush is that ideal combination of feminine and unexpected that I love to wear on a regular basis.
The leather was soft, splashed with gold paint or chains, or punched with rose-patterned filigree and immediately attractive. While I covet several pieces from Love at First Blush, I also wanted to share this find with my readers and so got in touch with owner/designer Sabrina Chin. Here at roundraglanroad I’ve been focusing on accessories which cater to larger limbs and shapes, and Love at First Blush offers fully customisable or adjustable sizing. The more designers and retailers there are offering this kind of accessibility, the better. Read on for our interview...
Roundraglanroad: How did you start designing and making accessories?
Sabrina Chin: I started making accessories in 2009 just as a hobby. I never really designed accessories before but it was something I really enjoyed doing. I was working as a fashion designer at the time, so it was something that wasn't 'work' to me.
RRR: Do you consider yourself a designer, a craftsperson, a maker, an artist - or a combination of these labels?
SC: I consider myself a designer foremost. I studied fashion design at Ryerson so designing is always in me.
RRR: Have you always worked with the same materials, or have you experimented along the way? What drew you to working with leather?
SC: I've always loved working with leather when I made clothing. You can shape and mold it which allows for a lot of creativity. I also like the way that it holds a clean cut line.
RRR: Who do you see wearing your work?
SC: I see many different people wearing my accessories. I design for a woman who appreciates fashion and art.
RRR: Why did you make the decision to create jewellery with adjustable sizing? Was this just a functional design choice, or did you have larger-limbed customers in mind?
SC: I designed the cuff with adjustable sizing so anyone can enjoy them no matter how big or small you are. I don't think fashion should discriminate what body type or size you are. Everyone should be able to wear what they please and feel good about it.
RRR: Would you ever consider developing a range of accessories specifically for customers with larger wrists, hands and necks?
SC: All of my accessories are adjustable or have different sizing. I also do custom sizes if someone doesn't fit within the size range I have offered and I've done this for many customers.
RRR: How has your business changed since you established Love at First Blush?
SC: I believe my business has changed me since I started. I love hearing feedback and seeing how I can make someone feel better about themselves. It really inspires me to keep doing what I love.
RRR: What's in the future for your brand and designs?
SC: I plan to add some new collections to the brand but you'll have to stay tuned. I love working on photo shoots so you will probably see more of that in the future.
I'll tell you the truth: I love shopping. Online shopping. It's fairly obvious, based on this blog alone, that I have a desire to acquire and have poked around the corners of the globe for my pickings. Jeans from the USA, jackets from the UK, shirts from Denmark, underwear from Australia - I've got it all. It's a solitary expedition, punctuated with the occasional retweet or comment from a fellow online shopper to break the monotony. Bricks-and-mortar stores are almost a non-entity.
How did shopping in a store become such a dusty antique in my life? I tend to only peruse racks at small-scale independent retailers, at blogger events or openings to which I've been invited, and occasional glances into straight-sized stores with friends. Shopping in clothing stores has diminished to the extent that I no longer recognise the signifiers and design hallmarks which used to make me feel unwelcome. I've literally stopped caring about what retailers think of my shopping while fat in their stores.
I think this is endemic of these "internet times" in which we live, and the sheer dominance of online retail in my consumer life. Online stores, while frustrating at times, don't carry the same signifiers of unwelcome or dislike you'll find in many bricks-and-mortar locations: the unending shade thrown by sales staff, the mannequins, and the tiny aisles between clothing racks. It's all gone - I find it quite alien to walk through most clothing stores these days, and an unnecessary annoyance.
When I do have an opportunity to shop with other plus-size consumers, it's like meeting rare birds in the wild. We're often relegated to the discount corner, the back of the store, the outlet mall and the side-street, making shopping at a store a necessary crapfest. We don't meet often in large numbers - visits to a store are a solo affair, in my experience.
The community act of shopping amongst women has been popularised, memorialised and ridiculed since (it seems) time immemorial. Amongst fat women? Not so much. There's little acknowledgement of the plus group shopping experience outside of events like Full Figured Fashion Week's shopping "soiree," or events like Big Deal Toronto and one-offs like the blogger Buffalo shopping trip of 2011. Think about it - when was the last time you saw a depiction of a group of fat, happy women shopping together in a store featuring their size? I dare say Retta's unforgettable turn in "Treat Yo Self" was the last I can remember, and it's stretching it to include Aziz Ansari as her plus shopping companion.
I recently had the opportunity to shop with other fat ladeez, and it was relatively different than in the past. Addition Elle invited a number of Toronto-area bloggers, including yours truly, to visit the newly-opened Toronto flagship store on Yonge Street. They even flew in some American plus-size bloggers (Marie Denee and Gabi Gregg), along with their "Be a Showstopper" lingerie campaign stars (Ashley Graham and bloggers Karyn, Nadia and Sara) for extra flash.
It didn't even occur to me to invite a friend along with me to the event - again, another hallmark of the plus shopping experience and my own blogging focus. I didn't know whether bloggers I knew would be in attendance, so I wasn't relying on their presence to have fun - I was just genuinely curious, and it didn't even occur to me to invite one of my smaller friends. I guess they could have looked at jewellery? Whatever, it was a hassle I didn't need to consider. Think about that - bringing a smaller friend shopping is a hassle for me, a plus-size customer.
The new Addition Elle flagship is bright, packed and energising - for a jaded AE customer, there were lots of surprises. I'd compare the retail environment to that of Zara or Smart Set - the loud music also gave it a decidely Forever 21-like ambience. Whatever you call it, the store felt younger than it has in years.
I immediately saw a few familiar faces, and began to talk just a few feet inside the store. Suddenly, this was a social event, not a shopping one. I felt physically unable to mix both, as it would have been rude to just duck out of a conversation to stare at clothes nearby - despite this being, ostensibly, the entire purpose of my presence that evening. I was there to review the store's new branding, and yet was initially unable to undertake group shopping. Why the disconnect?
I oscillated between saying hello to other bloggers, speaking with staff about the paltry accessories on display (despite promising images in the SS'13 AE lookbook), and taking photos. It wasn't until someone asked me what I had tried on that I realised I needed to visit the changeroom.
I think that years of solo shopping conditioning have bred a new form of plus-consumer - one who is aware of the options outside of the traditional store experience and thus unafraid to wander without buying. I'm no longer afraid of missing new stock or sales at the local plus retailer - why bother, when rotating sales and low shipping costs online mean I can usually find something when I need it? The fear of missing out (FOMO), a staple of my early online plus community discussions, is vanishing.
In terms of clothing, the store looked lovely and there were plenty of bright colours and prints to freak out their regular customers and attract new ones. A good mix, and a necessary one. The most valuable element of the new store, and hopefully one which is soon transplanted to other locations, is the design, location and unabashed visibility of the entire store and its' contents.
Addition Elle has moved the store only a few blocks north - from Yonge and Temperance to Yonge and Queen, but the difference is night and day. From a Financial District offshoot and quiet street to the heart of Toronto's retail corridor and directly opposite the Eaton Centre, it's a huge statement. Despite all my misgivings and rocky history with the brand, Addition Elle made a good choice there. It may unnerve some customers to now enter the store in full visibility of so many other, smaller shoppers, instead of making their way down to the nearly-secret old location. As someone who brazenly walks the racks of straight-sized stores whilst giving no fucks, I'm fine with this change. Watch me shop.
My new hope is that the store's new location and fresh design (PLEXIGLASS STARBURSTS) mean plus-size customers will drag their friends along. It's no longer down the street, away from the mall, in the outlet plaza, or on the outskirts of town. It's across from the fucking Eaton Centre, so just come with me for 30 minutes while I look for bras, for Christ's sake.
Bringing someone along shopping is a major hurdle for me - the exceptions being other plus-size friends and my partner. Complicating matters, I tend to be the most fashion-savvy person within several of my social circles, making me the leader/interpreter for any kind of retail excursion. Sometimes, I don't want to explain, compensate or entertain my companion whilst shopping - I just want to look. I can't fatsplain everything, nor should I. I deserve the same unfettered retail (and styling) experience as my straight-sized peers. There are tangled webs of resentment, imposition, fear of ridicule, intolerance, glee, assumption, and impatience at work.
Being able to shop with others was probably the highlight of my visit the new Addition Elle store. It was great to meet Gabi and Marie, see my blogger friends and meet the reporters and customers who swarmed the store. No doubt this location will be a huge success - it's head and shoulders above the old Temperance St. location.
The awareness of my solo shopping habit has festered in my head since that evening, though. Am I (ironically) a loner in this regard, or do other plus-size customers prefer to shop alone out of habit, out of necessity, and in preservation of their sanity?
I don't have a concluding thesis or action statement - I'm still going to shop alone and online, because that's what pops my cork in the best way. I think the feelings of guilt and embarrassment over this M.O. have disappeared, though, which is a nice realisation. I no longer conceal the fact that most of my clothes were purchased online, as if I'm some freak who can't find clothes in a real store. I'm a human being who is perfectly capable of shopping in buildings - but I take offense to the idea that my shopping experience is less "real" than the group shopping sprees of "Clueless" and "Mean Girls." That's not my reality.
Bring your friends to the new Addition Elle store - fat and thin alike. Tell them you're just going shopping, and expect more of your companions - this is your shopping life. This isn't meant as a plug for their brand, per se, but an announcement that you can have that group shopping experience if you need it. It's available, convenient, and on a comparable level to the straight-sized shopping trips we've all been subjected to for years by well-meaning friends. I'll continue to shop alone, but bringing others with me seems less of a burden these days. The confidence I've gained by assembling my own wardrobe, documenting it and finding others like myself has completely changed the way I consume fashion. I'm no longer dependent on a few retailers, and can step back to appreciate pieces without rushing to purchase. I can enjoy shopping while fat.
The Grid article is available online here. Honestly, I'm much happier than I thought I'd be with the tone and content of the writing - the situation has been much improved by final product.
Having said this, I still take issue with the planning and execution of the shoot - it would have been so much more interesting if we'd worn our own clothes! As my partner said, I looked on point when leaving for the shoot last week and I know we would have shown off the breadth of plus-size fashion creativity in Toronto by wearing our own picks.
The positive notes, comments and tweets I've received as a result of this experience have far outweighed the shitty snarkers I've come across. Thanks, everyone.