Is it too expensive for luxury fashion brands to cater for all sizes? Who pays the price?
This essay will focus on the topics of luxury fashion brands, plus-size women in the fashion industry and the concept of beauty. It will look at the fashion industry and the barriers that currently face plus size women from accessing the marketplace. This essay will suggest that luxury fashion brands will not cater for plus-size women even if it would it would be beneficially more economical to do so, because they determine what beauty is and what beauty should be. It will do this by firstly exploring the luxury fashion industry and what is (or what it is not) on the market now for plus-size women. Then it will then look at fashion brands which market to plus-size women and what drove the recent shift towards this move. Finally, it will look at concepts of beauty and consider whether they fit in the current market for luxury fashion brands.
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What is luxury fashion?
Is luxury fashion about quality? Margaret Howell, and Editor of the Guardian argues that “[g]ood quality rides over to everything” and “[w]e should respect what it takes to produce something that is of a quality to last”. Therefore, some women have the view that luxury fashion is associated with fine materials and craftsmanship. This is also the view of designers. For example, in a recent interview with Sarah Mower OBE and Gvasalia Jr, the lesser-known half of Vetements, was questioned on why his brand’s hoodies cost customers almost £500. Gvasalia Jr, explained that:
“There are a few reasons. One is that we work with amazing factories. These factories are not cheap. Another thing is the fabric. For example, the hoodies Demna likes to use molton cotton that is very heavy. It is almost 480g compared to the usual 240g. The price of creating this heavy cotton is double the price of creating a regular one”.
But, the answer may be simple: more fabric, more money. There are a lot of steps taken in the product from the designer’s pen to your closet, all of which get reflected in the huge price tag. First, there’s the designer’s time, the hours spent deciding what would work best. From there, materials; in this case high-end molton cotton. The luxury designer brands sell their garments to retailers at the high end of the market and to cover the production costs and in order to still make a profit they’ll sell them on for double what it cost to manufacture them. The stores need to cover their own costs too and need to make a profit so you can expect the price to at least double for the consumer. Which means consumers are essentially, paying four times more than what the product cost to make. As each stage of the making of the clothes and the time and expertise it takes to make a quality garment it means more zero’s on the price. This means that the customers are spending as much on a garment as they would on a for instance a holiday!
In addition, prestigious brands may be more conscious about damage to their reputations and using respectable supply chains, such as those promoting Fair Trade or those that pay the living wage (in any given country). Further, Gvasalia Jr may be implying that the location of factories impact on price and it follows that countries with well-established economies and relevant laws may carry heavier fees.
However, many people only associate luxury fashion with price and large profit margins for the top designers. Usually luxury is first associated to price, exclusivity and selectivity but when you think about fashion, you think about time. A short time, short product life cycle. To me luxury is not easy to define because it has a lot to do with what the context is, for some people having running water or a roof over their head is luxury but having worked in luxury retail such as Burberry and Vivienne Westwood and having to deal with clients expectations, I have noticed that luxury to some clients is about the designer name, to some its about the quality and to others having the best of everything the world has to offer just because they can afford it. If you think luxury means wealthy and over priced items only, then you have an old fashioned view of the meaning of luxury (Vogue.it 2018). Luxury does not also necessarily mean elegance. In the world of high quality fashion, ready-to-wear is identified by its luxury symbol, but is it its brand placement or business point of view. Franca Sozzani vogue editor said: “I think this term has been changing its exclusive “richness symbol” meaning in time. As a matter of fact today we can meet people who wear any kind of luxury symbol without “looking” luxury. They only look rich. Because today luxury involves exclusiveness, nearly uniqueness, and not because it is addressed to few people, because it’s special instead.” For an example there are dresses, which will really give you the feeling of luxury because of the way they have been made, it’s the quality of craftsmanship, but some expensive items with intricate work are just opulent. A product is luxury when it is handmade and its limited. Luxury meaning its exclusiveness. You could really get the feeling that luxury still exists when you wear a tailored suit, related to craftsmanship skills.
Further, according to Business of Fashion magazine, rather than settle for double profit, shareholders actually expect a margin of around 65 per cent. This pricing is what makes luxury brands exclusive and more appealing – we want what we can’t have. It seems to be the norm to raise prices to lock out the poor and make the wealthy want it. And, frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. The real reason why luxury fashion is so expensive is because people are willing to pay to have it. An example is a t-shirt costing £185 must, somehow, be better made than a t-shirt costing £40 or so people think. Even though all know, and the evidence says it’s not. You’re buying exclusivity, you’re paying for the apparent prestige that goes with the designer name and are spending more than other people, or being able to own something that other people can’t. As Gurum Gvasaila put it in a recent interview: “It is nicer when people save up. They can buy this one piece that they cherish for a longer time, rather than spending money on clothes every week that they throw away afterwards. The whole idea is to limit the production, having less pieces and making sure that people who buy these pieces can cherish it for a longer time. It’s moving away from this idea of fast fashion, to this idea of slow fashion.” Just make sure that you know precisely what you’re paying for.
But the question is how much does it cost to keep up the appearance of affluence in the world of luxury. If you are wealthy enough, you can have whatever items you desire even though you may not even need or really want them. Whilst lower class people are not buying luxury items en mass, lower clothing prices (fast fashion) have made it possible for people to get the look of luxury on a budget. Mostly the conditions of labour in which fast fashion wear is produced are unethical whereas luxury clothing is produced more ethically. This means it makes the luxury clothing only affordable to the rich who can afford to buy new classic ready to wear pieces each season without sacrificing fashion.
The purchase of designer clothes has no prerequisite whatsoever other than the price tag. That is, you only need £1,200 to buy a £1,200 dress – whether you have a £1,200 or a £2 Million pounds in your bank. That’s it, it’s that simple. At what point does it make financial sense to buy designer clothing frequently? The answer to this is any time that you can afford it once your basic living expenses are covered. Since the prices of luxury clothes vary so wildly it would be impossible to pin this down, since there are £300 luxury designer shoes and there are also £30,000 luxury designer shoes. If your income can sustain the regular purchase of luxury items of clothing, which you desire, then go crazy and buy as you please. There is nothing stopping you regardless of how rich or poor you are.
Luxury fashion brands and plus size women
In the UK it has been reported that 45% of British women are a dress size 16 or more (Dahlgreen and Dahlgreen, 2018). However, many luxury retailers do not offer clothing in sizes above a size 10. Looking at brands such as McQueen, Chanel and Valentino that aesthetic is missing for the majority of women. Plus size women have to actively search for new brands and go out there and look for things to buy, but what if there was an easy and simple solution to this, that is to pay extra for what you want from the top brands?
As Vivian Hendriksz recently said in an online article: “population waistlines are only getting bigger – so perhaps it is time the fashion industry began paying more attention to their plus-size offering. Rising obesity in young people is said to fuel the 5.08 billion pounds plus-size market in the UK, a market which is set to continue growing, according to data from research and consulting firm GlobalData.”
Hendriksz’s position here is logical because if the average clothes size for a female is a size 14, it should follow that there is a demand for larger sizes in luxury fashion brands. Gvasalia Jr, sets this out in a recent interview stated that:
“There’s a basic model you learn in business school. “It’s called supply meets demand. There are two curves and the point where they intersect is how much you are suppose to produce. It always feels like everyone is ignoring this very simple thing. Because if something goes on sale, it means it was overproduced. We are always trying to change the supply curve, making it just a little bit less than the demand curve, to make sure that you sell out. It is always better to sell one piece less to a store and to be sold out than to sell one piece extra and to go on sale. Because once you go on sale, there’s no going back.”
As I have detailed, luxury fashion brands are expensive and it is likely that you pay for the label as well as the quality of the material), although I would dispute this as a generalisation. That fact that the luxury fashion industry does not cater for plus size women, does not follow economically given the most popular size of a women is 14+ and there is a demand. Is the luxury fashion industry therefore ‘sizeist’?
The idea behind the business model of luxury fashion brands I think goes hand in hand with the idea of beauty. For example, if you can afford to shop at Louis Vuitton, you have the figure that doesn’t challenge the brand’s idea of skinniness as the norm. If plus size people shop on the high street in stores such as Evans or Simply Be, then their expectation is that something other than skinny proportions will be catered for.
However, some people argue that the reason for this is because It is harder to create a uniform fit because of the body variation above size 14, more so as plus size clothing requires production and design expertise and this cuts into margins and increases the final price in many cases. But if luxury fashion brands claim it is too expensive to produce clothing in a plus size due to the amount of fabric required why don’t they use the same method of pricing that is used in children’s clothing e.g. an item age 4-5 maybe £8 but the same item in age 8-9 could be £9 and age 10-11 would be £10 and so on.
Is it the cost of making the clothing in plus size or is it the fact that the luxury end of the market doesn’t want plus size people advertising/wearing their clothing? From my research it looks like the plus size market is not a niche, negligible area of business. The average women’s dress size in the UK is 14 to 16 and yet they are not catered for at the designer/luxury end of the market.
Vivian Hendriksz also said “as a result, the plus size market constitutes 12.4% of all clothing sales and is worth in excess of £5 billion while a quarter of UK women have bought plus-size clothing in the past year”. So for luxury brands to be squeamish about making pulse size and to venture into this highly lucrative area of business suggests they are worried about the image it portrayed.
According to the report “What Britain Wears: Niche Clothing 2011. The NHS’s Health Survey for England found that 26.8% of women in the UK were either obese or morbidly obese in 2015, with obesity among 16 to 24-year-olds increasing sharply from 12.9% in 2014 to 15.9% in 2015”. In most recent years the Plus size clothing sales in the UK were about 15 billion pounds that’s about 15 % of the market. There is a disconnection here in that there is high demand but low sales. Retailers such as River Island and H&M are missing out, as according to the plus size people I have spoken to, these retailers struggle to get the fit and style right. This means plus size fashion clothing doesn’t sell well and when something doesn’t sell retailers stop investing in it which leaves plus size people disappointed. It would seem that retailers use the same pattern for a size 8 and size 18 just adding more material instead of redesigning the pattern in order that it will fit a plus size person. This leaves people having to start looking for other alternatives because the items they are looking for don’t exist in their size.
A famous plus size blogger/ body activist Bethany Rutter said “No, it’s not even that I’ve found one that’s more than I want to spend. It actually doesn’t exist. As a UK 20-22, there are a limited amount of places where I can shop”. Plus size people are left hanging and the only place that caters for their needs are stores such as Simply Be, Evans and Yours but these brands are lacking diversity and range. This has resulted in people such as Beth Ditto (singer) who is a size 22 to launch her own line of clothing. Bearing in mind Beth Ditto has ZERO experience in the fashion industry. As she said herself “It’s frustrating because the market is very apologetic; there’s still so much shame involved. This idea that you’re bigger, but you’re not supposed to be: I want this to be positive”.
The problem is that when you make a statement in the plus-size world, it can attract the wrong sort of attention, designers are missing out by allowing non designers to corner the plus size market and claim to be designers.
The Beth Ditto collection is now available at the renowned luxury department store Selfridges, her collection ranges from sizes 18 to 32. Does this makes Beth‘s collection a luxury alternative for plus size? I personally think not. Ditto also rolled out the collection with a presentation at New York fashion Week in 2017, saying, “I want it to be versatile, and to look good on every single body; it’s very fit- and shape-focused, and I wanted everything to be durable.” Ditto wants to fill a void in the plus size market with her economical brand which ranges in price from £45 to £273, why so cheap, why do people assume that plus size people spend less on clothing than the standard size woman again seems to be they only cater for the lower end of the market. Also her collection starts from size 18, what about the people under the size of 18? I understand that they have choices but unless designers start catering for all sizes the result is collections made by plus size people only for plus size people, this I feel is as bad as designers only catering for the smaller sizes.
The world of fashion has portrayed an image where women have been brainwashed to feel that being above a certain size is unhealthy we only have to look on the front cover of any women’s fashion magazines to see what some would describe as a ‘malnourished looking’ model. But the question is, where are we in the world of models, what is the healthiest body shape? We are slowly realising that we need more diversity in the fashion industry, it would be nice to turn on the television or to look in Vogue magazine and see plus size models wearing for instance a Chanel jacket.
It’s looks like not only women above a size 14 find it hard to get the clothes they want in luxury brands. Apparently not even Ashley Graham (model/body activist) can have what she wants from the top designers for a cover of Vogue magazine. In December 2016, Alexandra Shulman the former editor-in-chief of British Vogue said in her editor’s letter for the January issue for Vogue that some of the huge fashion brands they reached out to didn’t want to dress the famous body activist model Ashley Graham for their January cover because she was a size 14. She said “It seems strange to me that while the rest of the world is desperate for fashion to embrace broader definitions of physical beauty, some of our most famous fashion brands appear to be travelling in the opposite – and, in my opinion, unwise – direction”. It looks like when top brands have an opportunity to make more money and sales, some brands only want to please a small number of customers because they are not willing to celebrate the diversity.
Alexandra thanks the famous fashion brand Coach, who was the only brand which supplied clothes for Ashley for the photo shoot, the former editor-in-chief didn’t name any of the brands who refused to provided clothes for the shoot. Alexandra Shulman acknowledged that the fashion shoot was put together last minute, but that isn’t an excuse for the fashion brands to turn down an opportunity to have their clothes on a Vogue cover.
The words ‘plus size’ are normally used for those who are size 16 and above, which means Ashley Graham who is a size 14, doesn’t even qualify as a plus size but she still gets the backlash of being too fat and too skinny by others. Ashley isn’t the only one, models get this all the time, some plus size brands refuse to use some plus size models because they say that they are too skinny.
In February 2016 the famous high street brand Forever 21 launched their Forever 21 Instagram page for the plus size section of their clothing, this angered a few of their followers due to the fact that they didn’t feel that the models they used were plus size women. Daphne Howland (blogger) said “Everyone has an opinion, and it’s such a negative, negative environment, and it sounds sad, but they want to tear each other apart.” Daphne Howland also goes on to say “as with all models in advertising, studies show that women actually prefer ads featuring thin models and say they’re more likely to buy clothing than that shown in ads with what the researchers called regular-size models.” I personally think is it not true and Daphne has zero evidence to prove this. I went onto Forever 21’s plus sized Instagram account to read some of the comments from their angry followers, one follower commented “I don’t understand how this girl is plus,” and other follower wrote “That’s not at all plus size!! That’s ridiculous! She is a great normal healthy size!! She is probably even smaller than my size!!,” These Instagram users were angry that the models used were not curvy women (plus size enough).
Juliet Carnoy, Contributor /Senior Marketing Manager wrote in an article for Huffington Post “When plus size women see photos of other women their size looking good in a particular brand’s clothing, they can better understand how that brand’s clothing will fit them. While many standard size women will often buy what’s cute, plus size women place a greater emphasis on will it look good on me?” The authentic lens of customer photos provides a reference point for plus size women, who typically aren’t given the privilege to touch or try on products in a store to buy with confidence”.
I understand that nobody can have the perfect body shape, which is attractive to everyone but we need to embrace different body types and be more honest and open and discuss the issues more, not ignore and exclude certain body types from the high-end world of fashion.
A famous plus size model Tess Holiday (pictured left) said
“Just because we’re plus size, doesn’t mean we have to prove that we’re healthy, just as someone who is smaller than us or average size doesn’t have to prove they are healthy. We should be able to exist in our bodies. I am technically healthy but my body is no more valid than someone’s who isn’t”.
It looks like every week there’s a new controversy surrounding plus sizes – a topic, which attracts unwanted opinions. Last year Facebook banned an advert for a body positivity talk featuring Tess Holiday, saying it violated their advertising standards for promoting an “unhealthy” image. “Ads like these are not allowed since they make viewers feel bad about themselves,” a Facebook ad team rep said. “Instead, we recommend using an image of a relevant activity, like running or riding a bike.” I feel that it is quotes and expressions of opinion like the one above that is actually what makes people ‘feel bad about themselves’ and not open discussion. It is time that people had the opportunity to voice their opinion and frustrations and to defend themselves against high profile individuals and companies and the discrimination they often have to endure.
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Even the plus size brands refuse to use models of a size that actually represents their customers. Why is this the case? I feel that most of these plus size brands assume that most plus size are in the process of losing weight and want to buy clothes for ideal body. This might be true but for most people, the reality is that some people may not be able to lose weight due to medical reasons or personal issues. I have also noticed that retailers seem to discriminate by only employing staff up to a certain size even in plus size stores. Is this because plus size people do not apply for such roles? I cannot believe this is the case. I am sure that a more diverse workforce would further encourage women of any size to feel confident in shopping, seeking advice, trying on and purchasing clothes.
Why do even plus size brands refuse to use models of a size that actually represents their customers? I have noticed that television and magazine adverts for plus size brands seem to showcase their clothes on models no larger than a size 18 even though they stock up to size 32. They, like Forever 21, do not showcase a representation of all sizes by the models they chose to model their plus size clothes.
Plus size models such as Ashley Graham are campaigning to change the world of fashion and women around the world are learning to love their bodies despite how the world media portrays them. In her TED Talk on YouTube Graham described her experiences within the fashion industry over the last 15 years and shared the empowering words she tells herself whilst looking in the mirror each morning. “You are bold, you are brilliant, and you are beautiful. There is no other woman like you. You are capable. Back fat? I see you popping over my bra today, but that’s alright. I’m going to choose to love you. And thick thighs? You are just so sexy you can’t stop rubbing each other. That’s alright. I’m going to keep you. And cellulite, I have not forgotten about you. I’m going to choose to love you even though you want to take over my whole bottom half. You’re a part of me and I love you.“ The model and body activist Ashley Graham also goes on to talk about self-acceptance and why the fashion industry should drop the plus size label. Ashley says that in the fashion industry, the term plus size starts at a size 12 and goes up to size 20, meaning that the majority of the audience she was addressing would be plus size. “I felt free once I realized I was never going to fit the narrow mould that society wanted me to fit in,”
Ashley Graham goes on to say. “I was never going to be perfect enough for an industry that defines perfection from the outside in.”
Speaking about her difficulty growing up as a plus size, Ashley claims to have filled her life with parties and boys and she felt embarrassed when people asked her what was her occupation. Now, Ashley encourages her audience to practise self-love and for them to be their own role model and to look in the mirror and to tell their reflection; “you are bold, you are brilliant, and you are beautiful.”
The musician Beth Ditto said“I wish that people would stop equating fat people with laziness, and with being unhealthy,” Ditto says. “I hope that will be reflected in fashion lines that cater to big people.” It’ll take a major shift in terms of size discrimination (however overt or subtle) for plus-size fashion to really evolve, according to Ditto” She further stated “There’s still this idea that we don’t exist, or that it’s only okay to be big if you’re pregnant or older,” Ditto says. “That’s such an archaic idea to me! Especially as someone who grew up as a big person — I would really like for that to go away.”
Just like Beth Ditto Ashley Graham launched a lingerie line designed for women with a similar figure to her own (plus size). Graham’s collection was a success and combining the success with her body activist campaign, Ashley Graham is now a huge power in the world of fashion. Her body activist campaign continues to inspire a lot of people. Ashley goes on to say “People really pour their hearts out to me because they really feel like they are living this whole thing out with me,“ she told British GQ last year (2016). “They’re living out this whole body-diversity, ‘love the skin you’re in’ (movement). And I’ve been hating the skin I’m in for so long. Finally there’s someone talking about the jiggle, the cellulite, the rolls, and it feels like they’re like me.”
Ashley Graham doesn’t want to be categorised as a plus size by any fashion label. “When it comes to the word ‘plus-size’, I’ve been called a plus-size model for the past sixteen years,“ she told Shape. ”I hear it, sometimes I say it – it’s a slip of the tongue. But at the end of the day, it’s a label. You can say, ‘Yes it’s a negative thing’ or ‘maybe it’s not a negative thing’…but why would we want to be labelled something? Why do we want to be put in a different category than all the other types of models? No one says ‘skinny model’, so am I wrong for not wanting a label? I don’t think so.”
As Bethany Rutter (blogger) said “What we need, then, is not greater distance, squeamishness and ‘sanitisation’ around clothing above a size 18, but an honest confrontation of the stigma and deliberate exclusion of women above a size 18. Resolving these issues will help me and my fellow plus size women more than pretending we’re just like thin women… yet refusing to back this up when it’s time to shop”. Her vision for the future of this segment of the fashion industry isn’t just about the range of clothes available — it’ll take a much more inclusive, less judgmental outlook on the plus-size community for things to truly be more equal for that don’t wear straight-sizes.
If supermarkets can provide women’s clothing up to a size 24 why can’t luxury fashion brands do the same? The supermarkets charge the same price for a garment in a size 10 as they do in a size 24. I assume this is due to the fact that they can stand the losses they may incur for any extra cost of production as they are a supermarket and they can reap the benefits of attracting more shoppers who will most likely spend money in other parts of the store. The same cannot be said for high street fashion retail outlets or indeed the luxury end of the fashion market. It seems they can produce a ‘petite range’ but not a ‘plus size range’. If they did produce ‘plus size’ clothing this would incur extra costs for, at the moment, unknown rewards in sales/profit. Unlike Forever 21 they do not seem to want to take the chance of trying this. Is the reason for this the cost of producing the clothes and advertising and marketing them or is it because they feel that in some way this may deter their current customers from shopping in their stores.
This could be why some high street fashion stores only sell larger sizes via their on line websites. This is not helpful to the plus sizes who would like the same service that is provided for women shopping in store, by seeing, touching and trying on clothes. As for the luxury end of the market, they do not even provide this service, it’s a case of ‘what you see is what you get’ they rarely offer any larger sizes online and if they do they are not offered across all lines and are usually a very limited range of items. Using the excuse of costing and it not being economical to produce larger sizes would not seem to wash as shops such as Evans, Simply Be and Yours manage to do this. As for the luxury end of fashion, I simply cannot envisage them changing in the near future. Despite all the comments and quotes above it appears they are still unwilling to even try to expand their range to cater for anyone generally over a size 12. In many other industries this would be considered to be discrimination.
It would only take one famous designer to have the foresight and confidence to produce a range of clothing specifically in larger sizes to break this ‘lockdown’ that exists in the designer world. This clothing range does not have to be the same as that made for smaller sizes but could actually be exclusively for plus sizes as it is not always the case that items produced in small sizes would suit plus sizes by just being upscaled. I feel that they could produce a range of clothing and initially use ‘plus size’ celebrities to advertise the clothes to provide maximum publicity, which in turn could lead to plus size models being more accepted in the luxury end of the industry. As for the initial question “would women be willing to pay more for designer clothing” I think they would, if marketed correctly, and if they had a choice previously not provided for them. This would be a step in the right direction in providing freedom of choice for all women.
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