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Summer Michaud-Skog, 44, is excited to park her Sprinter 3500 cargo van outside of her sister’s house near Minneapolis, Minnesota, for the next few months. Her goal: to experience the “beautiful magic” of a winter spent ice fishing and skating on frozen lakes and playing in the snow. She’s undaunted by the subfreezing temperatures—she grew up in the North Star State, after all—but the founder of Fat Girls Hiking does wonder if she’ll be able to find the appropriate cold-weather apparel to outfit her outdoor pursuits. “If you don’t have the gear you need to get outside in the winter, you’re not going to be able to do that in the same way as other people,” she says. “That is a barrier for plus-size folks.”
The barrier is getting just a little smaller, at least when it comes to cozy first layers, thanks to her work alongside Denver-based outdoor apparel brand, Smartwool. This fall, the company launched thermal merino base layers in women’s plus sizes, becoming a leader in the outdoor arena in size inclusivity—and it’s doing so intentionally, with significant input from brand ambassadors like Michaud-Skog. “We’re not experts in plus-size,” says Andi Burch, Smartwool’s global senior merchandise manager. “That’s why we’re pulling the community in to consult with us.”
That community makes up a significant portion of American women. A 2016 study from the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education reports that the average American woman wears size 16 to 18 (around an XL or 1X). More recent data from Statistica reports that in 2021, plus-size women’s apparel made up about 19 percent of the U.S. apparel market. Two years prior, the same organization highlighted Walmart as “the most frequented retailer among plus-size shoppers when shopping for their plus-size apparel needs.”
“Inclusive sizing continues to be an opportunity for brands in the apparel space, especially when it comes to activewear,” says Kristen Classi-Zummo, an apparel industry analyst for market research firm the NPD Group, which also tracks trends in women’s plus-size clothing. “This plus-size consumer is proving that she is looking to refresh her wardrobe, and she is supporting the brands and retailers who have the right assortment for her at the right price.”
Starting this season, Smartwool is one of those brands—though it’s taken nearly three years to get there. Designers began with exploratory focus groups to understand America’s plus-size female population: Were they even interested in outdoor activities? The answer was a resounding “yes.” “It was so disheartening to hear some of their feedback,” Burch says about their barriers to cold-weather activities like skiing and winter hiking. “There’s not a lot for that outdoor consumer right now in plus size.”
Designers then addressed sizing, price, and aesthetics. They committed to adding plus sizes to the line, not just extended sizes. (The latter starts with a “straight-size” medium and then “grades” up, or down, in width and length to make XS–XL sizes. Extended sizing does not account for the plus-size body shape, which might have a rounder stomach or larger thighs, not just longer legs and arms.) They heard consumers’ demands for price parity in plus-size apparel, avoiding what Michaud-Skog refers to as the “fat tax” where consumers pay $3 to $5 more for sizes 14 and above (not to be confused with the so-called “fat tax” imposed on unhealthy foods). And rather than only creating garments in blacks, charcoals, and navies, Smartwool designers added the same bright colors and vibrant patterns found in straight sizes. “Brands might think that plus-size people want to minimize their body or make their bodies look smaller, and that is the last thing that I want to do,” Michaud-Skog says. “I celebrate my body. I’m proud of it.”
There’s no question, Smartwool is keen to deliver what these customers want, but Burch warns that their plus-size roll-out will take time. Current offerings are found just in the brand’s thermal base layer line, not its full collection of mid- and outer layers. The garments go up just to size 3X (though the full spectrum of plus sizes in the apparel industry generally extends to 7X), and though they come in many of the same prints and colors as the straight sizes, they aren’t offered in all. “We did have to make some strategic choices,” Burch says, though her team is “doing what we can and serving as many as we can right now, and then addressing for future seasons, ‘What do we do next?’”
“What’s next” includes extending to size 4X in spring 2023 and adding all-season base layers and merino short-sleeve T-shirts to their plus-size offerings. They may expand the number of prints and patterns available, too. Men’s plus sizes are on the horizon as well, though not for a few years.
More immediately, Smartwool is committed to including plus-size models in their marketing materials and on their website and using plus-size mannequins to display their clothes in-store. “We’re thinking through the entire experience for plus-size consumers and making sure it feels right,” Burch says. “We want the plus-size community to know we have longevity. We’re not going anywhere.”
Though Michaud-Skog is eager to snuggle into her merino base layers this winter (especially her long-sleeve mountainscape crew), she’s more excited about the message Smartwool’s dedication to inclusive sizing sends about her community and its place in the outdoors. “It’s saying that we belong there, and they’re going to give us these items that will help us be our best selves when we’re there.”