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Old Navy is overhauling how it designs clothes. Here’s why

An inside look at how Old Navy overhauled its entire organization to ensure that plus-size consumers could shop alongside their straight-size counterparts.

Old Navy is overhauling how it designs clothes. Here’s why
[Photo: Old Navy]

For decades, fashion brands have been focused on thin consumers. That’s started to slowly shift over the past few years, thanks to designers like Christian Siriano and models like Ashley Graham. But still, the needs of the plus-size consumer are from mainstream, and the shopping experience is often marginalized.

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Old Navy is trying to change that, by radically reimagining its approach to how plus-size clothes are designed, manufactured, and displayed. Starting Friday, the company is making it possible for customers to shop sizes 0 to 30 in exactly the same way. That means no more plus-size styles or special sections: All its offerings will be made for all sizes and will be featured in the same displays.

[Photo: Old Navy]
While Old Navy isn’t the first clothing label in the industry to do this, it is perhaps the biggest, as a mass-market retailer that serves millions of customers annually, generating $8 billion in revenue in 2020. And given that the women’s plus-size apparel market alone is worth $20.4 billion, this is a huge market opportunity for the brand.

“This is the biggest launch since the brand was founded [in 1994],” says Nancy Green, Old Navy’s CEO. “It will involve every touchpoint at the brand, from marketing to stores to how we design clothes.”

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The way things have always been done

There isn’t a good reason that fashion companies have separate plus-size and straight-size divisions. It’s an accident of history. Old Navy, for instance, began making plus-size clothes in 2004 and launched an entirely new business unit that catered to this customer. Across the market, many brands have separate plus-size departments that churn out different styles and work with different factories that specialize in tailoring for plus-size bodies. “That’s the way that everyone always did it,” says Alison Partridge Stickney, Old Navy’s head of women’s merchandising, who helped spearhead the company’s new initiative. “It’s not the most compelling answer, I realize.”

[Image: Old Navy]
And even though women size 14 and up make up more than half the market, the industry overwhelmingly focuses on serving the needs of straight-size women. Research firm NPD found that women’s plus-size clothing only makes up 19% of apparel, which means this customer is profoundly underserved.

Recently, however, there’s been a movement in the fashion industry to create clothing collections that encompass all sizes. One of the most notable players is Universal Standard, a premium brand founded in 2015 that offers sizes 00 to 40 for all garments in its collection. But when I spoke with the brand’s founders as they were launching, they said how difficult it was to find designers and factories that were skilled at creating well-fitting pieces across a broad size range, precisely because the industry has been so bifurcated for so long. Over the past few years, several brands have followed Universal Standard’s lead, but manufacturing practices in the fashion industry have been slow to change.

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High-end denim brand Good American, which launched in 2016, makes each of its styles in sizes 00 to 32, but when it partnered with Nordstrom in 2017, the retailer wanted to separate the brand’s larger sizes into a separate section of the store. It was only after the founders insisted on keeping the collection together that Nordstrom complied, and the strategy worked so well that Nordstrom began integrating plus-size clothes across the store, while also keeping its separate plus-size department.

All of these examples reveal how hard it is to rewrite the rule of the fashion industry. Four years ago, when Old Navy began surveying its customers and carrying out focus groups, it realized how terrible plus-size shoppers felt when they tried to buy clothing. They described how they had a tiny selection compared to straight-size women and how embarrassed they were to be relegated to a small subsection of the store. “Every woman we talked to had a story,” says Stickney. “One mom in Miami told me she had this vision of the wonderful experience of shopping with her daughter when she grew up, but when the time came, they couldn’t shop at the same stores.”

[Photo: Old Navy]

Changing Old Navy from the inside out

It was clear to the brand that they had to change the way they did business, but it was also clear that integrating their straight- and plus-size departments would be an enormous undertaking. From a design perspective, Stickney was tasked with making sure that every garment Old Navy makes came in a full spectrum of sizes.

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Typically, brands create a style and fit it on a size 8 model, then incrementally shrink or expand it proportionally so it fits larger and smaller sizes. For instance, to go from size 8 to size 10, you might increase the sleeves and torso of a shirt by an inch. But this approach doesn’t work as you get into larger sizes, since bodies don’t expand incrementally in every direction. If you kept increasing the sleeve length from size 8 to size 40, the sleeves would be so long, they’d end up on the floor. And since people carry weight differently, creating pieces that fit a wide range of plus-size consumers comfortably can be tricky.

[Photo: Old Navy]
Old Navy decided to change its entire technical design process. In 2018, it partnered with Susan Sokolowski, a professor of product design at the University of Oregon, to create software that would properly fit each style across the size range. With Sokolowski, Old Navy’s design department scanned 389 women, then created 3D avatars that they could use to create patterns. The company then worked with its factory partners to learn this new sizing system, and cut and sew garments appropriately. “This technology gave us a more realistic view of what the body looks like at each size,” says Emily Bibick, customer lead and merchandizing expert at Old Navy. “It allowed us to really pay attention to things like the placement of a pocket or buttons, or the length of a zipper. This allowed us to make sure that the product would fit well on every single body.”

It took two years to get this new system off the ground. But this year, Old Navy customers will finally experience the fruits of the labor. Every style in the fall collection will come in sizes 0 to 30, or XS to 4X. And there’s no price difference based on size. Starting tomorrow, Old Navy is also transforming the shopping experience within its fleet of 1,200 stores to eliminate the plus-size section so customers can shop by style rather than size. And to help shoppers get a sense of how an outfit looks, Old Navy will have mannequins in stores in sizes 4, 12, and 18. Green says part of this transformation also involved giving retail associates intensive training on how best to help customers of all sizes. “We needed to equip them with the right body positivity language so they could really serve the customer as best as possible,” she says.

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Old Navy has invested heavily in transforming itself to be more size inclusive. But it also expects to see a major payoff from this effort. For years, Old Navy has been the best performing brand within the Gap, Inc. portfolio, which includes Gap, Banana Republic, Athleta, and Hill City. Given how sorely underserved plus-size consumers are, Old Navy has an opportunity to win over this demographic and become a place where they feel comfortable shopping. “We see an opportunity to better serve the customer and bring more customers into the brand,” says Green. “It’s a very meaningful business opportunity that we believe will translate into growth.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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