Plus-Size Mistakes by H&M, Mango, and Target Spark Fierce Fashion Debates

H&M, Mango, and Target all made serious blunders in advertising their plus-size clothing lines. Are angry customers overreacting to their mistakes?

Jan 21, 2014 at 6:15PM

In a previous article, I discussed an artist's controversial concept art of a "plus-size Barbie," which sparked a fierce debate last monthThis month, the plus-size drama continues, with marketing missteps from H&M (NASDAQOTH:HNNMY), Mango, and Target (NYSE:TGT) adding fuel to the fire concerning the differences between being medium-sized, plus-sized, and pregnant.

Defining "plus-size"
In the U.S. fashion industry, plus-size clothing is generally defined as apparel designed for sizes 14 to 24.

Here's a chart to put that into a bust, waist, and hips perspective for women's clothing:

Size

14

16

18

20

22

24

Bust

41.5"-43"

42.5"-45"

44.5"-47"

46.5"-49"

48.5"-51"

50.5"-53"

Waist

33.5"-35"

34.5"-37"

36.5"-39"

38.5"-41.5"

40.5"-44"

42.5"-46.5"

Hips

44"-45.5"

45"-47.5"

47"-49.5"

49"-51.5"

51"-53.5"

53"-55.5"

Source: Fashion.about.com.

According to the Associated Press, today, the average American woman is 25 pounds heavier than she was in 1960. However, the plus-size clothing market still only accounts for 9% of the $190 billion spent on clothes annually in the United States. This means major retailers are leaving a lot of money on the table.

Blogger Gabi Gregg, who launched "Swimsuits for All" in sizes 10 to 24 last year, experienced massive success when her "fatkini" sold out within hours of being launched online. This prompted major retailers to realize that the plus-size market was lucrative and largely untapped.

Unfortunately, in their eagerness to attract new customers, H&M, Mango, and Target failed to do their homework and accidentally offended their target market.

H&M labels "medium" models as "plus-size"
On Jan. 13, H&M, a Swedish retailer frequently praised for its low prices, fashion-forward clothes, and agile product rotations, was skewered online by customers who claimed that the company was using "medium"-sized models in its plus-size clothing advertisements.

Images

One of H&M's controversial "plus-size" models. Source: Mtlblog.com.

H&M fired back that all of its models pictured in its plus-size ad section were wearing at least size 14 (EU size 44) clothing, the standard low end of the plus-size spectrum. H&M's statement didn't satisfy irate customers, however, who continued spreading the news across social media.

Although this is definitely a public relations setback for H&M, the company's stock, which trades on the Swedish stock exchange, has already rallied nearly 30% over the past 12 months.

At the end of fiscal 2012, H&M reported a 9.4% year-over-year gain in revenue and 6.6% growth in earnings per share. The company has attributed its positive top- and bottom-line growth to rising demand in Asia and a steady recovery in Europe.

Mango redefines the plus-size category
Meanwhile, Spanish apparel retailer Mango apparently missed the news about H&M's troubles and stirred up a controversy of its own by rolling out a new plus-size range starting from a British size 12 (U.S. size 8).

There's a debate as to whether Mango's strategy was intended to flatter rather than offend female shoppers, but the backlash has been harsh in the U.K., where the average British woman wears a size 16 (U.S. size 12).

Of course, Mango is most frequently identified with former Victoria's Secret Angel Miranda Kerr, who wears a size 6, so it can also be argued that the company wasn't too concerned about marketing its clothes to the plus-size crowd in the first place.

Miranda Kerr Mango Spring

Miranda Kerr, Mango's top model, is the polar opposite of a "plus-size" model. Source: Styleblazer.com.

Last year, the privately held retailer reported a 79% year-over-year jump in profit as its revenue climbed 20%, so it hasn't been adversely affected by the lack of a plus-size line (which it only introduced in 2013) or the Bangladeshi garment factory disaster, in which it was implicated.

Target can't tell the difference between plus-size and maternity clothing
To further feed the controversy, superstore Target dressed up maternity models in plus-size clothing earlier this month.

Target

Target's controversial mistake. Source: Target.

Target attributed the embarrassing mistake to a mislabeled garment during the photo shoot. However, the error seems particularly absurd, since it uploaded an image of a clearly pregnant woman beside a description for a plus-size item.

This wasn't Target's first plus-size fiasco. In its spring 2013 collection, Target labeled a plus-size gray dress as "Manatee Gray" -- sparking unflattering comparisons between plus-size women and plump marine mammals.

Target's blunder indicates that retailers need to pay closer attention to the way they market plus-size clothes, since mislabeling products can unintentionally offend customers.

However, Target clearly has other issues to worry about -- last quarter, its revenue only inched up 1.9% as earnings fell 46.5% year over year. In addition, it faces a PR nightmare with a holiday season credit card breach that has affected roughly 70 million individuals.

Foolish takeaway
Clearly, marketing plus-size clothing can be controversial if not done right

For consumers and investors, it will be interesting to see how apparel retailers will approach the issue of plus-size clothing after the mistakes made by H&M, Mango, and Target.

What do you think, dear readers? Should these companies be castigated for their mistakes, or is the public overreacting? Let me know in the comments section below!

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Fool contributor Leo Sun has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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