One Size Shape Does Not Fit All
Plus-size women represent 68% of all American women. Most new and existing plus-size collections and “straight size” brand extensions take small sizes and grade up, but new company Pari Passu does something radically different: they design clothes specifically for curvy bodies.
After intensive data analysis and observation research with Alvanon, Pari Passu has developed a proprietary fit system. They started with 7,500 3D body scans of women size 14 and above. From there three body types were identified to invent a unique sizing system where not just size but body shape make up each fit.
Virgie Tovar, contributor at Forbes Woman spoke with co-founders Shanna Goldstone and Edward Slezak about how Pari Passu began and how they’re changing the game for plus-size women.
Virgie Tovar: How was working with Melissa McCarthy part the origin story of Pari Passu?
Shanna Goldstone: The opportunity of working with Melissa McCarthy really opened our eyes. Ed and I have worked in retail together for fifteen years, and we’ve never worked in the plus segment before. When we started working with Melissa and started looking at what was out there it totally opened our eyes and raised our awareness around something that we didn’t even recognize was a problem.
Edward Slezak: Working with Melissa was really a gateway into a segment of the apparel market that we just hadn’t seen before. As we spent time there it was so obvious that there was such opportunity to provide the majority of women a much better product and a much better experience. And we wanted to be part of that. We felt our background lent itself to allowing us to do this.
Tovar: Tell me about your backgrounds.
Goldstone: Ed and I have worked together for about fifteen years, ten of which were at Aeropostale.
Slezak: We were there for a long time. Shanna ran our marketing there. I was their general counsel. I’m an attorney by education and I still practice a little bit as well. I was also an executive at the company. We went from t-shirts and hoodies to cupcakes. We were at Crumbs Bakeshop. We’ve had a lot of experience in different sectors of specialty retail. Until we worked with Melissa we had never worked in plus-size. Once you see the problem (that the plus-size customer faces) you can’t un-see it.
Tovar: Talk about the proprietary fit system.
Slezak: The fit system is really very simple. It boils down to shape first and then size. Shape is far more important in determining the fit of a garment than size. Just as a way of example, we focus our line on tailored separates. Every pair of pants that we offer come in twenty-one different options: three shapes and seven sizes. It was all the research and all the work we’ve done. This business is sixteen months in the making. We’re launching now, but really all the research and background informed us and allowed us to create the three distinct shapes to address 90% or more of the addressable market.
Tovar: Amazing. I was trying to explain to someone recently that I’m what’s called an “apple.” So I wear one size in tops and a different size in bottoms. This is a consistent challenge for most of the women I know. It’s astonishing that this is still a problem.
Goldstone: We still can’t believe that we were the first as far as we know to address fit in this way.
Slezak: We will not reference any fruit when we talk about our shapes. It’s a little disrespectful to women and not what we’re looking to portray in the quality and workmanship.
Tovar: What language does Pari Passu use around shape?
Goldstone: We wanted the language to be as neutral as possible. So we use the letters “B,” “C,” and “D,” and the sizes run from from one through seven.
Tovar: Tell me about the body scans that were used for the fit system.
Slezak: We’re about sixteen months in the making with this business. A tremendous portion of our first sixteen months has been the R&D portion. We started with commissioning a survey of a very large scale body scan project, through malls and what have you. They invited people of all shapes and sizes, all ethnicities, men, women and children of all ages to try and get as much data as possible about what current American bodies were looking like.
We commissioned a portion of that survey that applied to our customer, which are females above a size 14 and generally ages 30 to 50. Out of that, they generated over 7500 body scans that were specific to our customer group.
We then had 3D avatars made of the data that came from the survey. So we have 3D body forms. That then became physical body forms. So we have unique physical body forms for all three shapes. They truly look like nothing you’ve seen before, if you’ve ever seen a dressmaker form. These are representative of the real women of today. They are very accurate representations of what women look like today.
Goldstone: It was so difficult to get the forms made. We had to look at the data, study the data, and validate our hypothesis. Anyone with eyes can tell you that people come in different shapes. Even through this process of working with a leading manufacturer and analyst of fit data, it still took prototype after prototype because it’s so ingrained in the industry that a dressmaker form should look a certain way.
Even after we did the study the first prototype still looked too similar to a traditional dressmaker form.
We went back to the manufacturer saying, “I don’t understand. This doesn’t look like what we thought it would look like.” And they said, “Well, we took the liberty of modifying the data so it would be easier for your factories to work with.” And we told them that’s completely the opposite of what we asked them to do. “That’s what we’re trying to change.” We had to go back to the drawing board and start again.
Slezak: So there are probably three or more iterations of the body forms before we got it right. And that’s what we used to do our initial patterns. Every one of our styles is a unique pattern. As far as we can tell in the market this is pretty unheard of. We go to that level of detail, creating the pattern for the garments separately, to make sure that the fit is perfect. So, after we did all that, samples were created and we started fitting them on real women. And we’ve probably fit on hundreds of real women by now. It is really dramatic. We’re not looking to toot our own horn, but it’s amazing the fit that our product is able to provide.
Tovar: Do you use fit models in addition to the forms?
Goldstone: We use forms as well as three different fit models.
Slezak: We added more to the process because it was so critical for us. We believed that the single biggest issue in the plus size market is fit. If we can get the fit right and then layer in terrific, natural fabrics, not polyesters, with the amazing tailoring that we have at the best cut-and-sew factory in the United States, then we’ve created something special.
Tovar: How did you make fabric choices and the detail choices for this line?
Goldstone: It was imperative to us that everything start and end with fit, and second to that was using the highest quality materials that we could source. So, just as a means of example, the wool that we use we buy from the same mill that Hermes does. It’s gorgeous, and it feels amazing. It looks amazing. We only have a tiny bit of stretch in the product. It’s just there for comfort. We’re not using high-stretch fabric to cheat on fit. We use mother of pearl buttons and Italian ultra-thin leather. It was so important for us to be able to give our customer something she just hasn’t ever had.
Tovar: Luxury is a new market offering for plus-size women. Do you have advice for women who aren’t used to seeing themselves in this market at all?
Goldstone: Absolutely! I could go on for days about this. First and foremost, we have to ask why women don’t think they’re worth the investment. Obviously for a long time women have been told to change this, change that, go on a diet, lose ten pounds, get ready for bikini season, change their hair color. Quite frankly, it’s BS.
Everyone is worthy. Everyone should invest in themselves as they are right now. You don’t need to change.
We say all the time that we need to change clothes for women. Women don’t need to change to fit into our clothes.
Everyone deserves to feel chic, sophisticated and well-dressed and to have a great shopping experience. To have something delivered and for it to feel like a present, not like something thrown in a mailer and crushed at your doorstep. I can’t speak strongly enough: everyone is worth this experience.
Tovar: There is a strong emotional side to plus-size fashion because of the historic lack of availability. Have you come up against that as you’ve launched Pari Passu?
Slezak: Yes. One of our models who’s on our site, the first time she came into our office to try on clothes she started to cry. She said, “I’d never been able to put on clothes at this size that closed properly, that feel so good. I feel like these clothes were made for me.” We knew were onto something at that moment.
Tovar: What’s it like coming into such a new market?
Slezak: It’s a little scary. There were so many misconceptions out there (about our customer). Things like, “She’s unwilling to invest in herself. She’s unwilling to spend on herself. She’s unhappy with her size and her shape. She’s always looking to change. She’s never going to invest in better-made garments or fabrics.” We heard all that, we just didn’t believe it. We firmly believed that if we built it – which we did – then they will come. Because we see she has Birkin bags and tremendous jewelry. We felt there is clearly the desire to have better clothes.
Goldstone: But they don’t exist!
Slezak: If they don’t exist and we create them, then we firmly believe that she’s going to want to buy them. It was scary, but we didn’t want to just follow. We wanted to be a leader.
This article was originally published on Forbes.