On a winter day in 1992, Toni Tiraborelli found herself on a bench in Bayview Village, staring at an empty storefront. She had woken up that morning determined to make a decision. Two months earlier, Tiraborelli—who owned women’s clothing boutiques in Hamilton, Burlington, and Mississauga—had invited Orey Fidani, the owner of Bayview Village shopping centre, to her Burlington location. She thought she could replicate her store in his mall. But Fidani had another idea. He was impressed with the quality of Tiraborelli’s merchandise and customer service, and wanted her to translate that into a high-end shop for plus-size women. Tiraborelli wasn’t so sure.
“I knew nothing about the plus-size market,” she says. “I had never set foot in a plus-size store in my life.” She turned Fidani down after his initial offer, but, out of curiosity, began visiting plus-size stores in southern Ontario, an experience she describes as entering “a different decade.” The clothes were unfashionable, cheap, and shapeless. She knew she could do better. Which is how Tiraborelli ended up outside the empty Bayview Village storefront, people-watching and trying to make up her mind. “I told myself if I could count five plus-size women on the way to the car, I’d do it,” she recalls. “I counted more than a dozen.”
The night before Toni Plus opened, a woman pounded on the construction hoarding that still covered the store. She was travelling the next day with her husband and was desperate for a good vacation wardrobe. The space was chaos: Boxes and mannequin limbs were strewn everywhere, staffers were unpacking clothes, and contractors were assembling fixtures. “We were afraid she might hurt herself,” Tiraborelli says. But they let the woman in—she spent $1,800.
After its first few days, the store was almost empty, having done $35,000 in sales, a huge amount at the time. Today, there are six Toni Plus locations across Canada (three are shop-in-shop concepts in The Bay). Tiraborelli, who exited “regular”-size retail, is relentless about the fit of the garments she carries—no formless cuts—and pushes customers towards on-trend looks. The clothes are made in gorgeous fabrics with price tags to match—many of her clients are business executives.
In the two decades since Tiraborelli opened the first Toni Plus, however, the retail landscape for larger shoppers hasn’t changed a whole lot. If you’re a Torontonian who doesn’t fall between sizes 0 and 12, here are your options: a few chains (like Addition Elle and Penningtons), “above-average” sections within a handful of stores (Old Navy, Forever 21), a couple of boutiques, and dedicated websites (Torrid, ASOS). If you don’t mind doing the vast majority of your shopping online, or if you don’t particularly care about clothes, you’re good. Otherwise, not so much.
So when women find a plus-size shop with styles they see in fashion magazines, they whip out their credit cards as quickly as Tiraborelli’s anxious traveller. Two years ago, Victoria McGroarty opened Gussied Up, a plus boutique at Dupont and Bathurst, with zero retail experience. “I’ve been plus-size my whole life, so the decision [to open] came out of necessity and opportunity and frustration,” she says. McGroarty carries the kind of clothes many of her customers never thought they’d find in their sizes: leatherette leggings, blouses patterned with skulls, dresses in Aztec prints. And it sells. “The stuff turns over really quickly, so I look to buy every day, and I usually get shipments in three or four times a week,” she says.
The Junction got a hip plus-size shop last December. Owned by Karen Ward, Your Big Sister’s Closet is filled with affordable, trendy pieces. “It’s very difficult to find things you’ll be excited to wear if you’re a woman between the ages of 18 and 35 and plus-size,” Ward says. “There’s this weird dichotomy happening, where you can either get the really short, tight skirt or the boxy, button-down top.”
Both stores have become destinations not just for Torontonians, but women across the country. “A lady came in from Ottawa in tears because she was so happy to finally find a place with fashionable clothes that actually fit her,” says Ward, who has shipped online purchases to Denmark and Russia. McGroarty says customers have planned trips to the city just so they can visit Gussied Up. “You can always tell the people who come in for the first time,” she says. “They say, ‘Oh, my god! Oh, my god!’ And they go through the store and put a ton of stuff in the change room.” McGroarty is considering opening more locations.
Here’s a prediction: Those locations will do very, very well. That’s not even a bold prediction. That’s common sense. Like much of North America, Toronto’s population is getting larger. Almost half the adult population (more than 46 per cent) is overweight or obese, up from 40 per cent in 2001. Even in our skinniest area, Parkdale-Downtown and Waterfront, more than a third of us are overweight or obese. Our bodies are big across education level, age, and income.
Curvy women are eager for modern clothes that look terrific on them: The notion that they won’t spend the money because they plan to lose the weight is outdated. Plus-size fashion is a clear growth industry, but supply isn’t remotely keeping up with demand. And if Toronto wants to be smart—if Toronto wants to do something both lucrative and attention-grabbing—it will seize this opportunity before another city does.
Sizing up Toronto’s plus fashion
Our covergirls respond
Retail is a tough business and plus-size retail is even harder—you can’t just take a size-4 dress and replicate it in a size 20. It requires expertise in fit that many buyers and designers don’t have. In existing stores, shelf space is certainly an issue. And there’s something more insidious at work, too: Not all designers and retailers want overweight people wearing their clothes. But a wave of bloggers is proving just how misguided that thinking is.
Young, fat, and fabulous is how Chicago’s Gabi Gregg describes herself. She launched her blog, Gabifresh, in 2008 with the rallying cry: “I devour Vogue for breakfast, Elle for lunch, and W for dinner, only to then look you in the eye and inquire about dessert.” It’s a one-sided love affair—however much Gregg and readers like her devour those publications, plus-size women have been almost entirely shut out of the mainstream fashion media. The clothes they see on the runway and in magazines don’t usually come in their size.
But sites like Gabifresh gave bloggers the ability to create and disseminate fashion imagery, and share advice specifically for curvy bodies. More importantly, the internet gave these women visibility. Like many 20-something fashion bloggers, Gregg documents her outfits, which are cuter than your outfits. She pairs leather jackets with sequined skirts and Louboutins, and a midriff-bearing turtleneck with a knee-length brocade skirt. She’s got a thing for bright lipstick and big hair. Gregg has translated that into a whackload of Twitter followers (almost 24,000) and appearances in magazines (InStyle, Seventeen, and Cosmopolitan) that have caught on to her influence and style.
“The plus-size fashion-blogging community here in Toronto has really developed over the last couple of years,” says Ward, who is a blogger as well as a storeowner. Killer Kurves, Franceta Johnson, Round Raglan Road, XXElle, and Big Hips Red Lips are all a prominent part of that community.
Addition Elle has realized how powerful these bloggers are and changed its product lines to match the fashion-hungry tastes of women like them. In 2011, Roslyn Griner joined the company as the VP of marketing and visual display, then set to work distinguishing Addition Elle from Penningtons (both are owned by Reitmans), the more mumsy of the plus brands. “Basically, all of the product offerings on the market kind of looked like Talbots,” says Griner. “I thought there was really a lack of trends to speak to a younger generation.”
Griner invites style bloggers to launches for new lines and asks them for input on what the store should be carrying. Their impact is apparent: Addition Elle overhauled its merchandise by adding brand-name denim from Levi’s, Buffalo, Parasuco, and DKNY, energizing its in-house labels, and carrying bolder items, such as coloured and metallic jeans. “It used to be that people wore black—black was the number-one colour,” says Griner of Addition Elle’s customers. “Now all we see in terms of trends at the checkout is colour. Anything that’s trendy is what sells faster.” The company just opened a new flagship location across from the Eaton Centre. It’s almost intimidatingly sleek, thanks to design firm Callison, whose client list includes Louis Vuitton, Fendi, and Chanel.
Twenty-nine-year-old Toronto designer Jessica Biffi has seen the store’s dramatic change. “When I was a kid, I shopped at Addition Elle and I hated it,” she says. “I felt like a 50-year-old woman trying to look like a 15 year old.” Since being a finalist on Project Runway Canada in 2009, Biffi has designed two collections for Addition Elle; both sold very well. “It wasn’t until young and youthful women started coming up in the plus-size market and voicing their opinions that [retailers were] forced to change things up,” she says. “There are more plus-size women than just the grandmas and moms. There’s the teenager in high school, there’s the young PR person, there’s the girl in fashion school.”
Women’s apparel is worth about $13.2 billion in Canada, but it’s remained relatively flat. The plus-size segment, worth $1.9 billion, is slowly growing. But not one person I spoke with felt that there were enough choices for those shoppers. Biffi says that other than a few boutiques like Gussied Up, “our only real options are what’s offered by Reitmans. It’s great that there’s one company that’s focusing on it, but it’s not enough.” Based on her market research before opening Your Big Sister’s Closet, Ward believes there’s room for several more stores like hers in Toronto. Tiraborelli of Toni Plus agrees. “If I were younger and had more energy, I’d start something for a teenage segment,” she says. “There’s definitely an opportunity there.”
The numbers back them up. In 2011, Philip Parker, the chaired professor of management science at INSEAD (the European Institute of Business Administration), published a study that examined the women’s plus-size clothing industry in North America and the Caribbean. Parker’s report looked at the potential earnings of the industry and determined that Canada could be making a tidy $2.3 billion. That’s $400 million more than we’re bringing in now. He also found that Toronto has the 24th largest plus-size market in the world, and valued its potential at $688 million U.S., increasing annually.
“There’s this very lucrative market that fashion brands are missing out on by not representing these women,” says Ben Barry, whose modelling agency represents people of different ages, sizes, and ethnic backgrounds. Barry recently joined Ryerson University’s fashion school as an assistant professor of equity, diversity, and inclusivity. He adds, “For those who want a career in the fashion industry and want to succeed, the plus-size market is the greatest opportunity right now.”
Despite this fertile ground, no city has emerged as a leader in plus-size apparel. Toronto should. The supply-and-demand conditions are close to ideal. But it’s also an enormous opportunity for a city struggling to find its fashion identity.
If you ask someone, even a Torontonian, to define Toronto fashion, I guarantee that the response will be “Uhhh…” or “Canada Goose.” That’s not true of places like New York (think American sportswear from the likes of Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren) or London (young, edgy designers and ties to the music world) or Paris (the home of haute couture). “If Toronto wants to get on that level, it really needs to think, ‘What is the strength of this city?’” says Barry. “And when people think of Toronto, we think of diversity.”
Diversity our strength: sounds familiar. “So how can we translate that into fashion?” Barry asks. “Being a leader in high fashion for curvy women is one way that Toronto can really stand out in this competitive industry.”
Even the most casual observer with the most cursory business sense can see that there’s potential here—not just to grow our plus-size retail landscape (although seriously, young entrepreneurs, get on that) but to take our place among the high-fashion capitals. We have the talent in designers like Biffi; we have people like Barry to guide us. What we don’t yet have—even though this is an industry that prides itself on pushing boundaries—is an especially receptive fashion audience.
Last October, Kevin Naulls was covering Toronto Fashion Week for The Toronto Standard and arrived at Allistyle’s presentation. It was the first fashion show for the plus-size line, and the first time a plus-size collection had shown at Toronto Fashion Week. During the show, which starred Whitney Thompson, America’s Next Top Model’s only plus-size winner, members of the audience laughed. “A woman cackled so loudly that it was impossible that no one heard her,” says Naulls, who wrote a piece for the Standard about the experience. One man hid his face the entire time. “Everything was a joke was about how fat [the models] were. That was the commentary—not this dress is great, or this dress isn’t great,” he recalls. It was a shameful moment for the city.
Alli Shapiro died after her battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2006. Her mother, Pam Shainhouse, is the founder of Allistyle. The two dreamed of creating a plus-size line when Alli gained weight because of the medication she took during her illness. Shainhouse’s pieces are simple, draped to flatter, and made in Canada. All of the fabrics—mostly organic cotton and eco-friendly bamboo—are milled here. “I was behind the scenes, so I didn’t see anything,” says Shainhouse of the audience reaction to her show. She was shocked by Naulls’s account and read the piece many times. “It reminded me of being bullied when I was younger.”
Still, Shainhouse says holding the show was the smartest thing she could do for her line. It gave Allistyle international publicity and credibility, and has opened the doors for discussions with Addition Elle and Laura Canada, on top of distributors in Europe. “It’s really ready to blow,” Shainhouse says of her business. “Everything is moving forward beautifully.” The rest of us just have to catch up.