Meet The Woman Helping China Embrace Plus-Size Fashion
A few years ago, the #A4Challenge gained traction in China. It involved women and girls holding a piece of printer paper in front of their bodies to prove their waists could fit behind it. Given a standard A4 is only 20cm wide, this challenge was encouraging young women to flirt heavily with eating disorders. However, while Chinese society still, by and large, insists women must be thin to be attractive, as a country it has more plus-size women than anywhere else in the world.
Even the state-run paper, Global Times, has published a report saying China now has the largest overweight population in the world. This is because, despite having a relatively low obesity rate, the scale of China’s population tips the scale. Nearly 11 percent of men and 15 percent of women in a nation of 1.4 billion people are overweight, according to a study published in the Lancet Medical Journal. That’s more than 43 million men and 46 million women in total–bumping the United States to second place
But because of the overwhelming pressure to be thin, very few fashion brands cater to them. Dai Ying is trying to change this. The founder of Garden Lis—a fashion forward label that aims to meet the rapidly growing demand for plus-sized clothing in China—she believes people of all sized should enjoy stylish, fashionable designs. As a result, Garden Lis offers clothing and accessories influenced by runway trends, and has more than 200 physical outlets as well as a strong e-commerce presence.
“I knew something had to be done and the results I have seen over the last three years have been astounding,” she says, on the phone from Beijing. “I was personally very wedded to the concept, as a lot of women in my family have a gene that means it is very hard for them to lose weight. I have grown up watching my mother and cousin really struggle to find bigger clothes.”
And while a few brands started making clothes in larger sizes, very few imbued their designs with the fun and creativity that were the norm in stores aimed at thinner women. “Women in my family had to make a lot of effort to find anything that was even slightly pretty or fashionable—and in terms of affordable fashion there were only one or two discount brands; and for older women there was nothing," says Ying. "This is ridiculous, as one look at the statistics shows that Chinese women are becoming more and more overweight over the last 30 years, and fashion needs to start catering to them.”
There is an argument to say that the high street’s refusal to make clothes for women who are a size 16 or larger is a decision based on image rather than financial gains. Because why else would the industry be ignoring them? The Chinese plus size market was estimated to be worth US$6.1 billion last year and, according to Price Waterhouse Coopers, will grow at six percent a year for the next four years.
With Garden Lis, Ying is attempting to right a wrong, creating a range of clothing for women of all ages starting from a size 16. One look at their website shows that they are as fashion conscious as any other brand coming out of China, with cleverly cut jackets, brightly patterned dresses and high-waisted jeans.
“I feel there are many prejudices in China relating to size, but it is getting better,” says Ying. “Ten years ago, if you said you were a plus-size shop, nobody would want to admit they were overweight, so they wouldn’t ever go in there. That’s why I launched the brand online, and when it was successful, opened shops and found distributors around the country. I would notice that at first, overweight girls would come in secretly, hoping to find a size that would fit them. But with time, they would come in with their friends and be proud of the pieces they were buying.
One of the factors Ying cites for this change is the rise of certain influencers around Asia who happily flaunt their more curvaceous bodies. One of them is Kiu, a Hong-Konger based in Shanghai, who has created a vlog called Kiu Plus, which helps plus-sized viewers find clothes but also fight back against the societal pressure to be thin.
I want equal rights in fashion and I want everyone to feel good and love their shape
— Dai Ying
Then in Japan there is comedian Naomi Watanabe, who has nearly 9 million followers on Instagram, is a television regular, and was the 2016 Vogue Japan Woman of the Year. In a country where the average woman weighs 52 kilograms, Watanabe stands out, not only for her shape but for her confident and often revealing outfits.
"When big people walk down the street in Japan, there are cat calls and people shouting negative things at them. Plus-size girls usually wear a lot of black and cover up," she said in an interview with Business Insider. "I started incorporating messages of body image in my comedy and people started laughing. They weren't laughing at me but relating with me. It became a positive message. Now there's more of a feeling that these girls can wear what they like to wear and not cover themselves up just because of their size."
Ying cites Watanabe as one of the inspirations for her brand, and says her work has been instrumental in telling Asian women whose bodies don’t fit into narrow definitions of acceptability that they can be beautiful too.
“At first everyone thought Naomi was too fat to have such a successful career—and such a good-looking boyfriend—but she has certainly proven them wrong. And I want to put out the same message as her. I want equal rights in fashion and I want everyone to feel good and love their shape.”