Liz Wilson was scrolling through Facebook last September when she stumbled upon a post that had prompted a heated discussion over the lack of plus-size technical hiking bottoms.
Wilson, the vice president of product for Seattle-based apparel and gear brand Outdoor Research, had previously spoken with her team about adding extended and plus sizes to the product lineup, but that Facebook post and its responses served as a clarion call to stop talking about it and finally act.
“It was jaw-dropping and inspiring, and it became that catalyst moment,” Wilson told Outside Business Journal. “I came back to the office and—because we’re a smaller company, we can do this—I said, ‘This is going to be our number-one focus for the year. We’re going to launch it, come hell or high water, even during Covid.’ That describes the type of people we have working at Outdoor Research because it quickly became everyone’s passion.”
Fast forward nine months and that passion has turned into the industry’s first technical layering system in inclusive sizes. Outdoor Research will soon introduce extended and plus sizing in a wide range of base layers, insulation, and shells. Its extended-sizing program, which includes sizes ranging from XXS to XXXL, will launch this fall. And its plus-size collection, which includes sizes ranging from 1X-3X in various fits for different body shapes, will launch next spring.
The brand said that while other apparel makers might offer some products in plus sizing, “no one else is making a true system of technical apparel from shells through insulation and base layers.” Outdoor Research said it’s past time for the outdoor industry to offer this type of clothing for a previously underserved demographic.
“Inclusive sizing isn’t a product launch—it’s a commitment to doing things intentionally and, frankly, it’s something that is long overdue,” Wilson said. “For us, this is a starting point which we plan to build on as we become a more inclusive brand.”
A new formula for technical apparel at Outdoor Research
Outdoor Research embarked on the journey to bring inclusivity to its apparel line by reaching out to some of the commenters on that initial Facebook post. The brand recruited six advisers—Megan Banker, Sam Ortiz, Bennett Rahn, Rochelle Murphy, Britta Nelson, and Kaila Walton—who helped the brand’s R&D team create its plus- and extended-size line by contributing input and modeling prototypes.
WATCH our interview with Sam Ortiz of Climb Big about sizing inclusivity.
One of those advisers, Banker, a chiropractor who lives in Portland, Ore., is an avid climber who runs a plus-size rock climbing meetup. She said she’s received calls from other gear makers for input on plus-size products, but her experience with Outdoor Research stood out because of the company’s immediate engagement.
“It’s typical for brands to reach out to some of us who are active on social media so they can pick our brains, but we usually never hear from them again,” she told OBJ. “From our first call, it was apparent that this was going to be different. They wanted to hear our perspective. They didn’t just want our opinion, but they wanted to see how our experience could help improve not only Outdoor Research but the entire outdoor space as well.”
Banker said the brand wanted to know what plus-size outdoor enthusiasts were missing in their apparel options, and how Outdoor Research could meet those needs. She told them about her experience skipping the women’s department in gear shops and heading straight to the men’s section to seek out 2XL items, even though they didn’t always fit right. She told them about crying in a ski shop when the staff couldn’t find a boot that fit her calves. She told them about the conversations she had had with other plus-size athletes about wanting quality outdoor gear so they could better enjoy climbing, skiing, and hiking.
“It felt liberating to talk to people, to say, ‘This is where we struggle. These are the activities that we can’t do because there’s no gear for it even though our desire is there. This is where the industry is lacking,’” Banker said. “Yes, we deserve and we want these things, just the same as everybody else, but also from a business perspective, 80 percent of women in the United States are a size 16 or above, and that represents only 2 percent of the available clothing. That’s isolating so many people who want to get out there.”
Banker added that the industry’s efforts to date—such as taking existing base layers or jackets or pants and simply making them bigger—have been lacking. This effort is a step in the right direction.
“Things felt so different on this project,” Banker said. “Outdoor Research took measurements from different sizes and took perspectives from different sizes and then created an entirely new formula that hasn’t existed before.”
Body inclusivity is here to stay
Wilson said that while the industry has been slow to bring plus-size apparel to market, she sees change coming because of people like Banker and others taking to social media to let brands know they should meet the demands of the many, not just the few.
“People are being vocal on social media and saying, ‘I won’t stand for this anymore,’” Wilson said. “Talking to Megan and the rest of the team inspired everyone at Outdoor Research to say, ‘We don’t care what it takes, we’re going to do this.’”
“I’m now wearing the best technical clothing because it’s available to me, and not just something that I had to pick up from a bargain basement because it was the biggest thing they had,” Banker said. “That feels incredible, like I belong out here.”
Outdoor Research is already eyeing how it can bring more gear to more people. Wilson said the brand is now “full-speed ahead into ski and snowboard apparel” for Fall ‘22. It plans to launch a full kit—base layer, insulation, and shell—for plus-size athletes. It will also launch a Spring ‘22 accessories collab with Portland, Ore.-based apparel and accessories maker Dovetail Workwear.
All of this makes Banker hopeful that the industry is headed for a seismic change.
“Plus-size inclusivity is a hot thing right now, but we’ve always been here,” Banker said. “It’s about taking that first step. It’s about wanting to make an inclusive space for everybody to enjoy the outdoors. We all deserve that.”