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Apparel students make a better plus-size swimsuit

Apparel students got a real-world education in the swimwear industry in a design competition aimed at helping the plus-size market. Student designs took fashion trends and market and industry demands into consideration.
Apparel students got a real-world education in the swimwear industry in a design competition aimed at helping the plus-size market. Student designs took fashion trends and market and industry demands into consideration.

With as many as half of North American women wearing a size 14 or larger, clothing designers are starting to take the plus-size demographic seriously.

Students at WSU got a real-life lesson in clothing design when they met with 30 plus-size women to talk about their swimwear needs, designing better suits while broadening their understanding of an underserved market.

Deborah Christel, a professor at the university’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles, wrote about the experience of teaching plus-size design this fall in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education.

“The students I teach are going to go into the fashion industry,” Christel said. “I believe universities have a social responsibility to make sure future designers know how to create clothes for everyone.”

For women in the plus-size demographic, shopping for a swimsuit, or any clothing for that matter, can be a pain. Customers have fewer choices, while designers and merchandisers are challenged to create an ideal fit or a fun shopping experience, neither of which are being taught in university settings, writes Christel. Plus-size design and merchandising practices have yet to be adopted by fashion schools, and many colleges are still catching up.

To address this, Christel worked with Speedo USA, partnering through her department’s advisory board, on a problem-based learning challenge aimed at boosting student confidence, creativity and knowledge in plus-size design and merchandising. Their end goal: Better swimsuits for everyone.

“When you simply memorize something, it tends to go in one ear and out the other,” she said. “But when you apply knowledge, physically do something with it, learning happens.”

In the autumn of 2014, 11 students enrolled in a special topics class and conducted in-depth market research. Students met with focus groups of 30 women swimmers, sizes 18 to 24, and listened to their bathing suit concerns and needs. Teams of students then came up with designs to fit both their target market and Speedo’s brand image. Using industry feedback, the students fitted prototype suits on live models, presenting the final designs to Speedo’s executive board, which selected a winner.

“That gave it a sense of urgency,” Christel said. “Students realized that industry was evaluating this—that they needed to bring their ‘A’ game.”

Students took pride in the fact that their research and designs help industry and customers, Christel said.

“For designers, it’s really cool when people buy the products they create,” she said.

Before and after the project, Christel questioned students on their confidence and understanding of plus-size design and merchandising. Their answers showed how a real-life fashion problem helped the next generation of apparel designers and merchandisers learn how to create clothing for people of different sizes.

“About sixty percent or more of women in our nation wear plus-size clothing,” says Christel, who made plus-size apparel and weight bias her research focus. “It’s a no-brainer that we should be teaching it.”

Christel’s article, “The Efficacy of Problem-Based Learning of Plus-Size Design in the Fashion Curriculum,” appears in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education. Read it here.

Learn more about the Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles here.

Media Contacts

Deborah Christel, Assistant Professor, (509) 335-7453
Seth Truscott, Public Relations/Communications Coordinator, (509) 335-8164