Why you should care
Because your clothes should fit, goddamnit.
There is a particular kinship among short women. If you aren’t one, you’ll never understand, but it means something to nod at another munchkin person trying to reach something at the top of a supermarket shelf, or having to stand on the arm of an airplane seat to get her luggage in the overhead compartment: I know how you feel in a world that wasn’t made for you. But in a clothing store changing room, when it’s just you and jeans that are 5 inches too long, remember that half of American women know how you feel.
You read that right: An estimated 50 percent of women in the U.S. and U.K. are 5-foot-4 or shorter, making them technically petite. But while plus sizing has seen a revolution across many retailers, petite sections have retreated from their 2005 peak as a $10 billion industry, with many shops scaling back their petite lines. Between 2013 and 2014, sales of petite clothing actually fell slightly even as overall apparel sales rose.
For a long time I just accepted it … I always thought it must be me; it must not be the garment.
Jenny Liu, founder, Bomb Petite
So maybe it’s not surprising that a spate of new companies launched in the past few years cater specifically to petite women — and specifically to petite fashionistas. And the people behind these companies aren’t slick startup bros. In fact, most of them seem to have been founded by short women who couldn’t dress the way they wanted without the help of a tailor, and who just decided to do it themselves.
Avani Agarwal and Camille Moroz met when they were both working at Google, and joked for years about starting a clothing boutique for short women who were past the fast-fashion stage. “When we joked about it with friends,” Agarwal says, “none of them would ever laugh. They’d just say, ‘That’s a great idea.’” Stature, their Brooklyn-based online store that carries both small sizes from straight-size small designers and specially sized petite lines, launched at the beginning of June. They didn’t have much fashion experience beyond dressing themselves their entire lives and being just over 5 feet tall — Agarwal worked in fashion marketing for children’s brand Oilily, where she says she could often fit into the larger kids’ clothes — but have diligently talked designers into making clothes for petite markets.
Jenny Liu’s story is the same — being interested in fashion and 5-foot-4, first you accept a life of stilettos and disappointment and alterations, and then you get busy changing the world. Liu did a fashion degree, then worked at several mainstream brands, draping everything on a standard model that was 5-foot-8 or 5-foot-10. “For a long time I just accepted it. I would have to ask them to shorten everything,” she says. “I always thought it must be me; it must not be the garment.” In late 2014 she launched London-based Bomb Petite, an editorial site featuring content about petite models, fashion designers and style; in November 2016 the site opened its own online shop with small-batch designer collections aimed at short consumers.
Liu also maintains a growing Facebook community of more than 100 petite customers who discuss among themselves their favorite tricks for making clothes fit, certain clothes they can’t find and the ongoing frustrations of being 5-foot-2 in a world full of clothes made for women 6 inches taller. Bomb Petite, like Stature, relies heavily on customer feedback — the point is to give short women what they’re not getting from mainstream fashion, so listening to them is key. Stature surveyed about 1,000 short women to figure out what the market wanted — turns out respondents spent, on average, about $500 per year on tailoring.
Designer Allison Izu (just under 5-foot-2) launched her collection from her base in Hawaii in 2009. She says older customers were more used to buying petite clothing, but that younger women don’t necessarily seek out such things. She says education is key to spreading the gospel of buying clothes that fit — but that it’s more complicated than just hacking a few inches off every pair of pants. Instead, she says, the knee breaks in a different place; the waistband is shaped differently. “It takes more detail than just cutting off hems to make a petite fit.”
To be sure, petite fashion has a ways to go. For one thing, a lot of it is focused on a particular petite customer — one who’s skinny as well as short. Founders at every startup in this story mentioned that plus sizes for petites was something they wanted to carry, but that it’s extremely difficult for small brands with limited production capability to manufacture a range of sizes. But the plus-size market’s success in getting funding and spurring startups is inspiring for some of the entrepreneurs trying to cater to short women — Moroz says it gives her hope that the petite market can have the same success.
So what’s next, Petite Fashion Week? For the small brands trying to make this work, that’s a long way off. Izu is starting a subscription box, while Stature is working on just getting more clothes into the boutique. Agarwal and Moroz have talked about expanding into a wider lifestyle brand, imagining a world where kitchen counters and chairs are sized for shorter women just like jumpsuits. As for Liu, she says that while shorter models have made it onto runways, “I don’t think the change will come from there. The change will come from the everyday women who are looking for what fits them.”