Monif Clarke Is Changing the Plus Size Fashion Industry

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The "fashion" industry doesn't want plus size women.

The above is a harsh, but unfortunately true, statement. The industry, because of its own neurosis (psychosis?) around body issues (Council on Fashion Designers had to release guidelines telling models to eat), has a real problem with the idea of plus size women being "fashion-worthy."

Designers like Karl Lagerfeld (who once had quite a bit of "junk-in-his-own-trunk"), routinely dismiss curvy celebrities like Adele. Stores as diverse as Saks Fifth Avenue and Old Navy have moved their plus size sections from their brick and mortar stores to online outposts. Even writers at popular women magazines (remember Marie Claire's Mike & Molly debacle?), express disgust with images of plus size people.

Monif C

Monif Clarke, founder and CEO of Monif C Designs, like most entrepreneurial visionaries, has found great success by directly challenging the fashion industry's neurosis. No wonder the brand brings in an estimated seven-figures a year in revenue and is the designer of choice for curvy celebrities like Jill Scott and shows like TLC's What Not To Wear.

I sat down with Monif to discuss the story behind Monif C, the state of the plus size fashion industry and how she was able to take her business from idea to reality.

What's the story behind Monif C?

Monif C. was started out of my sheer frustration with the lack of choices in the plus size industry. I was visiting a cousin who lived in Europe and had previously worked in the fashion industry. When I looked at all the options in her size, I thought, "Wow, I wish someone were doing these styles in my size." She instantly turned to me and said, "Why don’t you do it?" The seed was planted from there. A year later we (my mother and I) launched Monif C.

Why did you choose to start your business online, rather than sell directly to stores?

If I had decided to sell directly to the stores rather than sell online, there would be no Monif C. right now.

A good friend of mine in the fashion business suggested I go to trade shows on our first season and work on getting orders from specialty stores and large retailers. We left that trade show with $4K in orders, which are peanuts compared to what other brands usually receive. But when we got back, all of the orders got cancelled! I had previous experience selling products online, and I told my mother, my business partner, "I believe in our line and we can't give up just because others don't yet see the vision" -- so we decided to go at it alone, direct to customer. That turned out to be the best decision we ever made. It allows us to have higher margins, which small businesses need to stay afloat, and we were able to cultivate a very loyal customer base by communicating directly to the customer.

Monif C with her models

Several major stores (most notably Saks Fifth Avenue and Old Navy) removed plus sizes from their sales floor and now only sell them online. Why the shift from selling plus sizes in stores to selling them online? And what message does that send to the plus size customer?

This question always gets me frustrated when asked, because I think the major retailers have made a huge mistake by taking plus size lines out of stores. Their reason is that they don't have the sales figures to justify giving expensive real estate to the plus size customer -- which is mind-boggling, considering over half of American women are plus size. I believe the real problem is that the stores haven't yet figured out how to merchandise and market plus size lines.

There are enough indie designers out there with fabulous collections online that there is no reason a store couldn't find what they need to have a really awesome plus size section that encourages the customer to shop. When you walk in the remaining plus size departments in our local malls, it's no wonder no one shops in the stores. Would you want to shop down in the basement by housewares, no music, no cool salespeople, no in-store events, et cetera?

It all comes down to dollars. The retailers feel they've given the options but no one bought. Selling online gives them options to sell different brands and test without much investment. I believe online selling works, but I think it would work twice as well if there were fabulous plus size departments in-store. It doesn't have to be one or the other.

Monif C.com screenshot

What do you see are the real growth opportunities in terms of the plus size retail business? What's next for the retail industry as a whole?

That's a good question -- and to be honest, it's a hard one to answer. In this business, distribution is the key. You can get your product to the customers online, but if you want to grow, you will need some of the larger retailers to distribute your line -- especially if the price point is mid-market or higher price. I'm hoping that some of the larger companies like Ashley Stewart or Target see the opportunity with a designer like me to do capsule collections.

What are some of the key challenges you've faced in starting, growing, and building your business and how did you triumph over them?

  1. Start-up Funding
  2. Growth Funding
  3. Operations

The biggest challenge in the clothing manufacturing business is capital.
It is very expensive to manufacture clothing, from samples to patterns to fabric. When you're direct to customer, you have to first try to determine how many items (called SKUs) you're going to manufacture. It's really a guessing game- sometimes you guess correctly on what the customer wants and sometimes you don't. Then you have to purchase and make everything before a single order from a customer comes in, so it's a heavy output of money at the beginning of every season. Let's not forget photo shoots and all the other marketing that takes place. Funding is always an issue for us; our needs have not changed, even though our business is more established.

The other challenge right now for us is the developing an operations system. We are at a stage right now where we are transitioning into partnerships with some larger retailers, which mean scaling our operations. I have a small staff, with a larger amount of operational intelligence, but that intelligence is all in our heads. So we're in the process of formalizing our operations, because we won't be able to grow unless we begin to automate and develop systems.

Monif C in fuschia

What was a Game Changing moment in your life?

Wow! There have been a few, actually.

Here's one: When I first started Monif C., my vision for the company was to be the quintessential brand for the sexy, confident plus size woman. At the time, retailers didn't market any brands to this woman, because they didn't believe this person existed. Many in the fashion industry believed that plus size women wanted to hide their bodies and live in the shadows of the fashion industry. I knew we were changing the game when I started to see campaigns from other plus size brands using words such as "sexy," "on-trend," and "feminine." Previously, a lot of the copy words centered on the slimming effects of their garments, such as "lose two inches" and "black is figure flattering."

For more thoughts on women, technology and business, please follow Kathryn on Twitter at @KathrynFinney

All images courtesy of Monif Clarke.

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