Why Don’t Lolita Brands Just Make More Sizes!
One of the really common things that comes up when ever people talk about the most famous Japanese lolita brands (and even some of the smaller Chinese brands) is the question of why they don’t just make more sizes. Frequently, the conclusion people draw is that it’s because the brands just don’t want to serve those specific customers.
However, I think it’s a lot more complex than that. I think there are a few different factors, and it’s important to consider all of them.
I will be talking about human sizing averages / measurements in this piece. These are averages and don’t represent the size or any particular person, nor are they sizes that any specific person should feel any pressure to be. These are purely academic figures used to explain what clothing sizes will sell the best in a particular place. But I know this can be upsetting to some people, so I wanted to include a warning.
Markets & Expectations
First of all, you can break the major “consumer” groups of lolita down into about 3 rough markets. The first market is Japan. These customers go into the physical shops or shop online and for most Japanese brands, they are the primary market.
The second market is China. With 1.4 billion people, China makes up 1/5th of the world’s population, and there is a booming market in China for lolita. Chinese lolita brands design primarily for a Chinese market. Very few Chinese brands actively sell outside of China.
The last major market is what I’m going to call the western market, even though it’s maybe not the most accurate term. Primarily, this is going to be the Americas, Europe, Russia and Australia, but this market is defined more by who uses/used online groups like EGL, Lolita Updates, Rufflechat, Closet of Frills, Daily Lolita, and so on.
Each grouping / market has different concepts of what is and isn’t lolita, and follows different trends.
Some Japanese brands still see their customers primarily as Japanese lolita. Their goal is to sell their goods to their local customers and they don’t really think about or worry about people outside their market. This doesn’t really mean that they dislike people outside their market, only that they aren’t currently trying to run a global company. These brands usually don’t ship overseas, and they tend to have pretty “small” sizing by western standards.
However, this sizing is generally pretty normal, or even sometimes considered “big” for Japanese standards. If a brand is making things with shirring and corset lacing, or other size-changing features like ties, it’s fairly safe to assume that they are trying to be more size inclusive for their local market. The magazine CanCam which has a similar age/gender demographic to Japanese lolita surveyed their readers for measurements and out of 1000 readers, the average waist was 60.6cm (~24″) and the average bust was 78.4cm (~31″). This corresponds roughly to a US missus size 0 or 00.
Almost all Chinese brands also primarily cater to their local Chinese market. In China, the average Chinese woman has a waist of 28″ (~71cm) and a bust of 31″ (~79cm), per this article I found on the struggles of bringing US clothing businesses into China. Note that this is across all age groups, where as CanCam in Japan was mainly looking at young people. This corresponds roughly to somewhere in the range of a US missus size 0-6. The difference between the bust and waist is kind of a different proportion than what is used in US sizing, but basically, somewhere in the XS-S range.
The average american woman, however, wears a missus 14-16, which the dress chart I’ve been using says is a bust 42″ (~107cm), waist 35″ (~89cm). And, let’s be clear, the sizing in the “western” market as a whole varies wildly by country, body type, sizing chart, etc. I’m simply using American measurements and a single dress size chart from JcPenny’s because I’m American and this post will go on forever if I try to cover everything.
That said, we are looking at two countries where the average bust size is pretty similar, with one group favoring clothing with a larger waist measurement. Those 2 groups also make up a lion’s share of the lolita market. And then we are looking at a 3rd group where sizing varies a lot more, and skews significantly larger.
For a very large fast fashion company, like, say, Forever 21 this is easy. You make a bunch of different sizes, and if 2/3rds of your market wears sizes XS/S, you make a lot more XS/S than larger sizes. And I think this is what a lot of people expect from lolita brands, but sadly, this is hard for brands that are smaller.
Manufacturing & Small Brands
Brands that are exceptionally small, like just one person at a sewing machine type of small, can do custom sizing or sizing outside of a specific “average” range without loosing a lot of money, provided that the seamstress knows how to adjust her pattern sizing, and they charge a fee for their time customizing the pattern (which is high skill work). However, this greatly limits how many pieces a brand can make and sell in a time period. The single-seamstress method is where some new/young brands start, but to really “make it” as a brand and not be someone’s hobby, a brand has to move into manufacturing.
Manufacturing is still people sitting at sewing machines, very little of it is done entirely automatically. However, it’s usually done on industrial machines, and garment factories typically have specialized tools and machines that allow them to do certain things faster. When a brand goes to manufacturing, they may change their patterns a little to take advantage of how some of these machines work. Pieces are also done assembly-line style. So if person A is at a machine, they might do the same step on the same type of garment 100 times in a row, with the same thread. The more times the same step can be repeated on the same fabric with the same thread and the same machine, the cheaper it is time-wise, because the seamstress isn’t having to change the thread, read a new pattern, etc. Cutting can also frequently be done in bulk.
This means that most factories have a minimum. From what I understand, typically that minimum is at least 50-100 pieces, even for a small factory and usually each color and each size is subjected to that minimum again.
So if I want to make a black skirt in one size and the minimum is 100, I have to have 100 copies made. If I want to make a black skirt in 3 sizes, I have to have 300 copies made (100 of each size). If I want that same skirt in 3 colors and each color in 3 sizes? 900 pieces. Minimum.
For a very small company, that’s a lot of money to invest in a single item. Japanese brand stores also aren’t very large. Here is an Angelic Pretty store in Tokyo, for example.
You can see they only have 1, or maybe 2 of each piece out. Perhaps more are in the back, sure, but this is very different from a fast fashion retailer like Forever 21, where a whole rack would be the same piece over and over again. Angelic Pretty has 16 shops and then is stocked in 3 other stores (though I know for a fact that one of the three isn’t getting every release…). If we make it an even 20 with the online store, 100 pieces in every cut/color/size would mean that every store would have to sell 5 of the exact same thing. Dream Cat Go Round, a series that I believe they would have expected to do well (it has cats, imai kira’s work, carousels.. this is theoretically exactly what sells), came in 2 cuts and 4 colors. If we assume 100 piece minimums, then Angelic Pretty had to sell 800 dresses to sell out of just one single size.
Let’s pretend they offered 2 sizes. That would take our minimums up to 1,600 pieces. 4 sizes, a standard S/M/L/XL and we are up to 3,200 dresses.
Now, I could be totally wrong, but I don’t think most lolita brands sell 3,000+ dresses from each series they produce each season. To put it in perspective, we know from an interview that Mary Magdalene was making 50 of each piece. Angelic Pretty is bigger than Mary Magdalene, but they aren’t big. We also know from that same article that the margins for Baby and MM are both small; the companies aren’t wealthy. They are more of just-getting-by.
Correction – A friend who has much more knowledge of manufacturing than I have informed me that some factories will allow 4-5 sizes and multiple colors even on a very small order of 100 pieces, as long as the thread color stays the same, though they may charge a fee for it. That said selling even 20 pieces of one size can be hard for a very small brand with a size that is less popular.
That said, there have been a few times that brands that don’t normally offer multiple sizes have experimented with it. Angelic Pretty has released pieces from their extraordinarily popular Melty Ribbon Chocolate, Royal Chocolate, and Melty Royal Chocolate series as well as the Colorful Stars Blouse in two sizes: Medium and Large back around 2012-2014. Baby released a small number of pieces, including Pocket Embroidery, in multiple sizes. Pocket Embroidery actually came in 4 sizes and 4 colors… and went on clearance despite being popular because they couldn’t sell enough pieces in a single seasons.
Making it Work: Abandoning Seasons
A few brands do make larger sizes, or multiple sized pieces, and, on the surface do seem to make it work.
Innocent World offers more than one size on a lot of their dresses and one of the ways they “make it work”, is by keeping their stock around longer. Once a fall/winter dress is made, it’s put on the shelves and kept there all season. At the end of the season, the pieces that are seasonal (dark colors / thick fabrics / long sleeves / winter motifs) are put into storage, and spring / summer pieces replace them (short sleeves / lighter materials / etc). At the end of the spring season, those pieces are put away, and the Winter pieces are “restocked”. From storage. It’s a brilliant marketing strategy because it looks to the casual person that they just re-released some favorite items from last year. Maybe they do, and I’m way off base here, but I really don’t think they do because when they “come back” the colors and sizes tend to match what they had when the items “left” the shop. They also don’t change the item numbers, where as re-released items tend to have a new item number. I want to say some of the more expensive pieces stick around for 3 seasons before being put on clearance. Things that don’t sell on clearance sale then go into lucky packs.
By selling the same piece 2 or 3 years in a row, they can capture people who’s tastes change, or who mess up their favorite dress, or maybe couldn’t afford the dress the first time around.
Maxicimam and Bodyline on the other-hand completely abandoned the season approach. Maxicimam offers larger items through their Lovely line and Bodyline offers a truly bizarre array of sizes that vary from item to item. But they have one thing in common: they stock an item, and then it stays in stock until only the dregs are left. If that takes years, it takes years. When they get down to just a couple pieces left, then things might go on clearance. Usually it’s like, just one color left for an item that had lots of colors.
The problem with this method is that it means everything you offer has to be “timeless”. Anything trendy ends up being dated quickly. Maxicimam isn’t really taken as seriously as a brand by a lot of people simply because their work isn’t really on trend.
Making it Work: Shirring, Corset Lacing & Sack Cuts
Brands like Angelic Pretty and Baby have been using a different method for making their clothing more accessible to people that are different sizes, but it’s gone a little under the radar.
Have you ever noticed that the two dresses (OP and JSK) from an Angelic Pretty release tend to be really different in size? It’s really common to see a JSK with shirring (elastic) and corset lacing, as well as button-fastened straps and then an OP that is a set smaller size, or maybe a sack cut, right?
A JSK with shirring can fit a base size, and then people who are 1-2 sizes larger. Add in corset lacing and it can also go 1-2 sizes smaller. Put buttons on the straps, and then by moving the buttons, the dress can fit people who are shorter and taller than the standard patterned size. Making the straps longer can also be a method for making it fit just a little bigger in the bust, by moving down the cup area of the dress in my experience. JSKs also aren’t constrained to shoulder sizes.
And those sack cut OPs (and blouses?), they just have to vaguely fit in the arms and shoulders. If they do, then they can be worn by people who are quite petite, but also fit people who are a little bigger, or who maybe have a larger waist.
High waist cuts only have to fit at the bust / underbust, and then if the waist is larger, it doesn’t matter because the flare of the skirt hides it. Add in some waist ties, and you can make it smaller as well.
Innocent world has been putting the buttons on the straps with a good 2-3 inches of extra fabric, if not more left after the button for years. This gives you a lot of dress length adjustment room if you know how to sew a button, which many lolita can easily do.
In the world of blouses, “tent” cuts without a defined waist have become a staple item lately. These blouses have a defined shoulder and collar, but the sleeves tend to be puffy and the bust/waist are made to be baggy. Put it under a JSK and no one has any idea that it’s really baggy on a smaller person. The one below isn’t actually that large, it’s a bust 92cm / waist 86cm, but I’ve seen larger ones. Shirred waists, or fully shirred torso areas are also a staple cut that makes a blouse way more versatile in size.
One thing I’ve been seeing pop up from Chinese brands are summer crop blouses. These can only go under a JSK (bare tummy isn’t really a lolita look), but because they are shirred around the neck and the underbust, the same blouse can fit someone who wears a size 0 and someone who wears a size 22. (A couple of my friends actually tried this with one that we got. It’s not the one pictured below, but you get the general idea. I recently got like 10 of these for my wardrobe in various colors because they are so easy to wear.
Full shirring on dresses isn’t as popular, but it has been making a bit of a comeback, especially with the styles made by brands like Enchantlic Enchantilly. Chantilly is very deliberate with her placement of the shirring and it ends up being a lot more flattering than some of the other brand’s stuff that has elastic channels across the center of the bust.
I’ve also been seeing a lot more effort put into adding belts, or lace details or larger collars on fully shirred pieces to make them more flattering on more body types and I think that’s really awesome.
Making it Work: Tailoring & Finishing
Juliette et Justine offers a greater variation in sizing by offering Tailoring. They only offer small changes, just a couple CM. I believe that’s because they are taking in or letting out a finished garment instead of actually doing custom sizing.
Some Chinese brands, I suspect, may mass produce their items part of the way, but then finish them at certain sizes. I noticed when I ordered some custom sized pieces almost 10 years ago, that the thread was different between the bottom hem and other parts of the garment, and it didn’t really look like the same person’s work quality-wise. If the garment was made by one person in a normal one-person-seamstress situation, it probably wouldn’t be like that. I believe they made a bunch of pieces half way, and then someone was assigned to hem them to the right length and/or attach the right size waist band, etc. I don’t still have the pieces, and my memory is fuzzy, but it looked like that might have been how it was done. I’m sure some Chinese indie brands do their stuff one at a time though. Either way, there should theoretically be a cost involved with custom sizing / tailoring, because it costs time (aka money) to do. Which brings us to…
Making it Work: Cheap Labor
Lastly, one of the other ways that brands make it work, is by under paying the people who make custom-sized garments for their time. Many small indie brands feel guilty charging for their time or they are afraid the market won’t support the prices they have to charge to make a fair wage.
In China, some of the companies that offer custom made items (and some that don’t but have cheap prices, like Bodyline) likely pay very low wages. Human time, effort and skill is one of the more expensive things in a garment. By cutting corners and paying low wages, costs can be cut, which makes it easier to turn over a larger inventory of items.
You Can’t Just Scale The Pattern Up
Anyone who has every bought a cheap custom sized garment has probably gotten something that just doesn’t fit well in one area or another. I’ve mentioned this briefly above, but making a piece for someone who is a size 0, versus someone who is a size 8, versus someone who is a size 16, versus someone who is a size 24 is very different. And two people who are both a size 24 might be totally different shapes. And this is absolutely ok, this is how being a human works. But the problem is that if you don’t have someone who is being paid for their time and is well versed in patterning and particularly plus sized patterning, you aren’t going to get a good fit if you take a dress designed to be a size 0 and try to make it a size 24 by just making the waist and bust bigger.
At the end of the day, there are real limitations to what small companies can do and still stay afloat. Making garments and patterning garments is an art and a science, and while I wish there was an easy way for brands to make every size for every person, I think the vast majority of brands just aren’t big enough to do that. I do think, however, that a lot of them are trying. In the past 10 years, I’ve seen a large increase in the number of pieces that have shirring as well as general increase in sizing, even from brands that aren’t particularly catering an overseas audience. The down side to the larger sizes, however, of course, is that there are pieces that just don’t fit someone smaller. And while you can get some things tailored smaller, and some things are cute when they are baggy, there are some things that just don’t work. So while the general increase in size has benefited me personally, I do have friends who find this trend frustrating.
I don’t think we ever are going to get to a point where every piece comes in every size, just because we are such a niche community with such small companies that have small margins to begin with, but I think we have made progress towards there being more options in just the past 10 years.
Finally, as always, if you can’t find what you want from a particular source, I encourage people to reach out to their local indie brands and inquire about true custom sizing / made-to-order pieces. It might be more expensive than buying a secondhand brand piece or something from a cheaper Chinese indie brand, but if fit is a big concern, a local seamstress has a huge advantage in being able to measure you and do fittings in person. If prints are your thing, services like spoonflower have gotten a lot better about their print quality in recent years, and it’s way easier to get Japanese fabric online these days. There are a few different brands that make lolita prints / lolita border prints, like CosmoTextiles, and UniTextiles Corp makes some of the solid / textured fabrics that brands use.
P.S. – If you have a favorite seamstress or brand that does offer custom sizing and offers it well, or you have run into a piece that uses adjustments like shirring and is really flattering on a smaller or larger size, please put a recommendation in the comments and share the love!