Stephanie Carlson doesn’t like the term “plus size.” One reason might be the tiny section in the back of the department store that those who are forced to wear the moniker must slink to, as if it’s a punishment for being curvier than a 2×4. The other reason might be that in the fashion industry, anyone larger than a size 6 can be considered “plus.”
Either way, it’s not her favorite term, even though “what other choice is there?” she asks. And Carlson has an opinion. All her life she has struggled to find clothing that flatters her tall, curvy frame. But unlike the rest of us that just complain, then buy clothing that just “sort of” fits, Carlson decided to do something about it—and now she is one of two fashion designers in the state of Colorado making clothing specifically for plus size women.
Carlson grew up in Fort Collins, graduating from Poudre High School. After several unsatisfying years in corporate restaurant management, she decided to “pursue something I really liked.” She enrolled in the Art Institute of Colorado and received her degree in fashion design. She then interned with the only other plus size focused fashion designer in Colorado, Denver-based Ann Fanganello.
Carlson remembers her final days with Fanganello, who gifted her with an original piece of her choice from her collection. Carlson scoured the racks, trying on items, but it wasn’t until the end of the collection that she found the one. “I got goosebumps. I put it on and felt beautiful and powerful. I kept thinking, ‘This is what I want to give to other women every day.’”
It took another year before Carlson was able to launch her own line, under her name, Stephanie Carlson Designs (stephaniecarlsondesigns.com), in 2015. Not only did she launch her own clothing line, she took control of the narrative behind curvy-girl designs, creating her own size chart.
“The numerical system we use now has such a negative connotation for many women,” she says, “I wanted to replace it with something positive.” Carlson designs for women size 10 to 26. But rather than identifying by the number, her customers can go online and find their size, according to their various measurements, with labels such as Sassy, Sultry and Spicy. Now, “a number doesn’t have to define your happiness or your worth,” she says.
The line has focused largely on resort and special event wear, and Carlson plans to add work wear to her collection later this year. Most of her customers come to her by word of mouth, from social media or through her website, and she is dedicated to growing her brand. She has a design space in Fort Collins and a production team of pattern makers and seamstresses in Denver.
Carlson loves fabric, especially knits, and often creates the pattern first, rather than a sample on a model. She focuses on details that are important to curvier women: wider waistbands that don’t bunch or gape, reinforced seams at shoulders, jackets that can button over a larger bust and skirt hems that curve longer in the back to fit and flatter the backside, rather riding up and creating an unflattering silhouette.
“I am never going to be a thin woman,” says Jana Sanchez, a business consultant who became a client of Carlson’s over a year ago. “But everything she makes looks good on me—I look as good as some of those models out there.” Sanchez is eagerly awaiting Carlson’s business line to come out. Sanchez, based in Fort Collins, also appreciates that the clothing is made in Colorado.
Carlson has released four collections over the last four years. Each year, she chooses the most popular designs out of the collection and they become the staples of her line. Her best seller is the Coastal Cardigan, which is a long cardigan with a flattering silhouette that follows the curves rather than hiding them. Most of the fashions in her collection range from $100 to $200 per piece. She hopes to one day create capsule collections for small boutiques, where shoppers can really feel catered to.
In 2018, Carlson was contacted by Elise D’Orazio, an actor and film producer in Hollywood. D’Orazio found Carlson’s designs on Instagram and immediately made contact.
“I reached out to her and told her, ‘I love your designs,’” recalls D’Orazio. “They were classic, fun and made curvy girls look amazing.” D’Orazio ordered two pieces for a couple Hollywood premieres she would be attending. She wore the first, an asymmetrical tropical print gown, on the red carpet. The second she wore to a pool party premiere in Los Angeles. “I felt so good. The clothing was amazing; really great quality. Often, other plus sizes lines skimp on quality or the details.” D’Orazio and Carlson are planning a collaboration to bring more exposure to her line in LA in the future.
Carleson explains the thought that goes behind her designs. “I specialize in knits—materials that drape strategically with the right lines that accentuate curves.” She adds that all the models on her website are a size 10 and up, and none of them are photoshopped. “It is the clothing. It is made to flatter.”
The clothing Carlson creates is a designed to help women “be the best version of themselves, to be empowered.” With the average American woman wearing a size 16 to 18, and a clothing industry that does not regulate or standardize size, it is about time someone what paying attention to what the majority is looking for in fashion. “Quality, fit and empowerment. That is what I am about.”
And maybe that’s how we should rename plus size: majority size. But then the department stores would have to expand that tiny section in the back of the store. –Angie Grenz, Editor