Decoding the ‘Fat Tax’: Why the Indian Fashion Industry Charges More for Bigger Clothes
At the intersection of fashion and body politics in India this month, the ‘fat tax’ took center stage. “Imagine clothing brands charging higher prices for bigger sizes in 2020,” journalist Aishwarya Subramanyam posted on her Instagram story, from where local fashion watchdog Diet Sabya picked up the conversation that has now snowballed into a conversation demanding answers and accountability from the fashion industry.
A ‘fat tax,’ though, isn’t as simple as it sounds — it plays out in a few different ways. Multi-brand stores who only carry up to a certain size might charge a set fee or percentage for ordering a bigger, unstocked size; Fuel, a multi-designer store hosting high-end designer labels in multiple Indian cities, charged up until this month an extra 10% to people ording clothing bigger than a size L, and pledged to revoke the store policy after the ‘fat tax’ conversation appeared on social media. Or, designers might charge more for larger sizes, typically to cover the cost of additional materials and man hours. Or both might occur.
Extra small sizes also face extra charges. But the additional costs are generally less. To cater to extra small sized customers, designers can take an existing item and tailor it to become smaller. There is no way to make a smaller piece of clothing become larger, which means the full creative process is undertaken to provide a size above the range typically provided.
The fact that the ‘fat tax’ isn’t one thing, and, to a certain extent, overlaps with a similar, but less expensive ‘small tax,’ suggests the fat tax is less a result of active discrimination than it is the result of complacence toward a system that is profoundly broken in multiple places. The fat tax fills the rift between designers who say they can’t provide larger sizes without eating into their profit margins, and bigger customers, who understandably feel frustrated at having to pay extra just to be able to clothe their bodies the way they choose.
One of those fractures is at the level of stocking.
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Designer aggregator stores like Fuel, Pernia’s Pop Up Shop, and Aza don’t normally hang plus-sized clothing in the store, mainly because designers — who make limited pieces for any given design — don’t risk sending pieces that may not sell, explains the founder and creative director of a luxury women’s wear label Papa Don’t Preach, Shubhika Sharma. Stores usually keep pieces for three months without guarantee of a sale, which makes it difficult for designers to send them multiple pieces in a variety of sizes if they’re simply going to be returned at the end of the consignment period.
“We don’t sit with the stock — for us to be sustainable as a bridal brand that uses silk, embroidery materials that are not eco-friendly, we can’t have dead-stock sitting with us,” she says. Sharma’s brand doesn’t make plus-sized clothing if not explicitly asked for by a customer at an aggregator store. “At no point in time do we have more than two to three pieces of a particular design, since it’s made to measure,” she added. “For us to fix [the fat tax problem], the pieces that hang in the store should be bigger so the customer doesn’t ever have to ask.”
But another fracture remains at the level of production: Bigger items, whether designer clothes, tampons, or meals, require more raw material, and someone has to pay for it.
According to Sharma, the cost should be borne by the designer — because the actual additional costs aren’t that steep. Luxury designers, according to Diet Sabya, tend to skimp on a lot of production costs even though they’re creating a premium product. “Cheap polyester linings on couture garments is a dead giveaway,” says the anonymous account-runners.
Neelakshi Singh, who’s taught at the National Institute of Fashion Technology and Pearl Academy, adds, “A lot of the work that we’re possibly doing today is machine-based. There’s a lot of embroidery being done on garments via machines and a lot of fabrics that come in from China are extremely cheap. They may feel more expensive, but designers are getting it for throwaway prices.”
“This justification — charging extra for more fabric, embroidery, etc. — only works when designers actually employ karigars to make handwoven fabric. A lot of the handloom weavers and revivalists actually work with gold yarn, which is a premium product — so it makes sense to increase the price if there’s more used. But the interesting part is — such labor is utilized mostly for creating sarees, and that’s a fixed number of yards of fabric: six or nine. It is the same for everyone,” Singh says.
“You do not make a loss making an XL size for a paying customer. Yes, embroidery does increase but only marginally so — it can be accommodated in the original price. Fabric hardly adds any extra cost,” Papa Don’t Preach’s Sharma says, estimating an increase of “only 1,500 – 2,000 INR.” Sharma says a highly skilled tailor can also work with fabric sustainably regardless of the size. She says designers can take a lesson from the growing sustainable fashion movement and apply it to plus-size production. According to a Vogue Business report, Juan Carlos Obando uses the same 55-inch-wide fabrics for all sizes, including plus-sizes, using up fabric corners rather than new fabric to save costs and reduce waste.
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But these solutions favor established designers. For emerging designers, the 1,500 – 2,000 INR extra it might take to provide sizes outside of the standard stocked might be the difference between folding and succeeding. Maximizing profit, to be able to stay in business, means catering to the average, the middle — the S through L. And this is perhaps, the widest systemic fracture of all — because S, M and L sizes literally don’t fit Indian bodies, Sharma says.
“Right from fashion school, we’re taught on international size charts, given dress forms of size 8 and 10. I was taught to visualize clothes on a tiny body, and picture it on a runway, or in a shoot,” she adds. “But for Indian customers, tops and bottoms will fit them differently. If I’m making a size L for an Indian body type, it won’t be size L for any other customer.”
This is the heart of the ‘fat tax’ problem in India: plus size individuals aren’t actually plus size; many are actually part of the highly profitable mass average that designers need to target to make money. There will always be outliers, both extra small and extra large, but the middle could be more inclusive in a way that is more affordable for customers and more profitable for designers. If this resizing to center Indian bodies could occur, it could increase industry profits in a way that would allow more designers to write off the cost of specially producing the outliers who remain. In other words, the fat tax could disappear entirely.
Encouragingly, this kind of revolution is underway. An initiative to create India’s own sizing chart that’s supposed to culminate in 2021 is already underway, undertaken by the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in New Delhi in partnership with the Indian Ministry of Textiles. They’re carrying out a National Sizing Survey that will measure 25,000 men and women across six major cities in the country, in the age group of 15-65 years. The purpose is to make the ready-to-wear fashion industry more cognisant of Indian approximations.
Some in the industry, however, are skeptical of whether such efforts will actually bring practical change and bridge the gap in which the fat tax sits. “Why did it require calling out by someone who just came into the picture?” Vishakha Bhaskkar, co-founder of women-led, ethical clothing brand Angrakhaa,asks, referring to Diet Sabya. “It’s like a mauke pe chauka thing for me … But still, it’s never too late to stand up and say you’re willing to change. I just wish it hadn’t taken this long.”