Karen Ward doesn’t always wear a blue frilly apron while working at her boutique ‘Your BIG Sister’s Closet’ in the Junction. But the day I visit she’s baking a cake. After explaining that it was for a nephew’s birthday party, she excuses herself. “I’m just going take this off now,” she laughs.
Before opening the store on Christmas Eve of last year, Ward worked as a baker and studied english literature at the University of Toronto. But she always had an interest in clothes. An avid follower of fashion, she was constantly frustrated at the lack of options for plus size women. Her popular blog, ‘Curvy Canadian,’ grew out of her desire to share the cool plus-size brands she discovered online. Along with store recommendations, she hoped her ‘outfit of the day’ posts would inspire her followers to have fun with fashion.
“I feel like a lot of plus size women go with what’s available to them,” she says. “But if the options were there for them to dress fashionably, or to dress in a way that helped them express themselves better, I think they would.”
As Ward immersed herself in the plus-size fashion community, she discovered that many women cross-border shopped in the US. She wanted to do her patriotic duty by bringing more clothing options to the True North Strong and Free.
She had thought of opening a shop, but as something she’d do years from now. (She’s still working on her dissertation on medieval theatre–“I like to be busy.”) But when driving in from Mississauga to visit their favourite coffee shop, she and her husband noticed a ‘For Lease’ sign on Dundas West near Keele. “That’s the perfect location!” she screamed. You can’t overestimate the importance of proximity to good coffee.
To save money, the couple rented the apartment at the store’s back and did a lot of the renovations themselves, such as laying the hardwood floor. They can be very proud; the boutique is airy and beautiful.
Its name came from Ward’s experience with her family.
“I have two older sisters,” she explains. “And they’re both around the same size. I could never really borrow their clothes. That was upsetting for me. I never had anyone stealing stuff from my closet. Except my Mom, sometimes.” The store’s name suggests a friendly place where you can find clothes that your cool older sister would wear. Ward’s cheerful familiarity adds to the cozy atmosphere.
Because of her background as a blogger, Ward brought a whole philosophy to the stocking of the boutique.
“When I look at something, I think, How is this going to work on a plus-size woman’s body? A plus-size woman’s body is different from a straight-sized woman’s body. But that being said, I’m not eliminating certain trends because I think there’s a general rule that needs to be followed.”
For instance, she rejects the idea that women should avoid horizontal stripes.
“This whole idea of ‘flattering’…” Ward shakes her head. “I don’t buy things because they’re going to be ‘flattering’ for plus-size women. I buy things I think will suit them. I think this is a much better word to use.” Part of her reason for opening the store was to foster positive body image, but she’s had to accept that different women have different comfort levels.
“It’s unfortunate, but you can’t push women to accept themselves,” she explains. “I do have women coming in here and they’re like, ‘I need a shrug to cover my arms.’ And it’s because they don’t feel comfortable with their arms. It was something that I resisted at first, by saying, ‘Okay, I don’t even want to carry shrugs’ because I want women to say, ‘I’m beautiful the way I am.’ Shrugs be screwed!”
Although I’m a fan of the current name, I suggest that ‘Shrugs Be Screwed!’ would look fantastic on a sign, in pink cursive.
Ward has accepted that one of the biggest advantages to meeting people in person rather than through the internet is she can be there for women as an encouraging confidante. The drawback of having a store rather than a blog–she’s put her money where her mouth is. It’s all well and good to argue that a variety of sizes should be available in theory. It’s another thing entirely when, if an item fails to sell, you’re in the red. Adding to her responsibilities, Ward is solely responsible for buying for the store. She must trust her instincts of what is cool and what women will buy.
“I find in plus-size fashion, there’s this sort of weird dichotomy between school marm or hoochie mama,” she says. “There’s no middle ground. Why can’t I have a sophisticated, fashion forward look? That’s what I’m trying to do with the brand.”
Along with dresses and tops, she carries purses, jewelry, and footwear. She recently acquired wide-calved knee-high boots, and excitedly describes the Cinderella moment women feel when first trying on sexy boots that actually fit. For spring, she’s going to carry bikinis. Although a lot of the clothing comes from the States, she does import some from Hong Kong. “The problem is the sizing is very small,” she says. Women will try something on, check out the label, and freak out. She has to tell them not to worry. “It’s the dress, it’s not you.”
So far, Ward’s mostly younger clientele have responded enthusiastically to her fun party dresses and trendy accessories. Knowing that she has customers who come as far afield as Scarborough and Hamilton, she figures she has the Toronto area covered. Her next destination–Montreal. Then, presumably, the world.
I ask her if she thinks the fashion industry is getting better for plus-size women.
“I think it’s getting better slowly. There are new brands emerging that recognize that plus-size women don’t all want to dress in this way that’s either hyper sexual or non-sexual. I wish that some of the higher up designers would start designing for plus-size women, like the really well known ones. I know that Adele is in talks with Burberry to do a line. If that happened, I’d be really happy. But I wish she’d wear a colour other than black!”
Stories like Ward’s make me proud of my generation. We are called spoiled. We are called unrealistic. Bloggers in particular are mocked for sitting in their parents’ basement in pajamas. But the flip side of that is an optimistic bravery, an unwillingness to take ‘No’ for an answer. It wasn’t enough for Ward to sit on the sidelines, complaining about the fashion industry. Instead, first through her ‘Curvy Canadian’ blog and then ‘Your BIG Sister’s Closet,’ she entered the fashion industry, changing it from the inside.
Something tells me this little sister’s plucky enthusiasm is going to stay intact.
Max Mosher writes about style for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @max_mosher_.