“Our collection in sizes from 14-26 is for the 40-plus woman,” says Helen Wheeler of her new collection for Irish brand Ora, “dedicated to creating wardrobe solutions for the curvy woman”. A soi-disant curvy woman in her 40s herself, and the only designer in Ireland with 17 years’ experience of catering for larger silhouettes, she is well placed to speak on body diversity and the challenge of making comfortable clothes outside the conventional sizing categories that so many women find restrictive. She is in a strong position to cater for younger customers as well, but argues in response that they buy from the high street.
The collection begins by making the appropriate patterns. That starts by grading upwards from a smaller base – usually a size 8; in Wheeler’s case this is different as grading starts from size 14 upwards “and each size will be slightly more generous as grading rules change slightly to suit the proportions of the body”, she explains. “Other brands shy away from designing for plus, but we enjoy doing it.”
So where does she start when it comes to designing a new collection? “Our basic priority is to look at key trends and those that fit our collections but don’t compromise on size and style. Quality and fit are important.” Bigger bodies are more prone to fluctuation and, as she points out, when people gain weight, they don’t gain it everywhere, “so we are trying to draw the eye to the customer’s best features, to zoom in on a key feature like bright colour near the face to attract attention or style lines that give the illusion of shape”. The famous “cold shoulder” detail, for instance, cutouts on tops that allow extra room for upper arms in a variety of shapes.
The spring/summer collection uses lighter weights and clever shaping. The stone and cream linen dress, for example, features a contrast panel and lower pocket and can be dressed up or down – it is shown here with runners. Another dress uses a stone and white print with black overprint in georgette with a jersey slip underneath. A three-quarter length hooded jacket is enlivened with burnt orange mesh lining and cuff trims while a top in black jersey has a chiffon train for an easy, floaty look.
“We stay away from button fronts so there is no gaping and use jersey shirts with cotton collars instead,” says Wheeler. Higher waists make legs look longer and waistbands are elasticated for extra comfort. The clothes are made in Turkey and Poland and the collection is sold directly to boutiques around Ireland.
The customer’s size and age is always kept firmly in focus. “Our customer likes comfort and to be up to the minute and today is more into separates and accessories and, in my opinion, is a little braver than before. We have our staples, but we are constantly trying to provide something new each time.” The biggest trend for spring 22 is colour “and people are ready for bolder colour – print is very strong and so are stripes”. Knitwear isn’t a strong feature in Ora, tending to be stronger in winter. The chunky necklaces featured are part of and complement the collection.
In a country where the average size is now 14-16, choice is still limited for the curvier shape. International brands that cater for the bigger sizes include Marina Rinaldi, part of the MaxMara group, Savage & Fenty for lingerie and several English brands selling online like Simply B, Asos, River Island, The Hour, Marks & Spencer as well as New Look which has 2.7 million followers on Instagram and goes up to size 32.