Apparel students make a better plus-size swimsuit

By Seth Truscott, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences

blue-suitPULLMAN, Wash. – With as many as half of North American women wearing a size 14 or larger, clothing designers are starting to take the plus-size demographic seriously.

Students at Washington State University got a real-life lesson in clothing design when they met with 30 plus-size women to talk about their swimwear needs. Students designed better suits while broadening their understanding of an underserved market.

Deborah Christel, a professor at the university’s Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles (, writes about the experience of teaching plus-size design in the November 2015 issue of the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education.

“The students I teach are going to go into the fashion industry,” she said. “I believe universities have a social responsibility to make sure future designers know how to create clothes for everyone.”

Hands-on learning addresses need

WSU apparel students got a real-world education in the swimwear industry in a design competition aimed at helping the plus-size market. Student designs took fashion trends and market and industry demands into consideration. (WSU illustration)

For women in the plus-size demographic, shopping for a swimsuit, or any clothing for that matter, can be a pain. Customers have fewer choices while designers and merchandisers are challenged to create an ideal fit or a fun shopping experience, neither of which are being taught in university settings, writes Christel.

Plus-size design and merchandising practices have yet to be adopted by fashion schools, and many colleges are still catching up.

To address this, Christel partnered with Speedo USA, through her department’s advisory board, on a problem-based learning challenge aimed at boosting student confidence, creativity and knowledge in plus-size design and merchandising. The end goal: Better swimsuits for everyone.

“When you simply memorize something, it tends to go in one ear and out the other,” she said. “But when you apply knowledge – physically do something with it – learning happens.”

Industry partnership with Speedo

In fall 2014, 11 students enrolled in a special topics class and conducted in-depth market research. Students met with focus groups of 30 women swimmers, sizes 18 to 24, and listened to their bathing suit concerns and needs.

striped-suit-webTeams of students then came up with designs to fit both their target market and Speedo’s brand image. Using industry feedback, the students fitted prototype suits on live models, presenting the final designs to Speedo’s executive board, which selected a winner.

“That gave it a sense of urgency,” Christel said. “Students realized that industry was evaluating this – that they needed to bring their ‘A’ game.”

Students took pride in the fact that their research and designs helped industry and customers, Christel said: “For designers, it’s really cool when people buy the products they create.”

Next generation of designers

Before and after the project, she questioned students on their confidence and understanding of plus-size design and merchandising. Their answers showed how a real-life fashion problem helped the next generation of apparel designers and merchandisers learn to create clothing for people of different sizes.

“About 60 percent or more of women in our nation wear plus-size clothing,” said Christel, who has made plus-size apparel and weight bias her research focus. “It’s a no-brainer that we should be teaching it.”

Her article, “The Efficacy of Problem-Based Learning of Plus-Size Design in the Fashion Curriculum,” appears in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education. Read it at


Deborah Christel, WSU Department of Apparel, Merchandising, Design and Textiles, 509-335-7453,
Seth Truscott, WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences communications, 509-335-8164,