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A Profile in Passion for Size-Inclusive Design

Meet The Panty Squad’s Newest Member, Dr. Deb

Panty Drop recently made an exciting announcement: Kade & Vos has joined the Panty Squad! Combining forces with this body-positive collection means even more size-inclusive styles. Plus, Kade & Vos founder, Dr. Deb Christel, Ph.D., is now a part of the Panty Drop design department. She’s the brains behind the Perfect Panty, which provides comfort and coverage from size XS to 6XL. She’ll create more sizes, styles, and colors for Panty Drop, so we thought this would be the perfect opportunity to tell you about her experience, inspiration, and passion for design in every size.

Dr. Deb received her undergraduate degree in apparel design from Washington State University and went on to graduate school at Oregon State University to study functional design. During that time, her mother had a less than pleasant experience at a very popular athletic apparel store. Her mother, who Dr. Deb described as a size 12 or 14, was fat-shamed while shopping.

“Her experience was so awful, and she didn’t understand,” Dr. Deb said. “It’s like don’t mess with my mom.”

According to a study co-authored by Dr. Deb and published in the International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology and Education, the average size of women in the United States sits somewhere between a size 16 and 18. At a size 12 to 14, Dr. Deb’s mother was smaller than the average American woman but still experienced weight bias while shopping for yoga clothes because she wasn’t the ideal shape or size. That experience not only derailed her mother’s motivation but also turned her away from an activity that would have been beneficial for her breathing, flexibility, and stress management.

That event triggered a more significant question in Deb’s mind: If her mom was a victim of weight bias, what was the experience of other larger women? Were they able to find comfortable and functional clothing? Were they being met with discrimination not just in retail stores but in the design and production process?

Finding answers to these questions prompted Dr. Deb to continue her education at Oregon State and pursue a doctorate in women’s studies, fat studies, apparel design, and sports psychology. She wanted to understand how not having access to the clothing larger people needed to do certain activities such as swimming or interviewing for a job affected their well-being. What was the impact of that lack of access on human behavior?

“I found that it severely decreases an individual’s motivation, and I thought that’s not right,” Dr. Deb said. “There’s clearly some sort of systematic disparity in the apparel design process and also the fashion industry at large.”

Dr. Deb’s body of research focused on understanding the discrimination that exists throughout the entire flow of design, production, merchandising, and marketing. She discovered quality and comfort were the most significant issues facing plus-size women. Larger bodies are not represented accurately in the media and pay more for low-quality, ill-fitting garments. This form of systemic oppression affects their financial, physical, and emotional comfort.

“When you have that experience repeated several times, it leads to trauma, so a lot of plus-size women are like ‘I’m not even going to do it,’” she said. “They’ll find whatever is cheap and just go with that because they don’t want to risk their mental health.”

What’s the solution to a problem as profound as this? The fix starts with addressing our own biases toward fat people. Discrimination against this group is well documented. Dr. Deb cites a study that found weight discrimination is as common as racial discrimination. Not to mention, weight bias has become socially acceptable and normalized in pop culture.

Many fashion brands start the design process with a fit model. If they decide to bring in a plus-sized model, Dr. Deb says they typically choose an idealized, hourglass-shaped woman. This body type is not representative of all plus-size women, which come in many shapes and sizes. The first link in the chain is already flawed. When the garment launches, it fits poorly and doesn’t sell well. Brands blame low sales on a lack of consumer demand or a “reflection of the market” instead of a defective design. The collection is pulled from shelves, resulting in fewer options for plus-size women.

This illustrates the need for designers to understand the landscape of a plus-size body. Dr. Deb says a designer needs to embrace various shapes during the process and understand how different shapes hold heat. She says this is especially true for underwear design. Understanding fabrics and how they stretch, move, and react to heat is critical for comfort in such a sensitive part of the body.

In Dr. Deb’s view, creators also need input from those they design for. During her five years as a professor at Washington State University and West Virginia University, she researched weight bias in the fashion industry by surveying thousands of plus-size customers. She even got involved with a post-bariatric clinic to understand those women’s needs.

“What kept coming up in those conversations was ‘my underwear is uncomfortable’ or ‘it digs into my legs’ or ‘it pinches and falls down and rides up,’ “ Dr. Deb said.

Comfort is one of Dr. Deb’s favorite topics. She described it as how your physical feelings balance with your emotional feelings. Physical comfort has to do with temperature, poking, pinching, etc. Emotional comfort is about feeling safe and accepted. As a designer, she said all forms of comfort are top of mind.

With such a breadth of knowledge of research and first-hand accounts of what plus-size women want and need, Dr. Deb made the difficult decision to leave her job as one of the only professors of plus-size design in the nation. She started Kade & Vos to serve a variety of bodies. Her goal was to make an impact in a “more immediate way.”

During a Seattle conference for women entrepreneurs, Dr. Deb was approached by an investor who urged her to meet Panty Drop founder Julie Arsenault. The investor told her that Julie had the “same mission and vision and goals as you do.” So they met, and that started their collaboration. Kade & Vos was featured in the Panty Drop subscription box, and Dr. Deb became the designer behind the wildly popular Perfect Panty, which is the world’s best size-inclusive panty (if we do say so ourselves).

“I combined my background knowledge with the customer feedback from Panty Drop and the things that Panty Drop had said their customers were asking for,” Dr. Deb said about designing the Perfect Panty.

She then drafted a design so that samples could be created in the factory. A fit test was conducted where several people wore them and gave their feedback. This resulted in micro-revisions that created the perfect fit in every size.

With the success of the Perfect Panty, Dr. Deb and Julie’s collaboration would only grow. Kade & Vos became part of the Panty Drop family at the beginning of 2021, bringing Dr. Deb onboard as the head of design and product development. . Dr. Deb said she welcomed closing the solopreneur chapter of her life because she wanted to focus on her true passion of designing.

“We’re kind of the perfect pair when it comes to the business side and the design side,” Dr. Deb said, referring to her partnership with Julie. “If we both want to be successful, we need to do it together.”

So what will Deb be designing next? Will it be loungewear, athleisure, or swimsuits? She said she’s open to any need a consumer may have. She also said she wants to know what consumers want, how they feel about what’s out there now, and how it can be improved for every body type.

“I want to design it all,” she said. “If I’m being honest with you, I design because plus-size women deserve the exact same thing that smaller women have, and smaller women have everything.”

Dr. Deb said she would love to venture into swimwear. She mused that athleisure apparel would be an “awesome” addition. Even a plus-size jean piques her interest because she says she’s heard from many larger women that the thighs rub out quickly.

“Anything a skinny girl wants, she can go and find it,” Dr. Deb said. “I want plus-size and fat women to have that same accessibility.”

Let our designer, Dr. Deb, know what styles, colors, and fabrics you’d like to see in our future products. Click here to share your thoughts.

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