Interview by Jefferson Ellison, done in partnership w/ AVLtoday.
Jazmine Whitmore is an American contradiction. A bohemian woman-of-color with a non-traditional identity who owns her own business and lives life on her own terms. No investors, no trust fund... just a desire to stand on her own two feet and provide a service to an underserved market, plus-size women. To be completely honest, I have a bit of an obsession with the plus-size market -- ever since a conference I attended years ago where I spoke at length with an exec from Eloquii about the nuances of marketing to a community that is underrepresented in advertisement yet overrepresented in the population. The majority of the women in America are a size 14 or bigger. Yet, the majority of the market stops making clothes at a size 12. Now, combine the lack of options with the trauma-bonding that happens when Western society creates a beauty standard that shames women for how their body looks, makes it difficult for you to build wealth and then tells you that if you spent x-amount of money on body-shapers, cellulite creams, and push-up bras, you can trick the world into liking you so you can begin to love yourself. It's bullshit. Needless to say, when Jazmin and I first met we bonded over our desire to see average women catered to in a way that felt necessary, honest, and uplifting. But that conversation doesn't just need to happen at the mall. Vintage stores and consignment boutiques also have a hard time servicing the plus-size market. Not in a different way necessarily, but in the sense that they are reactionary products of a broken market so they exist with-in and perpetuate the same problems. More to Love is going to fix that. By starting a business model in her consignment shop that caters exclusively to the plus-size woman and being unapologetically herself, Jazmin Whitmore is a walking political movement and a force to be reckoned with. Through tenacity, grace and a hint of Black Girl Magic, More to Love is more than a store, it's a call to action.
What is your background? How did you get here?
The short version is that when I was 17, I dropped out of school and ran away from Michigan, my home state, to North Carolina. Life was really wild for a little while, my upbringing had left me very few skills and a lot of trauma. As a result I spent a few years in and out of homeless shelters, couch surfing and trying to work. I spent several years on disability because of my trauma but I never gave up wanting to be able to work for myself, I just didn’t know how. In my mid 20’s I got my GED and Natural Hair Care License and began doing hair. This allowed me to get off of disability and work for myself at my pace. I had no idea that in my 30’s I would be doing hair and running a consignment shop, but it has really been the best surprise.
Why did you decide to focus on plus size fashion?
I have always enjoyed using fashion to express myself. As a plus-size woman it can be very challenging to find a wardrobe that you love and can afford. This point was driven home for me one day when I was shopping downtown for an outfit for a special occasion. I had a $200 budget and I was very excited to finally have the money to buy a locally made outfit. It spent 5 stressful hours going from store to store. The problem was most stores didn’t carry my size in anything besides T-shirt and the ones that did have items that fit me, weren’t flattering at all. Finally, I found a shop that had one beautiful dress that had been discounted down to $70. I I was so relieved to have found it but so upset that it had been so hard. Something that should have been a joyful occasion turned into such an unpleasant experience. I realized that if I were having this much trouble at a size 16/18 that many other people we're having as much or worse of a time trying to find clothing they actually liked and could afford.
With the avg. American woman being a size 16, do you think the narrative and the options for the plus size woman has changed?
I think the narrative is very much changing although I do not think it's changing fast enough for a lot of people. Several companies that have not had plus size options before are launching lines made just for curvy women. It's also been really nice to start seeing roles for curvy and thick women in the media. For a long time you really only saw curvy women casted as villains or someone's best friend. It was very rare that they would have a backstory and importance of their own. One thing that hasn't really changed is the high cost of well made plus size clothing. It's really great that we have options now, but finding affordable options is still extremely difficult. I think to some degree many companies that offer plus size clothing are aware that curvy women have so few places to shop, and I think that they use that to their advantage when pricing things. If I don't want to pay $160 for a sundress where else will I go? Although it is starting to shift, a thin person has hundreds of options of where they will shop. A curvy person will have only a handful of options, that's if your budget can afford it.
What has been the hardest part of being in retail?
I think for me the most difficult thing for being in retail is actually just letting people know that I'm here. In retail you're dealing with very well-established very large companies as well as small local businesses. So you kind of have to yell really loudly to let people know that I'm here and that I have clothes for them. I think this is especially hard because so many curvy women really dislike clothes shopping because they've had so many bad experiences like the one I described earlier. Many women don't shop for joy, they shop for necessity and it's a dreaded experience that they procrastinate as much as possible. So it's very hard to let people know that not only am I here but that I'm offering more than just clothes, I'm offering a welcoming environment and a pleasant shopping experience. As a queer identify black woman, you fall pretty low on the matrix of domination. How has that experience shaped you and you run your business?
I'm not sure there's any aspect of my life or business that those things haven't touched in one way or another. If I had to pick just one way that it's affected me the most I think I would have to say that being a queer, curvy, black woman has really affected my drive to thrive and to help other people thrive. For most of my adult life in one way or another I've tried to take experiences that I've had that were very painful or embarrassing and to use those moments to foster empathy and to motivate me to see how I could make these things better. When you've grown up feeling like an outsider, an imposter, unattractive, and unwanted it gives you a good idea of how to create a welcoming and inclusive space. I think my life has taught me how to recognize and care about people's needs and wants. I think it also helps my victories taste sweeter. Someone might think of something as a small accomplishment, but to me when I consider the odds that are stacked against me (people like me), I feel like everyday is a win. The fact that I get to say I am a queer black female business owner fills me with pride, especially when you consider that I only got my GED in my mid-20s and have no other formal education.
In the past, you said that you have customers who are so consistent and loyal that they basically buy everything in their size? Why do you think that is ?
I love when that happens. When I first opened it was a little stressful when it happened because I would just get a section stocked well and a few days later it would be near empty again. I think this happens for a few reasons. The first reason is if you're curvy when you find affordable clothes that fit, you buy them. You don't know if they'll be there later. You don't want to risk coming back later to have all of the options be gone. I also think it was genuine excitement. When I shop at a store like Lane Bryant or Torrid I am very aware of how expensive everything is. So often I will go shopping for just one outfit or a pair of pants. So even if I like five or six items I can generally only afford one or two. So I think the joy of finding so many options that they do like and that they could afford to buy all of those options is a really novel feeling.
In a city like Asheville, where you are a rarity, do you feel a responsibility to be vocal on social issue or do you find it “preachy” ?
I do feel like a rarity, in a lot of ways some involving my business and some not. Asheville is a very health-conscious town and even though there's nothing wrong with that it can lead to attitudes that are very judgmental and exclusive of curvy bodies. I've had more than a couple people ask me how I feel about encouraging people to be unhealthy. I told them that I am encouraging people to be healthy, I'm just not telling them what healthy is. We are all working on being physically and emotionally healthier people, but that's going to look different for everyone. Whether or not someone is healthy cannot be answered as simply as a number on a scale. I am also quick to tell them that even if they consider my client unhealthy you cannot encourage someone to be healthy by shaming them or refusing to include them. I believe that everyone should have affordable clothes that they love and feel good in. I'm not interested in judging their health choices but I do believe that having clothes you're comfortable in can really help with a healthy self-esteem and when we have a healthy self-esteem we make better choices in life and feel better making them. So I kind of think the existence of my store is me being vocal on these and other social issues. I also really try to share a lot of body positive quotes and pictures of curvy women living their lives looking comfortable and beautiful. I don't think that's being preachy, but I also think that preachy is one of those words that get assigned to whatever topic someone doesn't want to hear about. So to some people, I'm probably being preachy, but to me I'm just trying to reach curvy bodies in need of affordable fashionable clothing. I'm talking to the young woman who needs to find that perfect outfit to nail her job interview. I'm not talking to someone who thinks because you weigh over a hundred and ten lb you don't deserve to have clothing you love.
As a small business, how has COVID shifted how you think about your work?
The shutdown has been incredibly challenging for me. To be honest it's changed the way I think about nearly everything. I think it's impossible to list all the ways that it's changed my thinking and perspective when it comes to the ways I approach running my business. For one it's really forced me to shrink my outlook from years down the road to days or weeks down the road. Especially for a business that celebrated its year anniversary 1 month before the shutdown it is completely unknown territory that I'm in. I do think it has forced me to be creative, like many other companies I started making face masks and selling those on Etsy. I also started offering some online/virtual shopping as well as selling gift cards for future shopping.
What surprised you most about running a retail establishment?
I've had so many surprises so far, some good some not so good. One thing that was very surprising was how many clothes you can actually fit in 1200ft of space. When we first started bringing clothes in after our build-out it seemed like the racks we bought would never fill up. A few months later we realized we needed more racks. By the end of the year we'd replace most of our racks with bigger racks that were more space efficient. Now we're up to around 6,000 items and still trying to figure out what layout would allow us to put one or two more clothing racks in. I was initially really nervous that we wouldn’t be able to keep fashionable and diverse inventory but I've been very pleasantly surprised at how many options we've been able to consistently provide.
What has been your favorite part of this journey?
It's really hard to pick a favorite part but I think it's definitely the most satisfying thing when someone comes in for the first time and tries on 20 or 30 different things because they're so excited at all the options. The other day I had a customer yell as she was leaving the shop that she was never going to Torrid again, that felt really good. Really every time someone comes in and has a comfortable stress-free shopping experience , that's my favorite. I love that I've been able to use all of my bad shopping experiences to create such a comfortable and enjoyable experience for so many plus size shoppers.