CHICAGO — Jovana Savic kept leaving vintage markets empty-handed. At a size 18, she couldn’t find clothing that fit. Extended sizes were easy to find on eBay and Depop, but walking into a store and trying on a pair of jeans felt like an impossible task.
Even major retailers that sold plus sizes online didn’t carry those options in their stores. Ms. Savic thought, “How special would it be for fat people, tall people, people who are midsized, who generally feel like they have to go to the back of the rack to see if something’s maybe in your size — how empowering could it be to walk into a space where it’s all for you?”
To answer that call, she started Thick Mall, a “size L and up” pop-up market, in October 2021. “The first one really surprised me,” said Ms. Savic, a 29-year-old tour manager. “People were hungry for clothing. And you’d hear people say, ‘Oh my god, I finally found this in my size.’”
The third iteration of Thick Mall took place this month at Sleeping Village, a music venue on Chicago’s Northwest Side. Nineteen Chicagoland clothing and accessory vendors set up booths while bartenders mixed cocktails and a D.J. pumped tunes. The party atmosphere provided more than a plus-size shopping opportunity; it offered a safe space to mingle, trade compliments and exist in a room of similar bodies.
Though Thick Mall is Ms. Savic’s creation, this round kicked off without her physical presence. As she toured Europe managing merch for the pop-folk artist Julia Jacklin, organizers at Sleeping Village reached out to see if they could plan a holiday market in her absence. Kyle LaValley, Sleeping Village’s head of programming, felt that Thick Mall was too important to miss a season. “We like that there’s an event that can make all bodies feel welcome,” she said.
Across the venue, shoppers dug through tables of single-stitch T-shirts, racks of vintage dresses and nightgowns, and bins of secondhand shoes. Bathroom stalls turned into makeshift dressing rooms, with people gathering at the mirrors to cheer each other on. Shoppers could put on their new outfits, have their makeup done and pose for professional glam shots in front of a sky blue backdrop dotted with cotton ball clouds.
Jessica Siadek, a co-owner of Loop Vintage, drove in from Brookfield, Ill., to set up shop. She doesn’t exclusively carry plus-size clothing, but she pulled her larger sizes for the day.
Trying on items is especially important when shopping for vintage clothes, which often run smaller than modern ones. In person, shoppers can gauge the stretch and flow of a fabric. Plus, they can connect with the vendor who sourced the garment. “When you are looking for a specific size — specifically vintage sizing in particular — things might run smaller, or you’re flipping through how many racks of clothing to maybe find something that works,” Ms. Siadek said. “When it’s size large and up, it’s going to be easier to filter through and find those pieces that work for you.”
“Everyone’s been super cool, trying things on and hyping each other up,” Ms. Siadek said. “I love shopping at markets because you can find things online, but how would I know it existed before I saw it?”
When it came to picking the market’s name, Ms. Savic considered her adjective choices. Though she uses the word “fat” herself, she knew it still had negative connotations for many people. Words like “curvy” or “bootylicious” felt too sexual, she said. “Thick” felt like a happy medium — snappy, memorable and “literally descriptive of our bodies.”
Courtney Coppa — who shares plus-size styling tips on TikTok to more than 109,000 followers — visited Thick Mall for the first time and was thrilled at the chance to try things on. A market dedicated to serving these customers isn’t just rare. For many attendees, even finding clothing in the right size in person is novel.
“Fat has always been thought of as this ugly, negative term, and they don’t want these types of people shopping in their stores to hinder their appearance or their aesthetic,” Ms. Coppa, 28, said. “Shops think that if they just carry our sizes online, that they’re doing the job. That’s just the bare minimum.”
In recent years, some brick-and-mortar shops like Chicago’s Luvsick Plus and Brooklyn’s Plus BKLYN began focusing specifically on extended sizes.
Morgan Copas, 25, a manager at Plus BKLYN, said the shopping landscape was slowly improving, but she still gets frustrated when secondhand stores refuse to carry extended sizes. “These vintage shops have the choice to source plus-sized vintage clothes, and they choose not to,” she said.
Used to being left out of the standard fashion world, Ms. Copas said, plus-size shoppers learn to be resilient. “I think it makes plus-sized people have a better, more unique way of dressing than straight-sized people,” she said. “We have to make do with the little options that we have, and that makes room for more creativity.”
As it grows, Thick Mall continues to evolve. Vendors offered men’s wear for the first time this round. And by inviting new sellers Ms. Savic hopes to keep expanding the event’s possibilities — including offering wider sizing, more gender-neutral options and even things like art and home goods.
But more than that she wants to build a space where fat people feel seen and accepted. “It’s important to create an atmosphere, even if it’s just for one day, where you don’t feel like the odd one out,” she said. “Sometimes it feels nice to not even feel special.”