Ever go clothes shopping and agonize over pants and shirts that look so appealing but don’t fit? You’re not the only one. So many clothing companies have limited their sizes to fit a certain ‘sporty’ figure, and in turn have limited the opportunities of many people who don’t fit that specific body type. Raquel Vélez wanted to change that and create more opportunities for plus size women to find the outdoors. She is the founder and CEO of Alpine Parrot, an outdoor apparel brand that makes clothing for women sizes 14 to 24 (and up to 36 soon!). This is her story.
What got you interested in the outdoors?
I was not really a big outdoorsy person. I have this horrific fear of spiders, so I just always figured that I can’t go outside because I would just have a heart attack. I think more sociologically, my parents were never particularly outdoorsy, they’re from the island of Puerto Rico, and they literally have the outdoors outside their front door. But growing up in New Jersey, it wasn’t quite the same, I don’t think it ever occurred to them to go out of their way to experience the outdoors. There’s something that’s very privileged for people who choose to sleep outside; my parents are immigrants, they did not work their butts off to sleep outside.
How did you end up combining fashion with the outdoors?
I went to a sports store, and nothing fit, and I was just like, this is the stupidest thing in the world. I had decided to learn how to sew because I hated buying jeans. I had a problem myself, and I sought a way to fix it, and in the process realized that there are so many other people who have the same problem.
Why do you think certain people and ethnicities are underrepresented in the outdoors?
As a larger woman of color, I barely see anyone who looks like me on the trail. I did my research and found out that 68% of American women are a size 14 and up, but most outdoor brands stop around size 14. Also, the average size of American women is a size 16 or 18, and the rest of the industry hasn’t caught up to that.
In terms of ethnicities, by 2046, people of color will be the majority of the population of the United States. Yet, in 2011, the US Parks and Forestry Service did some data collection, and they found that less than five percent of people who visit national and state parks were Asian American, less than five percent were Latin American, and less than three percent were Black American. More than half the country is represented by people of color, and yet less than 15 percent of visitors of National Parks are those people, there’s this really huge disparity going out there. If you think about lack of accessibility for people of size, there are some National Parks that were segregated for a long time, there’s a lot of sociological stuff going on in there. There’s a lot of history, a lot of ancestral trauma, and then there’s just underlying fat-phobia and racism, for a very very very long time.
What can we do to make the outdoors more accessible to people?
I think on the one hand there needs to be accessibility options, make sure that it’s welcoming. If you never see people of color, people of size in advertisements, why would you ever think that you could be one of those people. Then, there’s also gear, when things don’t come in your size, that’s an actual physical barrier to enjoying an activity. That’s one of the things that I’m trying to do, alright, I’ll be making all sorts of things that will allow more people to at least no longer have that physical barrier. Also, just being really inclusive! Just making sure that there’s a group of people that doesn’t need to rush to the summit, that’s a huge deal for someone who’s a little bit slower. There’s nothing that says in order to enjoy the outdoors, you must be able to run a mile in 20 minutes or less. The reality is, if you’re outdoors and you enjoy it, you’re outdoorsy! The end!
Why the name “Alpine Parrot?”
I have a couple of reasons. First off, there is one species of alpine parrot in the world, it is called the kea, and it is a sacred treasure of the Maori people of New Zealand. It’s such a cool bird because it defies stereotypes. When you think of parrots, you think of these super colorful birds that hang out on the beach and sing songs. The alpine parrot lives in the mountains, it plays in the snow, it’s very smart and friendly, and you just wouldn’t expect a parrot to do those things. It also has this gorgeous olive exterior, but when it flies, it has these rainbow underwings that will absolutely take your breath away. When I think of the people I serve, underrepresented people of size, people of color, we’re often underestimated, the stereotypes do not put us in the woods hiking, or on the slopes or on ziplines. People don’t associate people of size and color with those activities. And yet, just like the kea, when we are in our element, we completely and totally shine. So, I just felt like it was just an amazing correlation to what I was trying to do. In a more silly version, I texted my friends, and I asked them, ‘Alpine Parrot, what do you think?’ And one of them was like ‘I’m just thinking of a parrot with ski goggles on,’ and I said ‘done!’
As a pretty hefty person myself, what kind of outdoor tips do you have for people like me?
The first one is, don’t buy into the idea that you have to be hardcore in order to participate. I’ve had people tell me they never even thought they could get off the couch, and then suddenly they’re like walking around the block, then they’re walking trails, and next thing they know, they’re hiking Mount Kilimanjaro. You don’t start by hiking Kilimanjaro, you start by going around your neighborhood.
What plans do you have for the future?
Step one is, get these pants made and out to the people who have bought them, because at this point it’s mostly pre-sales, people have bought into an idea. By the end of next week, a hundred pants will be out in the world. It’s an opportunity for me to see how people are reacting, and more pants are being made, and from there, we’re going to be developing a pair of shorts, a flannel shirt, and we’ll be adding more product items to reduce those barriers of entry and making sure people have access to gear so they can enjoy the outdoors in any way that they love.
Photos courtesy of Alpine Parrot