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Fashion 87 : Large Sizes Are Big Business and Still Growing

January 16, 1987|PADDY CALISTRO

Fact: Oprah Winfrey, one of daytime TV's most talked-about stars, admits that her size varies greatly--from a Size 12 up.

Fact: The estimated 30 million to 40 million women in America who wear Size 16 or larger spent close to $8 billion on clothing in 1986. And fashion industry forecasters estimate that amount could triple in the next few years.

Fact: Lane Bryant, a chain catering to the large-size customer, was losing money in 1982 when it was acquired by the Limited Inc. After switching to a more updated styling concept, the chain opened 180 new stores in 1986. A company spokesman says there are plans to open 150 more this year.

Fact: At Bullock's, the fastest growing area is the division that sells sophisticated large-size clothing at upscale prices.

Fact: In fiscal year 1986, the Forgotten Woman, a chain of 18 large-size boutiques, including one in Beverly Hills, reported sales of $17 million, up 42% over 1985.

Is somebody finally noticing?

Contrary to myth, large women don't sit at home eating Haagen-Dazs or reading diet books. They work, entertain, play tennis, swim, get married, have babies and become the hostesses of big-time TV shows. And lots more. In other words, they lead full, fulfilling lives. And because they do, they buy clothes. Stylish clothes. And retailers' cash registers are proving the point.

Yet despite a surge in the market, the woman who wears a Size 18 or larger has been hard-pressed to find career clothes, active sportswear, wedding dresses, maternity clothes and evening wear. The message at retail level is that women who wear big sizes are very different from smaller women. That their clothing needs are somehow more limited.

One Santa Monica consumer says she will drive 50 miles to West Covina Fashion Plaza "because it's the only mall I know of that has a good selection of large-size fashions." The mall includes Lady Miriam's, Woman's World, New Woman and Lane Bryant, all large-size clothing stores. "I went to Beverly Center and couldn't find anything," the same woman complained.

Retailers say it's the manufacturers who aren't responsive to larger women's needs. Nancye Radmin, who opened the Forgotten Woman in New York in 1977, says she worked with five resources in the beginning. Now, 18 stores later, she works with 400.

"But even with that many suppliers, to get tennis clothes I had to

order a special cutting," she says.

And manufacturers complain that retailers won't take risks. "Nobody makes large-size maternity clothes because no stores are willing to take a chance," states Michael Beattie, president of Gemini, a successful large-size dress company, whose sister firm, Libra, produces maternity clothes in standard sizes.

"Many retailers treat the large-size customer like a second-class citizen," says Howard Meyers, national sales manager for Sue Wong, a firm that produces standard and large sizes. "One store in Philadelphia stuck the large sizes between children's wear and crystal--the worst location in the store. How is the customer supposed to feel?"

Hana Estroff Marano, the fashion director of Fashion Plus, a large-size editorial and advertising supplement that appears in such magazines as Family Circle and Vogue, observes that most manufacturers and retailers fail to listen to the consumer.

After analyzing the survey responses of 3,500 large-size readers, Marano says these women "are extraordinarily conscious of quality and generally unsatisfied with the quality available to them. Poor quality and poor design, they tell us, is another way of making these women feel like second-class citizens."

For many years, stores that carried large sizes overlooked quality in favor of keeping prices low--another myth being that large-size customers would not invest as much in clothing as other shoppers.

"We didn't get poor because we got fat or vice versa," retorts Carole Shaw, editor of Big Beautiful Woman (BBW), a magazine aimed at women who wear Size 14 and above.

"Until recently there just weren't quality clothes available to us. The money has always been there; it's just there waiting to be spent." Retailers who opted to develop their large-size departments are seeing that money being spent.

Aware manufacturers have ventured into large-size garments never explored in years past: lingerie, leotards, jogging suits, belts, authenic Levi's 501 jeans, even full-length furs.

At I. Magnin, large-size dress buyer Cathy Waxman says her best-selling item last fall was a green silk chemise for $198, followed by a red silk at $130. She states that her customer will spend $100 to $160 for a "basic work dress," about $400 for evening wear and $150 to $225 for a silk daytime dress, "as long as the quality is there," she stipulates.

Marano says fit was another area of complaint from the Fashion Plus survey respondents. "The whole market produces merchandise that fits one large-size body type. We got an enormous response from women who are taller or shorter than the average--they aren't being served."

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