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At Last, Clothing for the More-Than-Chubby Child : Massachusetts Mail-Order Firm Specializes in Colorful Sportswear

August 21, 1987|JOAN LIBMAN

Mother-and-daughter shopping trips were no fun for Debbie Leonard of Long Beach and her 10-year-old daughter, Ainslie Cole. Ainslie, tens of pounds overweight, couldn't fit into conventional children's sizes.

"We would try plus (or half) sizes, and the fit was awful. We could cut 24 inches off the bottom of a pair of slacks, and then the crotch would hang down to the ankles," said Leonard.

The dressing-room experiences were so demoralizing that, finally, Ainslie refused to accompany her mother. "I had to go to store after store and bring everything home for Ainslie to try on, then bring most of it back. What did fit made her look like a little old lady," Leonard said.

Ainslie isn't alone. In recent years, childhood obesity has skyrocketed. About 23% of the nation's children are obese, estimates Dr. William Dietz, director of clinical nutrition at Boston's New England Medical Center.

Despite those statistics, clothing especially designed and made for overweight kids is a vastly untapped area of the children's-wear market.

Although manufacturers have produced chubby lines for years, the waistlines on them are less than an inch wider than waistlines of regular sizes, so the chubby garments aren't an option for the significantly overweight.

Leonard's shopping woes eased considerably a few months ago when she discovered At Last, a fledgling mail-order company in Natick, Mass., that specializes in colorful sportswear for overweight children.

With a tongue-in-cheek slogan--"Kids' Fashions That Carry Weight"--the firm makes clothes for young people 5 through 17, weighing from 55 to 230 pounds, and with waist sizes 25 to 43 inches.

The company's summer catalogue featured Hawaiian-print shorts sets, blouses, slacks and swimsuits resembling those favored by slim children. Catalogue items are priced at $20 to $35.

At Last is the 2-year-old brainstorm of two former fat kids, co-founders Copie Lilien and Kim Runyon. Lilien vividly remembers what it was like to be a heavy child.

Some of her most embarrassing moments occurred every summer at the beach, when one of her little friends invariably would point out that Lilien was wearing a swimsuit identical to that of someone's grandmother. "It was also the identical size, and I hated it," Lilien adds.

Before developing the designs, Lilien and Runyon interviewed, weighed and measured hundreds of overweight children. Repeated complaints were shirts that pulled out, exposing backs and bellies; crotches that split easily, and the embarrassment of undressing for gym class and having friends view a Size 18 clothing label.

At Last responded with pants that ride higher at the waist, accompanied by longer shirts, reinforced crotches and new sizes. An At Last Size 8, for example, commonly worn by an 8- to 10-year-old, accommodates a child weighing between 95 and 145 pounds.

The firm also is mindful of growth patterns. Elasticized waists can vary several inches to allow for weight losses and gains; slacks, featuring a choice of rolled, ribbed or snapped cuffs, adjust for height.

For fall and winter, At Last offers adjustable unisex slacks, oxford-style shirts in bold stripes and batiks and sweat suits. For girls, there are drop-waist denim and flannel jumpers, harem pants and A-line skirts in denim, wool blend, fleece or twill. The boys' line features navy pants with a matching buttonless jacket in twill or wool blend, with solid or striped oxford shirts.

The catalogue has lined space for customers' comments. Recently, parents responded that boys preferred pants resembling slacks worn by slimmer peers. At Last went back to the drawing board, Lilien says, tapering the leg and camouflaging the partially elasticized waist with belt loops.

Although At Last's mailing list has multiplied five times during the past year, to 3,000 names, the company's sales haven't yet reached the $500,000 mark, Lilien said.

The catalogue is available for $2 from At Last Inc., 60 N. Main St., Natick, Mass. 01760.

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