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Black Women Get Their Voices Heard, Fashion Needs Met


Jeans that fit in the waist but not in the butt. Sleeves that aren't long enough. Suits that bunch up in the back.

These are some of the fashion misfitting problems black women have dealt with for years when buying clothes.

Lori Scott was tired of spending a small fortune on alterations, and she knew many other black women were too. So Scott went to her employer, Spiegel, and pitched an idea: a clothing catalogue geared to the fit and fashion needs of black women.

Spiegel went to Johnson Publishing Co., owner of Ebony magazine, and asked for its input on the project. The result was E Style.

Scott said the catalogue was a natural extension of the sizable black market that Spiegel, a Chicago-based catalogue company, has enjoyed for years. Research shows blacks spend more than $7.5 billion per year on fashions and accessories.

"We put what we call requests into magazines all the time where people can send them in and get the regular catalogues," she said. "I noticed that whenever there was a request in a black magazine like Ebony, three times as many more of the cards came back than any we put in mainstream magazines. I thought we should investigate that further."

The response to E Style has been overwhelming, said Ann Morris, media relations manager for Spiegel. The spring 1994 catalogue is the third such catalogue. Fall and holiday catalogues were mailed last year.

"It's doing very well," Morris said. "We've been getting a lot of positive feedback. Women like the selection and the way the catalogue looks. They like the fact that we're using different-looking models with different skin tones and hairstyles and the fact that we have career and casual looks, head-to-toe outfits completely coordinated with hats and shoes and everything."

E Style looks like any other catalogue, with work suits, shoes, underwear, jeans and other casual clothes. But it also offers shawls and jackets with accents of traditional African kente print and mud cloth, earrings with beads and cowrie shells, pins with African American faces and carved wooden ceremonial masks and Ashanti fertility dolls for the home.

Prices range from $79 for a Kente print bomber jacket and $22 for the matching hat to $282 for a geometric suit, matching straw hat and coordinating pumps. E Style clothing is available in misses' Sizes 8 to 18, and many outfits come in women's sizes as well.

Linda Johnson Rice, president of Johnson Publishing, said part of the reason the catalogue has been so successful is because Spiegel did its research and asked black women what they wanted. The typical respondent said:

* She is more interested in head-to-toe outfits than add-to-your existing wardrobe basics.

* She wants a broader assortment of colors to flatter a variety of skin tones. Warm, vibrant sunburned shades such as cinnamon, red, gold, fuchsia, lime and royal blue are preferred to pale pastels.

* Hats are an important accessory for her--dressier ones for church, more casual styles for weekends. Hats with the same fabric as a suit or dress, again for that head-to-toe look, also are popular.

* Clothes and accessories featuring ethnic fabrics and prints are desired to celebrate black heritage.

Spiegel also randomly measured about 1,300 black women for its research on how clothing should fit. Sixteen body points, including high hip, front and back waist and inseam, were measured and showed black women have distinct fit and proportion needs and prefer better tailored clothing.

"And I believe they've come up with an excellent group of outfits," Rice said. "I mean, their jeans really fit. I don't know about you, but I've never been able to go into a store and buy a pair of jeans off the rack that fit perfectly. I don't know any African American woman who has, and that's a problem they've addressed."

Spiegel is not the only company that has decided to market to the black consumer. Just over a year ago, JCPenney began Fashion Influences, which includes Afrocentric items by designer Anthony Mark Hankins.

But Spiegel and JCPenney are almost a decade behind Essence magazine. The 24-year-old publication for black women began selling Afrocentric clothing, accessories and home decorations by mail around 1985.

Now other segments of the fashion industry are trying to fill the void. Almost three years ago major cosmetics companies, including Revlon, Clinique, Prescriptives and Maybelline, either extended their makeup lines to include more colors or developed whole new lines with shades and colors for the black, Latina, Asian and Native American woman.

The way Revlon has introduced its spring line of colors, Exotica, is an example of the way mainstream companies are responding to the ethnic market.

There are two lines of Exotica colors: ColorStyle, the company's line of makeup for black women, and classic Revlon, for everyone else.

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