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Sizing Up an Apparel Niche : Big Clothing Has Been a Bright Spot in the Struggling Industry

October 25, 1994|LISA RESPERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

People in the large-size clothing industry do not take offense to jokes about doing "big business." They are laughing all the way to the bank.

While the apparel industry in general has been struggling the past few years, designers, manufacturers and retailers catering to stout women have enjoyed steadily rising sales and profits.

Between 1991 and 1993, sales of so-called plus-size women's fashions--Size 14 and above--grew 16%. The increase, analysts say, reflects the reality that larger women are a significant market segment and are increasingly willing to pay more for clothing. The average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 143 pounds, according to national health statistics. The apparel industry estimates that one in three American women, or about 35 million consumers, wears a Size 14 or larger. All of this translates into many more Size 18s being sold than Size 8s.

Encouraged by demand for stylish apparel in larger sizes, upscale retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom have created departments that cater to big women.

Merchandisers and sales representatives "are finding out that we are not just housewives looking to buy a couple of blouses and a few pairs of polyester pants," says Maryanne Bodolay, meeting and merchandising coordinator for the National Assn. to Advance Fat Acceptance, herself a Size 32. "We are doctors and lawyers and businesswomen."

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Nordstrom launched its Encore department for plus-size women in 1991 at its flagship store in downtown Seattle, and it has since included the section in 45 of its 78 stores nationwide.

"We've added that department because our customers asked for it," says Marie Joyce, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Nordstrom stores. "The customer response has been incredible."

According to NPD Group Inc., a marketing and research group in New York, sales of women's plus-size clothing last year was about $14.4 billion, or 21.4% of $67.6 billion in women's apparel sales.

That's a lot of spending, analysts say, by women the fashion industry has historically ignored.

"For years, large-sized women had to go to Lane Bryant or Lerner Woman, or they had to rely on dressmakers and patterns," says Alan Millstein, publisher of Fashion Network Report, a newsletter for clothing retailers. "The industry took the consumer for granted."

Michele Francisco says she was among those overlooked consumers. She said she began designing large-size specialty fashions out of the need to find beautiful clothing to fit her size 32 frame. She and her partner Deborah Ament launched their Color Me Big line about three years ago in San Bernardino with good results.

"Our business has quadrupled in the last few years," Francisco said.

Idrea Lippman and partner Wendy Johnsen say their sales have grown to more than $1 million annually since they opened their Great Changes boutique in Studio City five years ago. A second store in Beverly Hills caters to celebrity clients such as actresses Roseanne Arnold, Della Reese and Kathy Najimy and singers Carnie Wilson and Etta James.

"We do private label so we can get things made that are special," says Lippman, a sometime large-size fashion model. The store has a mix of moderate to higher-priced merchandise, she says.

Not every big woman's wallet is proportional to her size, and discount chain stores such as Target and Kmart are also carrying larger sizes in competition with low and moderately priced specialty boutiques.

"We felt that there was a growing demand," says Gail Dorn, a marketing executive at Target. "We felt that it was a niche that other retailers had ignored."

Valley Department Store Big & Tall Men's and Women's Apparel in Ontario has found another niche catering to so-called super-size women (size 26 and above).

Valley Department Store began specializing in clothes for big men in 1964 and now carries everything from pajamas to evening gowns and suits for large-size men and women. Vice President Jerry Rosenblum, who is the third generation of his family to run the store, says business has been increasing steadily for the past few years. "Not too many businesses can say that," he says.

The store boasts the ability to "fit just about anyone" and has tailors on the premises to make any needed alterations, he says.

Such stores are not easy to find, says Suzan Nanfeldt, an image consultant who specializes in large-size clothing. "If you are super-sized, you almost have to learn about the underground industry to find the stores, catalogues and shops just to have clothes for everyday living."

Adds Michelle Garcia (size 34) of Burbank: "We are almost the forgotten of the forgotten women. . . . I am not confined to a bed and I don't mind spending money to look my best when I go out."

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