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Plus-Size Fashions Are Coming Out of the Basement as More Designers Start Creating Tailored Pieces for Women Who Are Fed Up With Wearing Tunics and Stretch Pants

July 11, 1996|JEANNINE STEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 5 feet, 2 inches, Carolyn Curiel walks tall and dresses "artfully." For the 42-year-old senior speech writer and special assistant to President Clinton, "it's all part of the package." Her clothes--sleek, understated designer suits, jackets and blouses--hover in the 16 to 20 size range.

That she can find pieces with the tailored fit and styling details of the latest ready-to-wear is nothing short of a minor miracle for a boomer-age woman who grew up having to improvise a wardrobe. The past few years have seen the beginning of a large-size revolution as designers and retailers realize that big women don't covet polyester stretch pants, boxy tunics and pup-tent dresses, but do want stylish, well-made clothes.

And they are buying them. Retail sales of women's plus-size garments grew 14.2% in 1994 and 6% in 1995, according to New York-based NPD Group Inc., which tracks consumer trends, compared with 6.1% and 1%, respectively, for general women's apparel.

Among the growing list of designers taking a cut of this burgeoning market are such recognizable and respected names as Ellen Tracy, Emanuel Ungaro (under the label Emanuel), Dana Buchman, MaxMara (Marina Rinaldi), David Dart, Carole Little, Liz Claiborne (Elizabeth) and Tamotsu.

With a few notable exceptions, department stores are moving these lines literally out of the basement and into prime real estate. Even if they're motivated by big bucks, not altruism, plus-size women are breathing a collective sigh of relief.

Says Janey Milstead, editor in chief of Los Angeles-based BBW magazine (Big Beautiful Woman): "We're everything--we're nuclear physicists and cabdrivers. We're not eating Oreos under the bed with a veil drawn between us and the world. This is an available market. . . . But we're not used to being able to shop. When I was growing up I bought grandma dresses and ripped them apart and made a vest and skirt out of them. Now I can go shopping."

And she is just one among millions. Despite the country's allegiance to Jenny Craig, StairMasters and SnackWells, statistics point to the fact that we're packing on the pounds. Ms. Average American stands 5-feet, 4-inches tall and weighs 144 pounds, putting her in a size 12. More than one-third of American women are overweight, according to National Center for Health Statistics.

Even such upscale stores as Saks Fifth Avenue acknowledge this shift. Five years ago the chain added plus sizes in Salon Z, which in some stores (including Beverly Hills) occupies an entire floor.

"We could see there was a need," says Lynne Ronon, Saks' senior vice president. "The [large-size] customer was buying her cosmetics and accessories here, why not apparel?"

Macy's has expanded its plus-size division, occasionally breaking out into free-standing Macy's Woman stores, including one in Century City.

"Ten years ago, the customer took what she got," says Ginny Peterson, Macy's divisional merchandise manager for special sizes. "Now she's excited to find things, and she'll buy the product as soon as it hits the floor."

But not everyone feels compelled to serve the large-size market. At Barneys New York in Beverly Hills, customers won't find any size above 16. "What we try to do is encompass petite and large sizes within the collections we buy, or find collections that are suited for customers on the large size," explains Bonnie Pressman, executive vice president of women's fashion. "We think our customer likes to shop our total store and be able to find sizes that fit within the lines we carry."

Indeed, the revolution has stopped well short of a complete turn-around; no one's holding her breath waiting for a large-size model to grace the cover of Vogue. More often than not, petite sizes get better placement in stores, and most of the world's most influential designers won't deign to do a plus line.

While the Ford Models 12+ division has some 50 women on its roster, including such stars as Emme (one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People), the bulk of their editorial work comes from Europe. America has been slow in changing its attitude toward large women.

Says Suzanne Donovan, executive director of the agency's promotion and development, "Unfortunately these moguls in advertising have a stereotypical idea of American beauty, and in reality the people who manufacture these products are becoming more hip [to the fact] that the consumer is older and larger than she was or has ever been, and she's willing to spend more money, and the areas of fashion and beauty are growing the most."

Most fashion magazine editors still won't cross the line and feature large models interchangeably with slim ones. Christy Haubegger is an exception. The president and publisher of the newly launched New York-based magazine Latina has vowed not to put stick-thin models in her pages.

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