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Plus-Size Youths Finding Larger Clothes Selection

Apparel: Retailers are tapping into a lucrative and long-ignored market with fashionable, edgy items for young women who wear 14 and up.

April 16, 2001|LESLIE EARNEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gina Russo bristles when she describes the loathsome task of finding clothes that suit her in a size 16.

If the waistline fits, the skirt hangs. If the shirt's roomy, it's cut too short. And don't get her started on "electric orange muumuus" and elastic waistbands.

"It's like, 'Thank you, I wanted that because I'm 24 years old and I want to look 60,' " the West Los Angeles resident says sarcastically.

But shopping might become less onerous for the associate producer and millions of other young, large, fashion-conscious women like her.

Retailers and manufacturers, tapping into what analysts say is a potentially lucrative and largely ignored market, are stocking larger sizes for teens and young women.

In the boldest example, counterculture retailer Hot Topic Inc. this month is launching a chain of mall stores that will sell edgy apparel--including vinyl skirts, sheer tops, camouflage pants, fishnet hose and punk jewelry--in sizes 14 through 26. The first Torrid store is scheduled to open Thursday at the Brea Mall, and five more will be operating nationwide by June.

"There's a huge need for it," said Elizabeth Pierce, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities. "Everybody knows the demographics are there."

In fact, a growing number of more mainstream companies has been adding larger sizes for younger women. Gap Inc. has nudged its selections up to a size 16 in its 1,988 stores nationwide over the last year. Target Stores' new Mossimo line for juniors includes plus sizes for such items as board shorts, tank tops and knit capri judo pants. This fall, Tommy Hilfiger Corp. will launch a plus-size line.

Retailers and analysts cite two key factors driving the trend: The population is getting larger, and bigger women are increasingly unwilling to shroud themselves in fabric.

"The shorts are getting shorter," said an employee at Lane Bryant, a plus-size chain that's been trying to woo younger women. "It's no more about covering yourself up. It's about being in style."

Clearly there's a growing market for trendy, youthful fashions in larger sizes.

Over the last two decades the number of overweight children and teens nearly doubled, according to the Centers for Disease Control, which announced last month that the latest study, in 1999, found that 14% of all children ages 12 to 19 were overweight. Sales of women's sizes 16 and up have risen steadily since 1997, jumping 22.2% last year alone.

In another sign of the trend, modeling agencies are fielding more requests for full-figure models.

"Retailers are recognizing, on a large scale, that even in a bad economy like there is now, there's a buyer for over size 12," said Thomas Winslow, an agent at Wilhelmina Models Inc. in New York, where assignments for larger models are the fastest-growing segment of the business.

Health-care professionals welcome the shift, saying larger children and young adults have enough trouble without being able to find clothes similar to what their friends wear. Overweight children are often teased by peers, teachers and coaches and pushed by parents to be thinner, said Stewart Agras, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University.

"Particularly, it's the peer teasing that does a great deal of damage and begins to lower their self-esteem," he said. "That sets them up for an eating disorder."

Shopping can be especially painful for larger teens, who so desperately want to fit in.

"You see Britney Spears on TV with these trendy, great things on and you want them, but you can't get them," said Kristine Scichilone, event coordinator for Mode magazine, which caters to larger women.

Scichilone, 26, who generally wears a size 22, has had her own share of miserable shopping excursions. For example, the New York resident couldn't find anything jazzy to buy for her 24th birthday party and had to resort to wearing a basic black skirt and top that was hanging in her closet. Her size-8 girlfriend, who was also celebrating a birthday at the party, had no such problem.

"She showed up in a zebra print skirt, just to ruin my night," Scichilone said.

Shopping also is trying for Russo, the associate producer, who earlier this year had trouble finding something to wear to the opera. She knew exactly what she wanted: "a ruby-red, strapless, floor-length Catherine Zeta-Jones-at-the-Oscars type of dress." She settled for a red dress with black sequins that didn't quite fit her and cost $300.

"They think for some reason, if you're a large size you don't want to be flashy," Russo said.

Although clothing makers and retailers have been slow to recognize the potential market for larger trendy clothes for younger shoppers, they have not been completely oblivious.

Target introduced larger juniors sizes in 1997. A year later, sportswear maker FUBU, known for its urban street wear, began offering larger sizes after being coaxed by customers.

"They would say, 'When are you going to make stuff for the big girls? Don't forget about us,' " marketing president Leslie Short said.

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