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Eyes on the Size

Can another plus-size women's magazine succeed? Newcomer Grace thinks so.

June 07, 2002|MAGGIE FARLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Ceslie Armstrong, the editor of newly launched Grace magazine, says it's time for full-figured women to get the attention they deserve. "It's a huge, huge, market," she said.

Pun intended.

"Nearly 70% of American women wear a size 12 or above, but we're treated like we're invisible," Armstrong said in the magazine's 5th Avenue offices. Armstrong, an elegant and unabashed size 16 herself, wants to reinvent the way the fashion industry perceives the country's plus-size market--the retail segment that is growing the fastest but whose customers have the fewest choices.

In the same way Martha Stewart exalted domesticity, Armstrong hopes to help American women crave curves--or at least accept them. Her previous attempt, Mode magazine, folded last September. At a time when advertisers are holding budgets down, trying once again to expand a nation's notion of beauty may be heavy lifting. Or it could be a super-sized business opportunity.

Most magazines aimed at plus-size women have had a difficult time staying in business; Extra Hip and Radiance are no longer publishing. But the first such title, California-based BBW (Big Beautiful Woman), founded in the late '70s, still publishes every other month following a brief shutdown in 1999.

Last month, Grace magazine, for women "who live life to the fullest," claimed space on newsstands between "get thin for summer" issues of Glamour and Vogue. The cover features a "real" woman, a cardiac surgery nurse who moonlights as size 12 model.

Designed for women who are often stigmatized for their size, the contents are forthright. The debut issue includes a spread on bathing suits that actually fit, an article on sex with the lights on, an arty sepia-toned nude portrait, and a humor column criticizing Procter & Gamble's new maxi-maxi-pad. Grace, like other women's magazines, offers ample material for aspirations and fantasy. But there are no mentions of diets or ways to firm abs--in fact, one fashion spread features a model making cookies. A shoe layout plays on two favorite indulgences: stilettos and strawberry tarts. For the swimsuit shoot, the models were encouraged not to suck in, to show a lot of thigh, reveal their tummies and revel in their curves. Instead of starving themselves for a week before the shoot, they posed for pictures for a while and then all sat down for a hearty lunch.

"The idea was to have fun," said Armstrong. "It's about celebrating the body, and being comfortable in your own skin. It's also about striking a balance between extreme obesity and starving malnutrition. Neither side is healthy."

With the national economy in a downturn, it may seem like a risky time to launch a magazine and a Web site (www.gracestyle.com). But Grace is aimed smack at the middle of a growing national trend. While retail sales have been flat for sizes 0 to 12, plus-size sales have soared as much as 18% in the last two years. Retailers have begun to respond to the growing demand for more realistic fashions, taking plus-size wardrobes out of store basements and back racks and putting them in prime space.

Saks Fifth Avenue has devoted an entire floor since 1999 to Salon Z, a department for sizes 14 to 24. "No other category has a whole floor," said Michael Macko, Saks' director of publicity, "so that's a big deal for us."

While Liz Claiborne has had a plus-sized line--Elisabeth--for 10 years, and added a casual collection called Woman this spring, other designers have only recently jumped on board. In the last few years, Tommy Hilfiger, Anne Klein, Dana Buchman and DKNY have expanded their ranges. Italian luxury clothier Max Mara has launched a new line called Marina Rinaldi.

But most fashion magazines, so narrowly focused on the cult of thinness, have been nearly blind to the trend--and the potential advertising dollars. While Vogue tiptoed into taboo territory in April with its "Shape" issue, the only truly plus-sized model, size 14 Kate Dillon, was pictured as a giantess facing a diminutive muscleman and a toy car. (All that was missing, wrote Slate critic Emily Nussbaum, was the "freak-show calliope music.")

Kate Betts, the former editor of Harper's Bazaar, understands all too well the dynamic that keeps real women out of the pages of fashion magazines. Though she was struggling with a postpartum weight gain herself, she decided to pull Renee Zellweger off the cover after the actress gained weight for her role in "Bridget Jones's Diary." (Betts apologized for the decision in a thoughtful essay on body image that ran in March in the New York Times.)

"I've heard people commenting on the Vogue issue, saying 'I don't buy Vogue to look at fat people,' said Betts. "And as harsh and horrible a comment as that is, it is true. People buy Vogue for fantasy, and one of the fantasies of women in our culture is to be thin and young. So that's why I think it's smart for Grace to take more of a lifestyle approach, to offer more than fashion and beauty."

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