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Fashion's invisible woman

Even as Americans get larger, designers and retailers cling to the idea that style comes in one size: small.

March 01, 2009|Emili Vesilind

When it comes to shopping, the average American man has it made. At 189.8 pounds and a size 44 regular jacket, he can wear Abercrombie & Fitch, American Apparel or Armani. Department stores, mall retailers and designer boutiques all cater to his physique -- even when it's saddled with love handles, a sagging chest or a moderate paunch. In menswear, shlubby is accommodated.

But the average U.S. woman, who's 162.9 pounds and wears a size 14, is treated like an anomaly by apparel brands and retailers -- who seem to assume that no one over size 10 follows fashion's capricious trends.

Fashion-forward boutiques such as Maxfield and Fred Segal rarely stock anything over a size 10, and in designer shops, sizes beyond 6 or 8 are often hidden like contraband in the "back." Department stores typically offer tiny sections with only 20 or so brands that fit sizes 14 and up -- compared with the 900-plus brands they carry in their regular women's wear departments.

That leaves style-loving full-figured women with a clutch of plus-size chains including Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug, Avenue and Torrid. Or big-box stores such as Target, Kohl's and Wal-Mart, the No. 1 seller of plus-size apparel in the country -- though most of its selection consists of basic, often matronly items. Beyond this, plus-size clothing is largely relegated to the Internet, where customers who already have a complicated relationship with clothes are unable to see, touch or try on merchandise.

It often seems that it's easier to find and buy stylish clothes for Chihuahuas than for roughly half the country's female population.

Americans are getting larger, and 62% of females are already categorized as overweight. But the relationship between the fashion industry and fuller-figure women is at a standoff, marked by suspicion, prejudice and low expectations on both sides. The fear of fat is so ingrained in designers and retailers that even among those who've successfully tapped the market, talking plus-size often feels taboo. The fraught relationship between fashion and plus-size is far from new, but seems particularly confounding in a time when retailers are pulling out all the stops to bring in business. Carrying a range of sizes that includes the average female would seem like a good place to start.

"Plus-size has been a challenge for the industry for decades," said Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst for the research firm NPD Group. "When I interview plus-size women, there's really nothing [in the market] that the consumer says they like. Because of this, women in this demographic have learned to make fashion not a priority." The longing for style is strong, but the hopes of finding it are low, and shopping is less fun than frustrating.

The message board at figuremagazine.com, the online incarnation of Figure, a magazine for full-figured women, reads like a laundry list of ways that brands and retailers aren't connecting with the demographic.

"Are all big girls supposed to dress like Midwestern farm wives?" asks one reader. "We have money -- why don't they want to sell to us?"

Another adds, "I don't want any more polyester, hip-hop gear, frumpy jeans and themed capris! I want the designers not to assume that I am a frumpy 55-year-old, middle-management employee. . . . Is anyone listening to us?"

It's a which-came-first scenario, Cohen said. Because plus-size women have been ignored for years, they've stopped actively looking for shopping opportunities. But when retailers bring savvy style to the plus-size game (as Gap Inc. did with its short-lived concept, Forth & Towne, which carried fashion-forward clothing for career women in sizes 2 to 20), they often shutter their efforts before they have a chance to bloom.

"Retailers don't have the patience to allow it to evolve," he added. "This is a market that's been underserved for 50 years. Customers are saying, 'For 50 years, you've ignored me and now you expect me to react to it instantaneously?' No."

Designer line

It's true that the development phase of a plus-size collection is costly, because fitting bigger bodies is more complicated than simply making smaller sizes larger. When bodies get larger (especially over a size 18), they take on a different proportion -- there's generally more girth in the middle -- and the ratio between hip and waist changes.

But the payoff for sustaining a successful collection is worth the investment, said Rachel Pally, perhaps the only designer who sells a contemporary collection in trendy boutiques and a plus-size line -- Rachel Pally White Label -- in department stores. Pally's full-figured collection is one of the top-selling vendors for Nordstrom.

"Fashion-forward plus-size women have no options," she said. "They're so thirsty for the product." Why others don't jump on the bandwagon, she added, is a mystery. "It's like, 'Hello? Don't you guys want to make money?' "

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