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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

Many retailers aren't even game to discuss "plus." When contacted for this story, nearly every major retailer -- including Nordstrom, Macy's, H&M, even Wal-Mart -- declined to give interviews on the subject or didn't respond to requests. It's an odd silence, considering how ripe the market is. With hardly any high-end resources at their disposal, full-figured women still spent $18.6 billion on apparel in stores and online from December 2007 to November 2008, according to NPD Group.

That's only around 20% of the $109.7 billion spent in the regular-size ranges, but bricks-and-mortar plus-size retailers comprise far less than 20% of the total women's apparel retail industry -- and high-end options in the category are extremely rare, so purchase prices are substantially lower.

At the crux of the inequity, according to some plus-size designers, models and retailers, is prejudice toward women the industry doesn't find particularly glamorous or sexy. Like fifth-grade girls who secretly live in fear of being ostracized from the cool clique, they don't want to be caught talking to the fat girl.

Full-figured supermodel Emme sells her own plus-size collection, me by Emme, on QVC, and will be debuting Emme Style, an online clearinghouse for plus-size fashion resources, this year under the same name. Top fashion magazine editors and designers, she said, are guilty of perpetuating the idea that full-figured women and fashion don't mix.

"It really does come from very few edicts from a few people," she said. "You have to ask yourself why they are [defending] against this. Seriously, there are issues there."

'A lot of resistance'

Fear of the full-figured runs through every cog of the industry once you leave the realm of retailers and brands that are exclusively plus-size. "My sales team was adamantly opposed to me doing a plus-size line," said Pally, because they feared it would cause her signature line to lose cachet.

"There was a lot of resistance, but I did it anyway. I used to say my brand was for everyone, but it really wasn't." She's not concerned, she said, with "the few . . . who are offended that I'm accommodating women who make up the majority of the population."

Designers whose bread and butter rests on their ability to create an aura of cool exclusivity (basically, the bulk of designers seen on the runway, save brands with lifestyle extensions, such as Michael Kors and Calvin Klein) worry that sallying into the market will dilute their brand's mystique and, ultimately, their sales. Prada designer Miuccia Prada may have had these concerns in mind when she stated that she would not sell clothes over a size 10.

And it's on these loftiest of perches that the hypocrisy of the fashion industry seems most glaring. Some of the world's most lauded designers and fashion critics are -- or have at one time been -- too broad in the beam to fit a leg into the designs they create and coo over.

Still, compassion is in short supply. When Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, who spent most of his adult life battling a serious weight problem, created a capsule collection for H&M in 2004, the newly svelte designer was incensed that the retailer manufactured the collection in larger sizes. "What I designed was fashion for slender and slim people," he said. And in an interview in the March issue of Harper's Bazaar, he sniffed, "The body has to be impeccable . . . if it's not, buy small sizes and less food." Issues, indeed.

While it was heartening to see that Vogue's influential editor Anna Wintour styled plus-size British chanteuse Adele for this year's Grammy Awards, we probably won't be seeing the singer on the cover of the magazine any time soon ("Most of the Vogue girls are so thin, tremendously thin, because Miss Anna don't like fat people," Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley told Oprah Winfrey in 2005.)

Whitney Thompson, the only plus-size winner of "America's Next Top Model, " said: "I just want to see a size 6 model once on a runway." A perfectly proportioned 5 foot 10 inches tall who wears a size 10 or 12, depending on the garment, she's the first plus-size model to win Tyra Banks' TV modeling competition, though growing up in Florida, she considered herself to be on the slender side. "I'm not a plus-size person, I'm a plus-size model," noted the 21-year-old. "On the street, I'm skinny. At castings, I'm a cow."

What? No 4s?

But it doesn't take a casting call to make plus-size women feel like cultural lepers. They just have to cruise into any of L.A.'s trendiest boutiques, which create the illusion that this is a town of size 0s and 2s. Fraser Ross, owner of the Kitson boutiques, said he wishes more trendy brands would manufacture 12s and 14s -- but he adds that he doesn't have the square footage to carry true plus-sizes.

"Stores feel they don't want to give in to women with more flesh," Emme said. "There's this idea of slovenliness and all those stereotypes and myths that have been embraced since the '50s. It's ridiculous."

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