Elizabeth Ruiz models an ensemble at a plus-size fashion show hosted by… (Christina House, For The…)
Fighting mediocre sales and a sluggish economy, retailers are finding there's a booming market for plus-size clothing.
While the category has been getting notice for years, clothing companies desperate for sales see zooming growth in dressing America's expanding waistline. Many are opening specialty stores, expanding plus-size departments and targeting ads directly to the curvy woman.
Cheap chic clothier H&M began rolling out plus-size sections in stores this February. The Limited will open stores by next year for a new larger-sized line, and Lucky Brand just launched a line of roomy denim and tops. Some of Southern California's hip independent designers are debuting collections devoted to full-figured women. The Kardashian sisters have a new contemporary line called Kurves at Sears. Even Chanel and Dolce & Gabbana have offered plus-size pieces.
Plus-size-only fashion events have been popping up in New York, Chicago and Atlanta. At South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, Nordstrom recently held its first-ever event hosted by a plus-size blogger.
"There are finally clothes that I can buy that say, 'I am a larger woman but I'm beautiful and proud of it,'" said Pasadena's Ivory Bragg, 33, who attended the Nordstrom show. "It's about time. We may be curvier, but we still want glamour just like girls who are a size 0."
More than one-third of American adults are obese and nearly two-thirds of women are at least overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts say that at least half of women now wear dresses and pants size 14 or larger — which falls into the plus-size category — and this group controls nearly 30% of the purchasing power for clothes, according to NPD Group.
"For retailers, the plus-size market is the biggest opportunity to grow one's business today," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD. "There are so many consumers who wear at least one item that is plus size, and yet the market is dramatically underserved."
Plus-size sales are poised to jump 5.2% annually in the next five years while overall apparel sales will climb a modest 2.7%, according to research firm IbisWorld. The category is expected to hit $9.7 billion by 2017, up from an estimated $7.5 billion this year and $6.6 billion in 2009.
The market is so ripe that many independent designers such as Jen Wilder, tired of fighting for the skinny woman's dollar, are designing exclusively plus-size collections.
Wilder launched Cult of California, an activewear line based in Los Angeles, in June. After her standard-size line failed during the recession, Wilder realized there was more money to be made dressing curvy women than thin dames.
"As a plus-size woman, I saw a void in the market that under-designed, underappreciated and under-marketed to us," Wilder said.
After ignoring the category for years, retailers are rushing out fashionable outfits for curvy shapes — and redefining the plus-size market.
Los Angeles-based Lucky Brand launched its first-ever plus-size collection in July after pinpointing larger sizes as a way to grow the brand and reach new customers, Chief Executive David DeMattei said.
The line focuses on trendy apparel such as skinny jeans and leopard-print cardigans — going up to size 24 in pants and size 3X in tops. DeMattei said demand has been so strong that stock marked for the online store was rushed instead to department stores that had quickly sold out of some items.
"There was a niche we could fill. Much of the collections out there for plus-size women is career oriented," DeMattei said. "There's a huge opportunity."
Lisa Cole, a Palm Springs apparel-fit consultant, said luxury and mainstream retailers alike are clued in that many full-figured women want to flaunt their curves, not hide them. Even in a celebrity world that worships rail-thin figures, actresses such as Christina Hendricks and Octavia Spencer are proving that bigger can be beautiful, she said.
"It's finally advanced to the point where the clothes match our attitude — that we are OK with our larger frames," Cole said. "A few years ago, our only option was a stretch pant with elastic and an oversized top."
The Internet gives legions of plus-size women a megaphone to swiftly condemn retailers who miss the mark.
"We will give brands feedback on social media and tell them what works," said Marie Denee, a Rialto resident who works full time on her fashion blog the Curvy Fashionista. "The plus-size woman is now speaking up for what she wants."
When the Limited rolled out its plus-size line Eloquii in October, the retailer focused on getting the right fit: Skirts have more fabric in the back to accommodate curvy behinds, bracelets are bigger, and purses are scaled 20% larger to look proportional to full figures.