NEW YORK – Corseted into a size 18 white denim dress, wearing heels that made her about 6-foot-2, Gwen DeVoe, a former model and fashion-show producer, stepped onto a runway in Manhattan last week and made a pitch to retailers for the plus-size woman.
Those stores that don’t carry bigger sizes? “Shame on you, baby, shame on you,” DeVoe said. “Every curvy girl that has a dollar is willing to spend that dollar.”
So retailers are realizing.
That same day, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 28 percent of the adult population was obese last year, the highest percentage yet. Almost two-thirds of U.S. women are either overweight or obese, according to the most recent CDC figures.
As doctors and public health officials encourage Americans to slim down, the fashion industry is embracing Americans as they are. Both mass-market stores like Forever 21 and Target and expensive designers like Elie Tahari are deciding the fattening of America is a big business opportunity and are reinvigorating a market that had faltered during the recession.
The standard clothing that most stores have focused on in recent years fits fewer and fewer people. And as retailers search for ways to jump-start sales, plus size is one of the few categories where there is growth. The plus-size market increased 1.4 percent while overall women’s apparel declined 0.8 percent in the 12 months leading up to April 2010 versus the same period a year earlier, the most recent figures available, according to NPD Group, a market research firm.
“It just makes business sense,” said DeVoe, who founded “Full-Figured Fashion Week” last year to press mainstream retailers to embrace bigger sizes. “I’ve been told several times that no one fantasizes about being a plus-size woman, and that’s probably true, but the fact remains that you have to work with what you have.”
That is not always so easy for retailers venturing into the world of larger shoppers. Some bigger women do not like to try on clothes in the same fitting rooms as smaller women. Plus-size stocks take up valuable storage space, and not everyone is big in the same way, meaning stores cannot count on, say, a size 16 dress fitting most 180-pound women – one might have a larger torso, another big thighs, and another wider hips.
“There are variations not only in the frame, but if you’re looking at larger women, you’re also looking at the way fat deposits are arranged around the body,” said Susan Ashdown, a professor at Cornell University who studies body shape and clothing fit by creating a three-dimensional scan of a person’s almost-nude body.
Plus-sized clothes, which now generally begin at size 14, have been around for at least 90 years, since Lithuanian immigrant Lena Bryant (her name was later misspelled as “Lane” on a business form) turned a maternity-wear business into a line for stout women in the 1920s. There have been several effort to make plus-size clothes more available, but, as the name of the 1980s-era plus-size chain The Forgotten Woman suggested, larger women have usually been relegated to stand-alone boutiques stocked with shapeless purple caftans.
“One of the things that happens with plus-size women is, as a rule, they’re pretty underserved,” said Bill Bass, president of Sonsi, a social-networking and retail site for heavier women. “The big companies forget about them or ignore them, or make them go online to buy their clothes since they won’t have them in stores.”
Although Americans have grown steadily heavier in the past decade, women’s plus-size clothing still makes up only 17 percent of the women’s apparel market today, according to NPD. There just is not much supply or variation in plus-size clothes for women to buy, said NPD analyst Marshal Cohen. And the big retailers have mostly stayed away.
Cost is one issue. Plus-size clothes are more difficult, and expensive, to make than more traditional sizes. Material can be the largest portion of a garment’s cost – up to about 60 percent – and larger sizes require not only more of it but sometimes different production processes.
“Its not just about how much fabric is required,” said Deepa Neary, a retail consultant at A.T. Kearney, a consulting firm. “You’re actually using wider bolts of fabric, and that sometimes requires special machinery to produce the garments. You often don’t get to pass that on to the consumer, so your margins are not as high as the regular size clothing.”
And with limited floor space, retailers say it’s hard to display, say, blouses from size 0 to 24. So the plus market “unfortunately gets treated like an exile,” said Kathy Bradley-Riley, senior vice president for merchandising at the trend forecasting firm Doneger Group.
Given those difficulties, some companies have pulled back on plus-size offerings. Old Navy and Ann Taylor stopped selling plus sizes in stores in the past few years and now only sell them online. Liz Claiborne, which still sells some plus-size clothing, shut down its plus-size line Elisabeth, along with Sigrid Olsen, which carried larger sizes, and sold Ellen Tracy, which also had a plus-size offering. But given the strong sales in the sector more recently, and women becoming ever more overweight, some companies are giving the plus-size market a second look.
The California-based chain Forever 21 introduced Faith 21, its larger-sized line, last year. Although sales were much stronger than the company expected, that did not mean it had mastered the category.
“We have been working through the kinks even now,” said Linda Chang, Forever 21’s director of marketing. “It doesn’t come as easily as maybe the smaller clothing would.”
Last summer, Target began carrying a line called Pure Energy that translated young, trendy clothes to larger sizes, adding to its more mature plus-size offerings.
“We definitely view this category as a growth opportunity,” said Target spokeswoman Katie Heinze. After testing Pure Energy in some stores, Target decided to carry it in all 1,740 outlets.
Elie Tahari, the high-end designer, began selling a plus-size line this year, and at Full-Figured Fashion Week, more than 25 other designers showed off their plus-size clothes to an audience of retail buyers and plus-size women.
Backstage before a recent runway show, it looked like a sorority house before a formal: shoes everywhere, makeup stacked on tables, the smell of hair spray and baby powder, and women lounging about in silk robes.
On stage, DeVoe emphasized that plus-size women are ready to buy clothes. As the crowd whooped, DeVoe shouted, “My pockets are fat!”