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Clothing Industry Looks Beyond Perfect Size 6 to Larger Women

By Shelley Donald CoolidgeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 29, 1994



BOSTON

THE average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighs 143 pounds, and wears a size 12 on top and a 14 on the bottom, says Suzan Nanfeldt, a plus-size image consultant based in Cliffside Park, N. J. Yet, until recently, she contends, there has been a tremendous discrepancy between the amount of clothes manufactured for small women and those made for larger women.

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While sales in the rest of the women's apparel industry have remained relatively flat over the last several years, the plus-size market (generally sizes 14-24) has emerged as one of the fastest-growing and most profitable areas for manufacturers and retailers of women's clothing.

The women's plus-size market accounts for 21.4 percent ($14.4 billion) of the $67.6 billion women's clothing industry, according to NPD Research Inc., a marketing and research group in Pt. Washington, N.Y. In 1992-93, the women's plus-size clothing industry grew 5.4 percent, NPD Group reports, and 10.8 percent in 1991-92.

``During the depths of the recession, an awful lot of manufacturers and retailers were having an abysmal time,'' Ms. Nanfeldt says. ``[But] this market continued to expand.''

More than 35 million women - or 1 in 3 - in the US wear a size 14 or larger, according to industry reports. Analysts project that the primary plus-size market, defined as women aged 35 to 64, will increase 16.5 percent during the next decade as baby boomers approach middle age.

``If you're a plus person and you open any fashion magazine, turn on any television show, you don't exist,'' Nanfeldt says, who is herself a large-size customer.

But in the last five to six years, manufacturers and retailers at all levels of the industry - those who produce low-cost, moderately priced, and more expensive clothing - have begun to recognize the potential of this market.

Upscale department stores such as Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom's, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, and Macy's have opened entire departments or expanded existing ones specifically for women's plus sizes. In addition, the number of specialty retailers coming on the scene has been growing by ``leaps and bounds,'' Nanfedlt says, citing August Max, Lane Bryant, Audrey Jones, and The Forgotten Woman as a few.

But the real growth, analysts say, is taking place in the higher-end of the industry, as designers of better-quality women's apparel, such as Andrienne Vittadini, Ellen Tracy, Carole Little, and Dana Buchman, enter the plus-size market.

``Basically, what was available out there in large [sizes] was only [moderately priced] clothes, and the more professional [woman] - or the woman with more expendable income - was very limited in what she could buy,'' says Peter Schaeffer, a retail analyst for Dillon, Read & Co. Inc., a New York investment bank. He adds that this market ``has much much more room to mature.''

The fact that designers of upscale women's clothing have entered the plus-size market ``validates that there are customers out there looking for better merchandise,'' says Allen McNeary, president of Liz Claiborne Inc.'s retail division.

IN 1989, Liz Claiborne, a men's and women's apparel and accessories manufacturer based in North Bergen, N.J., launched its own plus-size label called Elisabeth. After much success, Mr. McNeary says, the company opened five Elisabeth specialty stores in early 1993.

``So much effort has gone into the misses business [sizes 2-14] and the petite business, that it leaves an opening in specialty stores for the [plus size] business,'' McNeary says.

Currently, the Elisabeth line accounts for roughly 13.5 percent of Liz Claiborne's sportswear business, he says, adding that the clothier expects to open a dozen Elisabeth stores by the end of the year.

``I believe this is an underserved market,'' he says, ``so there's plenty of opportunity for everyone to do business.'' McNeary notes that women's plus sizes tend to cost about 10 percent to 12 percent more than misses sizes.

``I think everyone is on to the fact that a woman above a size 14 just as much desires to look great ... as someone under a size 14,'' he adds.