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Abercrombie & Fitch: What's wrong with selling just to 'cool people'?

Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Mike Jeffries set off a cultural backlash when said that his company is primarily interested in 'good-looking people.' But the company is jealously guarding its brand, even as the market for plus-size teens grows.

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The plus-size market for teenage clothing was largely ignored until the recession, says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at the NPD Group. Once considered a niche, with growth potential in the single digits, the market is now more desirous for companies that need to make their bottom line at whatever cost. That can mean expanding their clothing lines with fashion-forward products that appeal to the growing population of plus-size teens.

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Swedish retailer H&M, denim retailer Lucky Brand, and The Limited all created specialty brands targeting teenage girls who are plus-sized. Even reality television stars the Kardashian sisters are getting into the game; their plus-size brand Kardashian Kurves, launched this year at Sears.

“We’re just getting bigger and bigger and bigger so the number of people entering into plus-size continues to get bigger. There’s always been the opportunity, but never one that somebody’s tried to capitalize on before,” says Mr. Cohen. “What you have now are consumers desperately seeking fashion for their size and retailers saying, ‘We get it, we’ll offer you something.’ ”

Research that shows that obesity is particularly prevalent among children and teenagers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that in 2009-10, 17 percent of US children and adolescents were reported as obese, which is three times the obesity rate just one generation ago. The age group most likely to be obese: those aged 12 to 19.

The NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y., says that clothing retailers have mostly accommodated this trend by offering larger clothing sizes – since 1960, for example, the average dress size increased from size 8 to 14. Two-thirds of women identify themselves as “special-sized,” according to NPD, which means there is more demand for this type of clothing in the women’s clothing market, valued at $111 billion in 2012.

Cohen says that despite the opportunity that others have capitalized on, it is unlikely that Abercrombie & Fitch will do a mea culpa and launch a plus-size brand.

“Abercrombie from Day 1 said, ‘We are about the iconic image of the quintessential affluent teen' … and they want to maintain that certain imagery at all cost,” he says. Switching gears in response to the current controversy may appease critics, he adds, but it will ultimately dilute what gave the brand value in the first place.

“If they alter their course, they’ll do more damage than good,” Cohen says. “If you try to be something for everybody, you end up being nothing for everyone.”

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