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.
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.