Clothing Companies Cater to 'Real' Women

Plus-Size Fashions

The hem has fallen on the fashion industry and its neglect of the "real" woman.

The average American woman is 5-feet- 4-inches tall and weighs 145 pounds. And if that makes you wonder why images of ultra-thin supermodel Kate Moss are more common than those of someone more "average," you're not alone.

In recent years, designers and retailers have been waking up to the fact that the larger-sized woman - generally considered size 14 and up - is underserved.

"These women have money, and they have style," says Pamela Rucker, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation in Washington.

Retailers estimate that more than a third of American women wear size 12 or larger. Several studies, however, indicate those numbers may be higher.

"Size is certainly not a style," declares Phyllis Marone, head of Danskin Plus. A self-described "giant," Ms. Marone recalls running marathons some years ago and having to buy men's shorts. Thankfully, she says, things are changing.

No longer satisfied with wearing loose-fitting garb or making alterations after every purchase, large-size and "full-figure" customers are demanding style, fit, quality, and selection - the same choices their smaller counterparts have.

Answering the call:

*Designers such as Liz Claiborne, Ellen Tracy, Jones New York, Dana Buchman, and Diane Gilman have either introduced or stepped up plus-size lines.

*Major department stores such as Saks (Salon Z), Bloomingdales (Shop for Women), and Macy's (Macy's Woman) are devoting more floor real estate and prominence to plus sizes, which in the past have been tucked away in the basement or corner. At the same time, lower-end stores are expanding their offerings.

*Freestanding stores - from The Forgotten Woman and Lane Bryant to Elisabeth (by Liz Claiborne) - report healthy sales at a time when the clothing market in general has been soft.

*Several mail-order companies that specialize in plus-sizes have cropped up during the past five years. Magazines and newspapers are carrying ads for large-size fashions on a regular basis.

Carolyn Moss, fashion director for Macy's East, says all this activity is part of a larger trend of catering to special sizes. One subdivision in plus-sizes, for example, is the petite plus-size, for women who are 5-feet-4-inches and under.

"We get a jaundiced view that most women weigh 100 pounds and wear a size 2," Ms. Moss says. Now, retailers are responding because they're listening to the customer, she says. Over the years, television actresses have helped elevate the image of larger-size fashion, she adds. Delta Burke and Nell Carter came out with their own clothing lines, and Roseanne considered it.

Perhaps even more important than visibility is increased choice. "Every lifestyle is being addressed," Moss says. That means eveningwear and activewear in larger sizes as well as careerwear.

For designers and retailers, big sizes equal big bucks.

"The market will continue to improve as baby boomers get older - most people do gain some weight," says Anne Kelly, president of Junonia, a mail-order company in Minneapolis specializing in plus-size activewear.

While selection may be better, the plus-size industry still has a way to go, Kelly notes. Durability is an issue, as is correct fit. One common practice in the past was for designers to just "upsize" their regular collections. Now, patterns tend to be modified more precisely.

Overall quality may mirror fashion in general, but it seems to carry more poignancy with plus-size women. Many lament an inconsistency in the fashion world that has traditionally made them feel excluded.

"When it's good, it's fabulous. Other times I go in and say, 'Well, this is what I would wear if I owned a farm!" says Mary Duffy, speaking about one particular plus-size store with which she has a love-hate relationship.

Ms. Duffy is a plus-size fashion-expert-cum-spokeswoman based in New York. She predicts that by 2002, 42 percent of American women will be size 16. "There has been excessive growth on the pricey end of plus-size fashion," she notes, while the lower-end "marts" have also tried to do better by the larger-size woman.

But the change in the market may reflect not just designers' views, but also the plus-size woman's view of herself.

Duffy, who helps large-size women with self-image, notes an important sociological shift. More women are eschewing the "insanity" of addiction to fashionable thinness, she says, adding that "diets have only a 3 percent success rate.

"I tell [women] that with a 97 percent chance of weighing the same at this time next year, take what you are and make the best of it.... Look and feel wonderful."

Duffy is also executive director of Ford Models' Plus division. She estimates that the number of larger-size models has tripled in the past five years - another indication of the growing market. "These models have a tremendous amount of work," she says, "and they're every bit as beautiful."

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