Thursday, August 27, 2009

Are plus-size markets getting skinnier or plumper?

Posted By on Thu, Aug 27, 2009 at 10:47 AM

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As a big girl myself, I’m quite familiar with the treasure hunt for fashionable clothing that actually fits more voluptuous figures. It doesn’t help my search when upon entering a fashion-forward store or boutique, I'm welcomed with stares, whispers, and even the occasional, brave, greeting of “What is she doing in here?” It’s like I’m Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, only I’m fat, not a prostitute. I appreciate fashion, just as a girl half my size does, so why should I be banished to the few shops that actually cater to the majority of female Americans? Why is it OK for the skinny girl to shop in plus size stores, yet a big girl in any store that isn’t just for plus sizes is apparently a crime. It’s the fat girl double standard.

What I wouldn’t give to be able to wear what my size-four counterparts wear, instead of being peddled moo moos and, ironically enough, stretch pants. But it seems as though hiding our figures is easier than coming up with any fashion that is figure-flattering. I can recall plenty of times when I searched high and low for that trendy menswear vest or cute knee-high boot, only to find that the vest wouldn’t fit over my larger bust, or the calf of the boots were made for Skeletor.

Department stores that actually carry plus-size lines push the section to the dreaded back corner of the store, with the dim lighting and strange absence of mirrors. And don’t count on any visual aides by the way of full-figured mannequins in stylish ensembles; the only mannequins are stick-thin and stand like a white picket fence blocking the view of the fat clothes.

But alas, even in this recession, when a lot of these plus-size lines are being cut from stores due to cost, retailers like Forever 21, Wet Seal, and Target are investing in their own junior plus lines. Finally, trendy, youthful fashions that come in bigger sizes than large, and are meant to fit the 56 percent of women in the world who wear a size 14 or more. The youth-oriented lines are great for finding the hottest styles, but with the junior sizing, the amount of plus-sized ladies these stores are actually helping is still a small percentage of the women who seek assistance in their shopping. For instance, Forever 21’s perception of plus size only covers up to a size 16, which excludes much of the plus-sized consumers that would potentially shop their Faith 21 line. Wet Seal is more realistic in their sizing, going up to a size 24, while Target’s new Pure Energy line goes all the way to a size 30.

Todd Albaum, creator and owner of Scarlett Plus Size Boutique, knows all about the plus size market. This tall, fit Jersey boy is quite the curvaceous connoisseur, and larger ladies flock to his store for high quality, gorgeous fashions and superb service. “I’m a guy in the psyche of a plus-size woman. I know what will work well with their features, and make them feel good on the inside because they look good on the outside,” he says. “The plus-size market is literally shrinking. The reason the market is drying up is that stores don’t know how to market their plus sizes. They don’t cater to the plus woman correctly.”

Truer words have never been spoken. According to Associated Content, Old Navy, who carries affordable clothing up to a size 30, is a prime example. The store decided to expand their plus sizes from 50 stores to 175 stores nationwide, making plenty of women ecstatic, yet only months later, all but 2X and smaller where plucked from all Old Navy stores and banished to online. The chain chalked it up to poor sales numbers, but plus-sized customers chalked it up to poor promotion. In fact, a lot of consumers were never even aware that plus sizes were offered by the store. “It is a niche market and marketing is key,” Albaum says.

With all of the plus sizes being moved out of the stores and onto the Web, shopping has become a blessing and a curse all at once. While we’ve gained numerous outlets to finding fashion-forward clothing in sizes all the way to 5X and beyond, we’ve also lost the ability to feel the fabric and try on the pieces before making our final decisions. This leads to more returns and more hassle than what should be occurring. Yet it is hard to turn away from the plus size ecommerce world. “Online is my biggest competition,” Albaum shares. With online stores like OneStopPlus.com, women can go and search tons of different vendors all through one site.

Stores like Lane Bryant, B & Lu, Making It Big, Avenue, Ulla Popken, Silhouettes, Kiyonna, Catherines, and Torrid have all been serving the plus-size market online, through catalog, and in retail stores for years now, and while they may struggle, they remain open for the consumers. They are aware that every woman needs an outlet for fashion, whether she is a size 6 or a 26. And with the sudden fascination with plus sizes in the media with shows like More To Love, or Dance Your Ass Off, their business may begin to thrive again. Lead singer of The Gossip, pugnacious and plump Beth Ditto, has even signed on with TopShop (the UK’s version of H&M), producing her own line in their plus store, Evans, which will be expanding to the U.S. soon.

Even with these glimmers of hope in our big hearts, it still seems that the plus size market will be getting skinnier before plumping up again anytime soon.

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