For many women, finding plus-size clothes is still a reach

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For the plus-sized woman, a clothes shopping trip to Ross Park Mall can be an exercise in humility.

Love that cotton floral jacket with the mandarin collar at j.jill?

"We don't have them here in larger sizes," says the sales associate, somewhat apologetically. "But you can order them from our catalog, if you want."

What about that fabulous beaded V-neck tee at Ann Taylor Loft? Forget about size 18, but plus sizes "are in the works!" promises a chirpy sales associate.

Even at Kaufmann's-soon-to-be-Macy's, whose Ross Park Mall women's department is widely considered the best in the area, a luxurious Calvin Klein gabardine pant suit marked down from $290 to $179 was available only up to size 14.

Wait a minute. Hasn't there been all this positive publicity in recent years about how the apparel industry is finally -- finally -- providing clothing for larger women that is chic, upscale and not too stratospherically priced? Isn't it true that an increasing number of retailers are offering plus sizes? Weren't we all celebrating the emergence of full-figured supermodel Emme back in ... 1989?

All true, to a point. Since 2000, Torrid, which is aimed at plus-sized teenage girls, has opened more than 100 stores nationwide -- two of them in the Pittsburgh area. Kohl's has extended two of its trendy labels -- apt. 9 and Daisy Fuentes -- to plus sizes. And on the Web, full-figured women have an increasing number of options: from www.mebyemme.com to Queen Latifah's line at Pasazz.net.

But on the ground and in the stores, retailers still seem to be having trouble with the concept that plus-sized women want to buy the same fashionable clothes their slenderer sisters do. J.C. Penney's plus-sized department is still segregated from the regular sizes, back behind the athletic shoe department. J. Crew's store doesn't offer plus sizes at all, although its catalog offers some items in size 16. And while Coldwater Creek carries plus sizes in its store, many of the items still go up to only XL.

Like it or not, Americans are getting bigger. More than 62 percent of all women are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The average American woman, in fact, is a size 14.

But even as the $32 billion plus-size apparel market has grown by 50 percent in the past five years -- a clear response to that reality -- only 12 percent of respondents said that plus-size stores are their "favorite" stores, according to a recent survey by Mintel International Group, a market research firm.

"It's gotten better, but retailers still have a huge way to go," said Kat Fay, an analyst with Mintel, who noted that retailers have been especially slow to tap into the lucrative 35-and-older plus-size market. "On the one hand you've got the cutting-edge, off-the-catwalk fashion targeted at younger women, while the other end is bland and dowdy fashion associated with aging."

Stores like Gap Inc., she said, have even cited bland color selection offered to older women as one of the reasons behind declining sales. And Lane Bryant suffered a steep sales decline in 2003, which it partly blamed on excessive "fashion forward" clothing styles.

At 5-foot-101/2 and a size four, Ms. Fay said she herself has experienced continuing difficulties in finding clothes that fit properly. The petite segment is underrepresented, too. Forty-three percent of American women identify themselves that way -- but only 23 percent say they purchase petite clothing.

But women who walk into a chic store and ask for a blouse in a size 18 have the toughest time of all, she acknowledges.

"To have the salesperson tell you that it's not available in the store but you can get it in a catalog, how insulting is that? There's a hidden discriminatory message in there, where they're saying, 'We want your money, we just don't want you in the store trying on our clothes.' "

Lynette Lederman, an assistant to City Councilman Doug Shields, says she's had that experience more times than she can count, prompting her to stop patronizing malls in favor of Dale's Maxima, a Squirrel Hill boutique -- which carries upscale lines like Eileen Fisher and Vikki V, as well as more moderately priced labels -- and catalogs like Land's End..

"It's humiliating and exhausting," she says, of the search for clothes her size in mainstream department stores. For example, while upscale Saks Fifth Avenue carries Dana Buchman's plus-size line, she notes, "They don't carry them at Kaufmann's, Downtown. What kind of message does that send?"

That attitude is especially prevalent at the higher end of the design spectrum, said Constance White, style director at eBay, which has its own plus-size category for women's clothing.

Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
Click illustration for larger image.Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
"It's humiliating and exhausting," says Lynette R. Lederman, an administrative assistant to City Councilman Doug Shields, of the search for clothes her size in mainstream department stores.
Click photo for larger image.

What is a plus size?

This is a tricky issue. There is no one rule defining plus sizes: Different retailers use different definitions. Silhouettes.com's plus sizes start at size 12. Lane Bryant's start at size 14. On the other hand, department stores generally include size 14, and, occasionally, size 16, in their regular size lines. There is some overlap if you go to their plus-size departments, which will sometimes start at size 16.

Why is this? For years, the apparel industry used sizing guidelines based on women's body measurements collected by the U.S. Agriculture Department in 1939, called Voluntary Product Standards. They moved away from that practice some time ago. Instead, retailers size their clothes according to who they see as their customers.
 

Most designer collections don't go anywhere near a size 14, she said, noting that Muccia Prada has publicly stated she won't sell clothes bigger than a size 10.

"It's about selling the dream," she added. "These people are in the image business, and a larger woman doesn't fit with their image of the brand. They want you to buy their perfume but not one of their dresses."

The fashion industry's fear that the size-sensitive consumer will stay out of the stores rather than buy a size 12 or 14 or even 10 is affecting even relatively small women, who are feeling the pressure from the so-called "vanity" sizing trend. What was once a size 8 is now a size 6, even if the wearer hasn't lost a pound, said Ms. Fay.

"We're seeing the Barbie-sizing of clothes, especially this season, where everyone is pushing you to wear these itty bitty T-shirts. I'm finding that a size Large before was too big to wear, but not any more."

Ironically, Donna Karan and Muccia Prada "aren't exactly skinny," Ms. White added. "But they've decided they make more money maintaining an image of exclusivity. If they had size 22 women running around in their clothing, they feel this would tarnish that."

The Internet does fill the gap to some extent, notes Susan Barone, president and CEO of AlwaysForMe.com, a shopping Web site that caters to full-figured women. She markets swimwear, lingerie and athletic wear that can't be found in department stores.

"What I buy is clothing that the average department store buyer won't take a chance on," says Ms. Barone. "They have to shop off a 'matrix,' of certain vendors, so they're not going to experiment."

Other Web sites, like Igigi.com, "can't get enough fabric to keep up with the demand for their products," says Bonnie Bernell, a San Francisco-area psychologist who runs a lifestyle Web site, Bountifulwomen.com. Since full-figured women carry their weight differently, Igigi also provides a plus-size chart for seven different body shapes.

"But the fashion industry as a whole still can't believe that the demand is there. They don't get it. Plus is still a four-letter word," she says.

As retailers struggle to redefine themselves in an era of department store mergers and closings and burgeoning specialty shops, there is still reason to be hopeful.

Coldwater Creek comes in for praise from Ms. Barone "because they merchandise their sizes all in the same section on the same rack on the same floorway, not in the back section of the store, and they deserve kudos for that."

And once Ross Park's Kaufmann's transforms itself into Macy's in the fall, plans are afoot to dramatically increase the plus-size department, said Tina Hodak, creative merchandising manager for Federated Department Stores Inc., which bought Kaufmann's last year as part of a merger with the May Co.

While the store already carries "Elizabeth" -- a plus-size offshoot of Liz Claiborne -- as well as Ralph Lauren's larger-sized division, Macy's will also bring its popular Style & Co., Alfani and I.N.C. lines into the woman's department.

"We're really trying to address the issue and do something about it," said Ms. Hodak.

But as long as American culture equates thinness with fabulousness, the larger woman is probably not going to be treated equally when shopping for clothes.

"Women are overweight for lots of different reasons," says Ms. Lederman, "and it's not because we're slovenly pigs or morally depraved. But society judges us on our looks, and that's where the discrimination comes in.

"The reality is that women who are successful and professional want to shop like other women do and put the same kinds of clothes on their bodies, but they can't," she said.

"We want the same choices others have. Is that too much to ask?"


Correction/Clarification: (Published May 25, 2006) An analyst with Mintel International Group, a market research firm, was misidentified on second reference in this story about plus-sized clothing for women as originally published May 23, 2006. Her correct name is Kat Fay.

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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