Plus-size apparel market reveals a new shape

Between 1994 and 1997, the plus-size women’s apparel industry grew 20%, to $23 billion, according to the Port Washington, NY-based research firm NPD Group. What’s more, by 1998 it accounted for more than 25% of the total women’s clothing market.

As plus-size women become a more significant portion of the clothing market, plus-size apparel is shedding its dowdy image: Goodbye, tent dresses; hello, bright-hued fitted suits. Fashion-forward, upscale marketers such as Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s by Mail (BBM) now offer more plus-size items in their core catalogs.

As Judy Daniel, president/CEO of New York-based BBM, puts it, “Plus-size models like Emme now represent the concept that larger women can be fashion-forward.” In addition to adding more specialty-size items to its regular apparel book, BBM plans to mail eight plus-size books this year.

Cynthia Riggs, owner of plus-size clothing catalog Making It Big, credits the popularity of such plus-size celebrities as talk show host Rosie O’Donnell and actress Camryn Manheim with the “mainstreaming” of plus-size chic. The Cotati, CA-based Making It Big, which specializes in clothes made of natural fibers, has benefited from the growth of the market: Sales are up 20% over last year, Riggs says.

The more things change…

Oddly enough, general merchandise cataloger Spiegel discontinued its plus-size book, For You, in 1997 – around the time many of its competitors were leaping into the market. One reason for the title’s lack of success, says Melissa Payner, senior vice president of merchandising for Spiegel, was that For You followed the now-outdated notion that overweight women should wear baggy – and not necessarily fashionable – clothing.

Even so, Payner adds, “We knew that plus sizes were becoming in vogue, and customers were irate over the discontinuation of For You, so we knew we had to do a new targeted plus-size catalog.”

Introduced last fall, Spiegel’s improved plus-size catalog offers tailored suits and other items as fashion-forward as the regular-size merchandise sold in its core book (which also features specialty-size offerings). In the last year, the number of styles Spiegel sells in plus-sizes increased 30%-40%, Payner says. The Downers Grove, IL-based company expects plus-size apparel to account for 20% of its total clothing sales.

For some pillars of the plus-size market, however, little has changed, except for the size of the market itself. According to Peter Canzone, outgoing president/CEO of NewYork-based catalog giant Brylane, his company’s plus-size titles (which include Lane Bryant, Roaman’s, and Jessica London) have always reflected contemporary fashion trends. “But we may skip some of the more limiting fashions,” he adds, such as micromini skirts. Not that omitting some of the more body-conscious fashions has hurt Brylane. “We have low- to mid-double-digit increases in growth every year,” Canzone says.

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