For years Wendy Block modeled larger-size clothing. But far from having a glamorous wardrobe of designer outfits, she had few outfits she liked or felt comfortable in. "It was all bulletproof polyester," she explains.
No more. These days, the model-turned-Bloomingdales-fashion-consultant is happily implementing the expansion of the "Shop For Women" department -- a department filled with fashions for women who wear sizes larger than 12.
And -- although amid the size 14 to 24 linens, cotton knits, wools, chiffons and crepes, shoppers may find some polyesters -- safe to say, none of it is bulletproof.
"There was bulletproof polyester . . . and now there are clothes," Ms. Block exclaims.
But not just any old clothes: For fall, shoppers who wear sizes larger than 12 will be choosing from the same splashy, bright colors that were seen on the skinny runway models; the same bold plaids, the same houndstooth jackets, the same flippy, pleated skirts.
It's all part of a proliferation of the larger-size clothing industry (call it plus size, if you're in marketing) that has occurred in the past several years.
"Plus sizes are the target market of the '90s," Ms. Block says with relish. "The emphasis is on designer, the market is expanding and everybody's interested in it."
That's everybody as in the estimated 35 million women in the United States who wear sizes 14 to 26.
As in designers such as those at T. Deane, Tapemeasure, Jones New York, Marina Rinaldi (a division of Max Mara), Elisabeth (a division of Liz Claiborne) and Patrizia (a division of Mondi from Germany) who have developed plus sizes.
As in retailers such as Woodward and Lothrop, whose plus-size catalog is scheduled to arrive in homes in September. Or Spiegel, whose catalog, "For You," will arrive in homes next month.
There's more, too: On Aug. 15, a "For You" Spiegel store will open in Pentagon City, the fifth "For You" store in the nation -- and Spiegel plans to open 10 more stores next year.
At last, "we have realized that we have an ideal of feminine attractiveness of tall and thin that is at incredible odds with feminine biology," says Hara Estroff Marano, author of "Style is Not Size" (Bantam Books).
At last, women over size 12 can wear high-fashion clothing and still breathe.
Just in the nick of time: The baby-boomer generation is reaching an age at which it is not so easy to stay thin and trim. "I call it the broadening influences of age," says Ms. Marano, who is the former Vogue editor who introduced the Fashion Plus special sections.
And she adds: "Money has always followed the baby-boomer generation."
Indeed, despite the recession, business at August Max Woman stores increased 20 percent in 1990 and is projected to increase another 20 percent this year, says Marie Mager-Prager, vice president of the plus-size chain.
Designers, at last, have recognized that there are many women who don't fit into the smaller sizes, who have style, who want clothing and who have disposable income, she says.
In the mid-'80s, (when August Max Woman stores were known as Sophisticated Woman), it was difficult for Ms. Mager-Prager to find high-quality, high-fashion clothing for her customers. Since then, the selection has gotten better, and the market is still growing.
But the point is, she says, "size 14, 16, 18 is middle America; [subsequently] we don't treat our customer as though she is something different: Size isn't the issue with us, fashion is."
Despite the growth in the market, some, like Judy Canton, sales executive of T. Deane, a brand new sports collection of plus-size clothing, say there still aren't enough choices for the larger-sized woman who may be searching for high-style fashions -- and who is willing to pay for it.
With that in mind, T. Deane this week launched its first-ever group of fall clothing in sizes from 14 to 24, which will be in stores such as Ambitions in Philadelphia and Nordstrom at Pentagon City.
"There is most certainly a customer who wants to wear Anne Klein II and Ellen Tracy and better designs like that -- and who's making clothes for them?" she asks.
T. Deane designs include two-ply silk pieces in fuchsia, cobalt blue, lime accented with off-white and black, teamed with pieces done in crepe de chine. There are jackets with a short V-neck that button all the way down, which can be worn with a pant or skirt, swing dresses, silk T-shirts and color-blocked sweaters.
"The woman over size 12 can dress the way she sees othewomen dress in Elle or Vogue," says Ms. Canton.
Hand in hand with the growing awareness that the demand for fashion doesn't stop at size 12 comes the growing acceptance of larger sizes in general, says Karen Fullem of Spiegel.
"The larger sizes are becoming more accepted in the better markets as the population ages. It's like the change from the '80s to the '90s, the change from Nancy Reagan to Barbara Bush," she says. "It says, 'It's OK to be who you are.' "
The trickle down effect is that the stigma attached to wearing a larger size is changing. "All those rules limiting people: Don't wear plaid, don't wear color, you have to wear only tailored, you can't wear stripes were based on you're large, you're ugly, you'd better hide," says Ms. Marano. "The stigma is coming off."
And it's about time, says Ms. Block. "People should be able to be a fabulous 18 instead of trying to squeeze into a 14."
Eight basic pieces
If you're so thrilled with the idea of fashionable clothing in sizes over 14 that you've already grabbed your checkbook, slow down!
Here are some reminders about how to build a good, basic wardrobe. Or, put another way, the following are some tips on how to avoid fashion mistakes from "Style Is Not A Size" (Bantam, $15) by Hara Estroff Marano, former Vogue editor. These eight pieces, she says, are the foundation of a really terrific wardrobe.
* A slim black skirt
* A cardigan sweater
* A suit
* Jeans or khaki slacks
* A classic silk shirt
* A white T-shirt
* A really great jacket
* A signature scent