Big women have presence and stature in today's marketplace. They are the new darlings of the fashion world. The retail industry -- which early on treated the plus-size customer as an unwanted blob on the fashion picture -- has come around to understanding big sizes have big spending power and a great sense of style, too.
The latest retailer to jump on the bandwagon is Saks Fifth Avenue at Owings Mills. That temple of taste and chic opened Salon Z on March 16. The salon carries sizes 14 to 24 in a fashionable ambience featuring a string of bridge and designer labels that ring bells for the fashion-conscious: Adrienne Vittadini, CH for Carolina Herrera, Mary McFadden, Givenchy En Plus and the Saks private label among them.
"There are big women out there making big decisions," says Jan Hoppenstein, Salon Z specialist. "They need good-looking, professional clothes. They have a life and an income and refuse to sit around in house dresses and baggy pants."
Saks has turned the corner along with the rest of the industry. Thirty percent of America's female population fits into the plus-size market, industry sources say, enough women to make a big noise. Manufacturers and designers are listening and producing clothes that make a big fashion statement. It wasn't always so.
"I've been chronicling the plus-size industry for years" says Carole Shaw, founder and editor of BBW: Big Beautiful Woman magazine. "When I started, the only things out there were bullet-proof polyester pants and pregnant-looking tops. Only in an opium dream could any of that have been perceived as fashion."
Ms. Shaw who stands 5-feet-7 and wears a size 22, has a personal and professional perspective. "One of my first plus suits had to have 4 inches taken off the sleeve. Who was the fit model, a gorilla? Now manufacturers and retailers are getting it right. There's a new fire under the industry. Saks, one of the last holdouts on plus-sizes, has gone big for that market. They didn't just dip their toes in, but jumped in with both feet because we now know designer labels make a woman feel special."
Leslie Entin, president of the Plus Designers' Council, says the misguided opinion that large women don't spend money on quality clothing has changed. "Once she understands her dress size, she gets on with her life and career." The Plus Designers' Council is a collaboration of seven major international and American design firms: Caberra, Gispa, Givenchy en Plus, Patricia by Mondi, Judith Ann Plus, Sandra Roth for Ciao Sport and Tomatsu. The prices run in the high end.
"The misses customer has always been able to get quality, investment pieces. We do the same thing in larger sizes with the same colors and fabrication. Of course, the lines are adjusted to the larger body but we bring in new silhouettes each season," says Ms. Entin. "Although we are competitive companies, we work together to upgrade the image of the plus market and advise retailers and customers on news and trends."
A younger attitude
Linda Lamm, owner of Chezelle at Cross Keys, has catered to fashionable large women since opening her specialty store in 1988. "My customers are getting younger in attitude," says Ms. Lamm. "They follow everything in fashion and know what Donna Karan and Calvin Klein are doing. They come to me to see how those looks can translate for them."
Yet she is fashionably realistic. "The runways have been full of menswear things. That would never work in our market. I can't see my customer in a pinched suit, shirt and tie, but I can certainly see her wearing a pinstripe dress. Most of my customers are thick in the middle, but they have great legs. I tell them to show it off."
Breaking "fat lady rules"
Showing it off is also Carole Shaw's philosophy. "When we started BBW magazine, we decided to break all the fat lady rules," she remembers. "In our first photo shoots we tucked in the blouses, even though big women had been told to let them hang to make them look slimmer. They didn't look slim, they looked sloppy. We showed clothes belted, but we had to improvise because belts for big women didn't exist. We were using curtain ties. Now I can find everything I need for a photo -- from K mart to Saks.
"The large-size market is booming now because there are those new choices. It's estimated that the large consumer had been under-spending by 66 percent. She didn't buy. She refused to spend $95 on something she hated when it didn't make her look any better than the $9.98 version."
Now the plus-size market is virtually recession-proof.
Karen Fullem, general manager of the For You from Spiegel large-size catalog and retail stores, says growing and aging baby boomers have a yearly market potential of $10 billion. "We're moving from the petite Nancy Reagan era to a time when Barbara Bush can be a role model. People now are more concerned with fitness than size."
As these women age and mature in their attitudes, they demand clothes that fit their needs and figures. And they refuse to be squeezed into unattractive, out-of-the way shopping environments.
"We are opening a For You by Spiegel store in Harborplace in October," says Ms. Fullem. "We intend to pamper the large woman. The customer today is time-poor and we intend to offer her one-stop shopping with all the amenities -- large fitting rooms, full-time seamstresses for alterations, a hospitality area for refreshments and a lounge area for the significant others."
That shows a big about-face from the days when plus clothes meant huge muumuus.
"The original breakthrough came in the late '70s with designer jeans. Pierre Cardin and Gloria Vanderbilt introduced designer label jeans in a plus size, and the market took off," says Carole Shaw. "Those designer labels broke down two stereotypes: (1) that fat women didn't care about fit and wouldn't pay top dollar to get it and (2) when you're fat you get poor and blind so you can't tell the difference between style and value."
Ms. Shaw will introduce her own BBW line next spring. "Big beautiful women in their 30s have been longing for the style they see on their thin sisters. I'm going to give it to them so they can forget about their size and get on with fashion. There's more to life than a tiny tush!"
Plus sizes by mail
Catalog shopping can save steps and trials. Here are some sources for large clothes. Overall, they are fairly representative and show clothes on models who are true to plus-sizes.
Brownstone Woman: (800) 221-2468
Full Moon Lingerie: (800) 432-FULL
Just My Size: (800) 522-9567
Just Right: (800) 767-6666
Making It Big: (707) 795-2324
Myles Ahead: (201) 342-0812
Sears "Your Turn" (800) 366-3000
Silhouettes: (800) 852-2822
Spiegel for You: (800) 345-4500
The Big, the Bad, the Beautiful (818) 345-3593