Plus fashions come out of basement Revelation: Some designers and retailers finally realize that they ought to consider the larger woman -- and it's paying off.


At 5 feet 2 inches, Carolyn Curiel walks tall and dresses "artfully." For the 42-year-old senior speech writer and special assistant to President Clinton, "it's all part of the package." Her clothes -- sleek, understated designer suits, jackets and blouses -- hover in the 16 to 20 size range.

That she can find pieces with the tailored fit and styling details of the latest ready-to-wear is nothing short of a minor miracle for a boomer-age woman who grew up having to improvise a wardrobe.

The past few years have seen the beginning of a large-size revolution as designers and retailers realize that big women don't covet polyester stretch pants, boxy tunics and pup-tent dresses, but do want stylish, well-made clothes.

And they are buying them. Retail sales of women's plus-size garments grew 14.2 percent in 1994 and 6 percent in 1995, according to New York-based NPD Group Inc., which tracks consumer trends, compared with 6.1 percent and 1 percent, respectively, for general women's apparel.

Among the growing list of designers taking a cut of this burgeoning market are such recognizable and respected names as Ellen Tracy, Emanuel Ungaro (under the label Emanuel), Dana Buchman, MaxMara (Marina Rinaldi), David Dart, Carole Little, Liz Claiborne (Elizabeth) and Tamotsu.

Says Janey Milstead, editor in chief of Los Angeles-based BBW (big beautiful woman) magazine : "We're everything -- we're nuclear physicists and cab drivers. We're not eating Oreos under the bed with a veil drawn between us and the world. This is an available market. But we're not used to being able to shop. When I was growing up, I bought grandma dresses and ripped them apart and made a vest and skirt out of them. Now I can go shopping."

And she is just one among millions. Despite the country's allegiance to Jenny Craig, StairMasters and SnackWells, statistics point to the fact that we're packing on the pounds. Ms. Average American stands 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 144 pounds, putting her in a size 12. More than one-third of American women are overweight, according to National Center for Health Statistics.

Even such upscale stores as Saks Fifth Avenue acknowledge this shift. Five years ago, the chain added plus sizes in Salon Z, which in some stores occupies an entire floor. "We could see there was a need," says Lynne Ronon, Saks' senior vice president. "The [large-size] customer was buying her cosmetics and accessories here, why not apparel?"

Macy's has expanded its plus-size division, occasionally breaking out into free-standing Macy's Woman stores.

"Ten years ago, the customer took what she got," says Ginny Peterson, Macy's divisional merchandise manager for special sizes. "Now she's excited to find things, and she'll buy the product as soon as it hits the floor."

Don't hold your breath

Indeed, the revolution has stopped well short of a complete turnaround; no one's holding her breath waiting for a large-size model to grace the cover of Vogue. More often than not, petite sizes get better placement in stores, and most of the world's most influential designers won't deign to do a plus line.

While the Ford Models 12+ division has some 50 women on its roster, including such stars as Emme (one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People), the bulk of their editorial work comes from Europe. America has been slow in changing its attitude toward large women.

Says Suzanne Donovan, executive director of the agency's promotion and development, "Unfortunately these moguls in advertising have a stereotypical idea of American beauty, and in reality the people who manufacture these products are becoming more hip that the consumer is older and larger than she was or has ever been, and she's willing to spend more money ."

Most fashion magazine editors still won't cross the line and feature large models interchangeably with slim ones. Christy Haubegger is an exception. The president and publisher of the newly launched New York-based magazine Latina has vowed not to put stick-thin models in her pages.

"Our bathing suit models in the magazine have real curves," says Haubegger, "and we do plan to cover large-size fashion because we know what the world looks like. I hope this magazine is a place where women really do find themselves. I'm a size 10 or 12 petite, and for a long time stocking size charts did not have me on them. I didn't exist in the pantyhose world."

The elegant clothing Curiel prefers has been easy to come by only in the past five years, she says. Before that, she sewed her own wardrobe. Having to forage in department store basements was "disgusting and humiliating, and if not for the fact that they had me as a captive audience, they would not have had me at all."

But now she can wear Tamotsu or Ellen Tracy and other designers whose clothes flatter her figure. As an integral part of Clinton's camp, she travels extensively and has to be ready to attend a black-tie function or visit the site of a natural disaster.

"I think that as America takes a good, long look in the mirror, and as designers look with them, they realize that that's where their bread is buttered," she says. "I feel that the generation coming up now probably won't have to take to the sewing machine like I did. There should be more options out there."

Different body, same taste

Los Angeles-based designer David Dart added plus sizes to his line about three years ago when he noticed a void of "casual, sophisticated clothing with a twist" for larger women. "Yes, you do lose your great body as you get older, but that customer who was younger and had great taste is older and has the same taste level."

He found his fluid, roomy, unconstructed separates readily adaptable to large sizes. And he learned to break the rules.

On cable shopping channel QVC, plus sizes from designers like Susan Graver and Caroline Simonelli are hits with viewers who favor Graver's mix-and-match sporty separates and Simonelli's minimalist, fluid knits.

Ellen Alpert, the cable channel's fashion director, says large sizes account for 20 percent to 30 percent of total clothing sales. Plus-size models are always featured, and some of the hosts are on the zaftig side.

"I think it just brings more reality to the way we show fashion," she says.

Milstead admonishes women to speak with their pocketbooks.

"The clothes do exist," she says. "But I want more plus-size women to stop complaining and go shopping, and then complain if they can't find what they need. Go to the buyers, develop a relationship where you shop, frequent these places and tell them, 'I want you to buy me something to wear.' "

Pub Date: 12/26/96

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