It was the ultimate fashion victory: Sixteen-year-old Shannon Bishop sported the jeans she bought on vacation, and heads turned. Her friends wanted to know where they too could buy the dark denim pants with flared legs and rainbow stripes running cheerfully down the sides.
"They were available only in plus sizes," said Shannon, an Arlington Baptist School student who lives in Randallstown. "I said, 'Yes!' "
Shannon -- who wears either a size 18 or a 20 -- isn't the only full-figured young woman cheering these days. Once relegated to apologetic tunics, last year's jeans and dresses that only a matron could love, teens and young women who wear sizes 14 and larger have more clothing choices than ever. Seeing dollar signs and a market hungry for fashion diversity, designers are jumping on the bandwagon to offer contemporary, hip clothes in plus sizes.
"There's a reason why [designers] are doing it," said Yvonne Buonaro, designer and co-creator of Los Angeles-based Kiyonna Klothing, a plus-sized fashion line. "Over half the United States is plus-sized. It's definitely growing, and it's going to keep growing."
Retailers are eager to capture this growing market, especially as the weight of many of America's children and teens continues to rise.
While some basic items had been available for years, full-figured women are beginning to demand the same up-to-the-minute, youthful styles -- shapely leather jackets, boot-cut trousers and cuffed denim jeans -- that are readily accessible to smaller women. And retailers are listening.
"The manufacturers and retailers have realized that, demographically in age and income, full-figured women are identical to their thinner counterparts," said Nancy LeWinter, a co-founder and publication director of Mode, a fashion magazine catering to women sizes 12 and up. "You mean the fact that someone is full-figured doesn't mean that they're 55 and living in Peoria? She can be 22 and going to Harvard."
BCBG Max Azria, a designer line, recently launched fashions in sizes 1X-3X (14-22) that are "exactly what is on the floor" in smaller sizes, said Jennifer Highman, a sales manager for the company.
"We are not changing it to a tent dress," Highman said. "We are a contemporary designer. In larger sizes, there has only ever been offered more traditional clothing."
Included in the collection are slip dresses with adjustable straps, twin sets and T-shirts with keyhole necklines. Highman said the clothes will range from about $46 for T-shirts to $266 for a constructed jacket.
In 1996, friends Buonaro and Kim Camarella launched Kiyonna Klothing. Available in boutiques and on their Web site (www.kiyonna.com), the size 14-28 line includes an Audrey Hepburn-style boatnecked black dress, palazzo pants and scooped-neck dresses.
Ironically, people sometimes pass by Camarella and Buonaro's booth at trade shows because they are a size four and a size two respectively -- one of the reasons they don't have a picture of themselves on their Web site. But that doesn't mean they don't know how to fulfill the fashion wishes of larger women, Buonaro said.
"We just realized everything out there for plus-sized women is matronly, not stylish," Buonaro said. "We wanted stylish, contemporary, hip clothing."
Camarella said she and Buonaro originally envisioned a target age range of 19 to 34 years old, but many of their customers are in their 40s and 50s. Much of the emphasis is on what Camarella calls "body-conscious" dressing.
To fully appreciate how much the rules have changed, all you had to do was see the venerable Lane Bryant's Venezia fall fashion show in New York. In the past, many of Lane Bryant's clothes were considered utilitarian and pleasant, but not cutting-edge.
Yet, there was actress Camryn Manheim of ABC's "The Practice" walking down the runway in a siren-red tank dress baring her ample shoulders. Voluptuous models flashed hints of bare midriff and showed off short skirts and skimpy tanks.
Owned by The Limited, Inc., Lane Bryant has recently focused its attention on women ages 17-30. That translates into cargo pants, ball gown-inspired skirts and faded, embroidered jeans with frayed hems.
"Within the last three years, we've made the young plus-sized woman our focus," said spokeswoman Catherine Lippincott. "We started asking them, 'What do you want to see?' They want the exact same things that their size-six friends wear. They just want it in their size."
That's good news for young women like Nikki Kidd, a 25-year-old loyal Lane Bryant customer whose fashion tastes run from jeans to pantsuits.
"For work, I prefer to wear pantsuits with a long coat. Until recently, that kind of stuff was hard to find," said Kidd, a secretary who wears a size 18.
Talbot's recently debuted its Talbot's Woman catalog, a collection of the company's classic clothing in larger sizes. Gitano rolled out the "Git More" collection of jeans for plus-sized girls last year. Former MTV reporter Abbie Kearse developed her Abbie Lynn line, based on her love of funky, designer clothes once unavailable to her because of her size.
Of course, it's impossible to discuss this fashion revolution without mentioning the success story that is Mode magazine. Only two years old, the glossy monthly has had a profound impact on the full-figured fashion industry and has proven the viability of that market. It also has helped catapult the careers of a cadre of plus-sized models like Emme, Kate Dillon and Angellika.
Launched in spring 1997, Mode now boasts a circulation of 525,000 and regularly introduces readers to designers of full-figured clothing such as Simply French, Robyne's Dream and Dana Buchman. It celebrates curvy celebrities like Manheim, "Ally McBeal" co-star Lisa Nicole Carson and Cybill Shepherd.
"When I first opened it up, I was pretty much like, 'Wow,' " said Kidd, who lives in Randallstown. "My husband's comment was, 'Wow, all the models look normal.' "
Co-founder and publication director Julie Lewit-Nirenberg said she and LeWinter were unprepared for the support that followed the first issue. Soon, husbands of full-figured women and even thin readers were writing letters, heaping praise on the magazine.
"This is about shape, and this is about attitude," LeWinter said. "This is about feeling great in your skin and dressing it accordingly."
Mode's younger counterpart is Girl, an ethnically diverse magazine aimed at teen-age girls of all sizes. Because young girls' self-esteem tends to be more fragile, Girl doesn't focus as much on size issues, Lewit-Nirenberg said.
"Mode is very much about size and shape," she explained. "When you're in your teen years, it's so fraught with self-esteem and body-image issues. It's an incredibly stressful situation."
Though some readers have occasionally criticized the models as "too small," the founders of the two magazines have chalked that up to people finally seeing a size 14 woman as normal instead of fat.
Besides, the majority of the readers wear sizes 14-18, she said. And just as a size six woman can relate to a size four model in Vogue or Seventeen, a size 20 woman can probably relate to a size 14 model in Mode.
"What we have to do is be both aspirational, inspirational and somewhat reality-based," Lewit-Nirenberg said. "Having a woman size 14 model is inspiration for just about anybody."
Some plus-sized clothing resources and how to find them:
Lane Bryant: 888-FIND REAL
Simply French: 212-575-0024
Talbots Woman: 877-TALBOTS
Over & Under: www.over-under.com
BCBG Max Azria Woman: 888-236-BCBG
Kiyonna Klothing: www.kiyonna.com
Abbie Lynn: www.abbielynn.com
August Max Woman: 800-789-5348