Sizing up which styles are fitting for petites


Kendra Edwards was grumpy. She was shopping recently at Towson Town Center for something to wear to her nephew's graduation and had only seen "one or two" things she liked.

A petite woman - 5-foot-1 (and a half) - Edwards had come from Bridgetown, Ohio, empty-handed, thinking she'd find a better selection of stylish petite clothing in a bigger city like Baltimore.

"I always have trouble," she says. "But this season it seems worse. All these long peasant dresses and big ol' full skirts. They make them for taller women. Nobody thinks about us little ladies."

Petite women the world over can feel Edwards' pain. For much of their adult lives, they've been singing their own version of that Randy Newman song: "Short women got ... no reason to shop!"

With shorter legs and torsos, petite women - technically those 5-foot-4 and under - often struggle to find clothes that fit them well and look good, too.

They're forced to buy clothes made for average-height women and then have them altered. Or they scour department stores' juniors' sections, praying for something that can be passed off as age appropriate.

But some of that might be changing.

These days, more and more retailers are remembering the "little ladies," and are trying to better accommodate their unique fit and style needs.

Banana Republic, for example, began this year opening stand-alone stores for petites in five cities - expanding on its successful in-store petites selections. Its D.C. store, the fourth boutique, will open in September.

"Ten, 15 years ago, basically you had Talbot's and Ann Taylor in terms of petites, and now there's a wider array of people who are getting into it," says Sara Westbrook, senior merchandiser of petites for Banana Republic. "In Banana Republic, we provide something special [for petite customers]. We want to make sure we're finding the right way to introduce that to more places. The standalone store was truly the next step for us."

The petites store will cater to women under 5-foot-5, providing fashionable clothes with petite proportions - shortened sleeves, raised waistlines, shorter rises, higher arm openings - all the things a short woman needs, no matter how thin or how heavy she is.

Defining 'petite'

Contrary to popular belief, the "petite" label has nothing to do with width, circumference or pounds. Indeed, some petite women also are plus-sized.

For example, Ann Taylor - one of the most well-known petites providers - offers up to a size 16 in petites clothing.

Real women, with real women's bodies, appreciate that the stores where they shop understand that distinction.

"Clothing manufacturers seem to design fashion for this idealized woman, and I don't think too many of us fit into that mold," says Janet Boivin, a nurse in Cary, Ill. "In many ways it's almost demeaning to women. It's as though you have to fit this image of a tall, slim woman with no hips and no butt."

Boivin, a 4-foot-10 woman who wears a size 6, tends to do most of her shopping at well-known petites stores such as Ann Taylor, Talbot's and Petite Sophisticate, a spin-off of Casual Corner. But even those stores are typically placed in the same "casual, comfortable, conservative," category.

Most petite women would love to have the variety of styles that taller women are privy to.

"Shopping in juniors doesn't work because those clothes are usually styled for women in their 20s, so they don't fit at all," Boivin says. "Young women usually have different shaped bodies, and also the styles are a little more on the youngish side."

Some department stores, such as Saks Fifth Avenue, have recognized their petite customers' need for variety and have reorganized their petites sections, integrating them throughout stores' floor plans.

At one time, petites brands were segregated in one small area of the store. But now, any designer brand that offers petites clothing has those sizes included in its own distinct section. So Ellen Tracy sits next to Ellen Tracy Petites; Dana Buchman is with Dana Buchman Petites. While the petite woman shops the entire store, she can pull appropriately sized clothes from any designer, in any style she likes.

"In the past, the petites-sized garments had to be in the back corner of the department store, on the third floor, in the no lighted part of the store," says Westbrook, of Banana Republic. "But your competitive place is defined by how you cater to your set of customers, and so that has encouraged more people to go into petites sizes, plus sizes. It's actually very important these days for specialty retailers to have a gamut."

Different tops, bottoms

"The lines are getting a little blurred I think," says Catherine Bartels, vice president/general manager at Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase. "Today's petite customer might be petite on the top, or she might be petite on the bottom. So there's a lot of inter-selling [between petites and regular sizes]. By having it separate, we were really limiting to that customer who was truly petite from top to bottom."

As another example that more retailers are thinking of the needs of petites customers, some smaller specialty designers have launched start-up lines that include petites, despite the extra cost it takes to specialize in these sizes.

Sweetees, a seven-year-old women's contemporary fashions label that sells to major department stores such as Nordstrom, carries petite and extra-small versions of just about every item it sells - from embellished cotton T-shirts to long, embroidered peasant-style dresses.

(Attention, attention Kendra Edwards!)

"I have so many friends, so many people in my office, my mother - they are all petites. And you can't forget about that customer," says Melody Kulp, Sweetees' creative director. "If you do, your sales will suffer."

That's something the folks at petite-friendly Ann Taylor have always known. It may cost a little more on the front end to diversify sizing to include petites clothing, but on the back end, the result is always profitable.

Particularly since about 54 percent of the women in the United States could be classified as petite, Banana Republic's Westbrook says.

"We find that our petite clients are among our most loyal clients," says Muriel Gonzalez, chief marketing officer at Ann Taylor. "And we've been growing because we've been expanding our assortment [of petites clothing] and expanding our marketing [to petites customers]. I think it's something that we've become known for, and the clients, as we said, are very, very loyal. So it's certainly a good business decision to focus on the petites customer."

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