Fashion Industry Goes After Plus-Size Market

It seems, at times, that the fashion industry really believes all women are the size of those skinny models on the runways.

But almost half the women in this country are size 12 or larger, and finally the clothing industry is taking note.

On runways, in stores, even in the pages of this month's Vogue magazine, the plus-size woman is finally getting some fashion respect — not because the industry has decided it's OK to be big, but because it can no longer afford to ignore her.

"Retailers are now saying they have to find ways to grow," said fashion reporter Teri Agins. "And this is an irresistible market for them to tap into."

And it is a growing market, literally. In 1985, the average American woman wore a size 8. Today, she wears a size 14. Plus-size clothing was worth $17 billion in sales last year.

'Something Other Than a House Frau'

Specially stores like Lane Bryant and Marina Rinaldi have catered to the larger woman, up to size 22, for years.

But now, designers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Donna Karan are joining Anne Klein, Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman and Oscar de la Renta in offering plus-size fashions in department stores.

Shoppers accustomed to tent-like clothing sold off basement racks are relieved. "We need to look like something other than a house frau," said shopper B.J. Curry-Spitler of San Diego.

The next frontier is the underserved market for plus-sized teens. At the new Torrid stores, junior sizes 14 to 26 are selling so well, the retailer is opening 15 new stores in May.

"We've had girls come out of the dressing room and start to cry because they finally have clothing that fits them and makes them feel good," said Betsy McLaughlin, CEO of mall specialty retailer Hot Topic.

Make no mistake. The fashion ideal is still pencil thin. But a profit-hungry industry is waking up to the reality that, as Americans get both older and wider, it pays to make a size 18 that looks just like a size 6.

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