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Plus-Size Fashion Gains Popularity, Retailers Love It Too

The definition of plus-size clothing varies, with PLUS Model Magazine setting the break-off point at size 12, while The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune have put it at size 14. The average dress size among American women is a 14, according to a 2011 report from Women’s Wear Daily.

In recent months, prominent brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch have drawn criticism from consumer advocates for messages that have seemed to reinforce their labels as status symbols for the young, white and classically attractive.

These companies have in essence opted to maintain their images as wardrobes of the slim instead of expanding their potential sales. Consumers are expected to spend about $332 million on athletic wear sold at plus-size women’s clothing stores this year, according to an estimate from market research firm IBISWorld – a figure that doesn’t capture purchases made in stores that also sell non plus-size items.

If you’re a woman of a certain size, shopping for clothes can be a downer. Even though the average American woman is around a size 14, most department store racks are devoted to smaller bodies.

But that could be changing.

Plus-size actor Melissa McCarthy is about to launch her own clothing line. Another full-figured actor, Rebel Wilson, is designing one, too. Meghan Trainor’s smash hit “All About That Bass” is all about having more to love, and People magazine made headlines when it recently put size 22 model Tess Holliday on the cover.

There’s a plus-size movement afoot.

“The industry has done a disservice to themselves by not offering some of those great choices for the plus-size consumer,” says Marshal Cohen, NPD retail analyst.

Despite the positive images of full-figured women in popular culture — fashion models, respected movie and TV stars — retail has generally not caught up. Cohen says major clothing stores aren’t eager to make a serious commitment to the plus-size market because it isn’t growing.

“Until the plus-size business grows at a rate greater than its current growth of 2 percent, they are going to wait. And that means that plus size is going to have to accelerate its growth rate closer to 4 and even 5 percent before the retailers are really going to embrace this,” Cohen says.

That neglect has been a gift for those apparel companies, like Torrid, that do embrace plus-size women.

Liz Munoz, senior vice president of design for Torrid, says that when she was growing up, she never found clothes she wanted to wear at the mall, so she learned to both design and sew them herself. Now she’s getting paid to do it.

Many people reading this  might be thinking that a plus-size movement is not a good thing, given all of the very real health concerns around obesity. But Torrid senior designer Munoz says that’s a separate issue.

“We’re not here to encourage people to be bigger. We’re not here to encourage people to be overweight. I think we are addressing the reality of what is going on in our world,” Munoz says.

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