Sunday, August 01, 1999

Stylish clothes now in all sizes


Retailers rush to win over plus-size women shoppers

BY RACHEL BECK
The Associated Press

        NEW YORK — Plus-size women can make room in their closets for trendy capri pants, tube tops and tight-fitting camisoles.

        Being big these days doesn't mean you have to look dowdy, and that was absolutely clear last week at the Lane Bryant fashion show, featuring the large-size model-of-the-moment Camryn Manheim — who stars in the television series The Practice and is author of the new book Wake Up, I'm Fat.

        So what if you are a size 14 or bigger? You can now keep up with all the fashion trends that thinner women wear — dresses with spaghetti straps, drawstring pants, see-through blouses and bare-midriff shirts.

        “This is such a hot segment of the market because they finally figured out that these women are looking for fashion but they don't want to feel like they have to fit into clothes designed for Paris runway models who are stick thin,” said David Rush, principal at the Atlanta retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates.

        The large-size market is the fastest-growing segment in women's clothing today. Last year, sales were $23.7 billion, up 6.6 percent from 1997 and almost 44 percent from 1993, according to The NPD Group, a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y.

        Driving much of this success has been a complete overhaul in large-size business. Stores have finally started giving women what they've been looking for: trendy styles and a pleasant shopping experience, with attentive salespeople who help them find clothes that fit.

        One of the leaders in the plus-size market is Lane Bryant, a division of specialty retailer The Limited Inc. After watching its sales and profits sink early in the decade, the 730-store division has become more focused on service and fashion.

        “Five years ago, the large-size business was about comfort and covering up,” said Jill Dean, president of Columbus, Ohio-based Lane Bryant. “Now, where fashion goes, we go.”

        That was evident at Tuesday night's fashion show featuring Lane Bryant's fall line of clothes. Led by its size 22 spokeswoman Ms. Manheim, who opened the show with a slinky red silk dress, models showed off strapless dresses and tight jeans with embroidered legs — a look crafted by fashion powerhouse Gucci this spring.

        To publicize its new look, Lane Bryant broadcast the show online for the first time. According to preliminary figures, more than 30,000 people signed up to watch the event live.

        While that was far less than the 1.5 million who logged on in February to see the online fashion show of sister company Victoria's Secret — which was filled with pencil-thin supermodels wearing lingerie — the Lane Bryant event still exceeded the company's expectations.

        In addition to the fashion show, Lane Bryant is also using its Web site — www.lanebryant.com — as an online gathering place for plus-size women, where they can discuss everything from careers to fitness to fashion. Visitors to the site can also browse through the store's merchandise, but nothing currently can be bought online.

        Lane Bryant isn't the only retailer servicing — and succeeding — in the large-size market. Analysts say Saks Fifth Avenue's Salon Z, an area of the store dedicated to bigger clothes, is attracting lots of shoppers. Talbots also has added some larger sizes to its assortment.

        “This is absolutely an important business segment to be in, and we are convinced that it is just going to get bigger over time,” Mr. Rush said.

       



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