Fashion's Larger Problem

Johleen Solly tries on plus-size clothing at Old Navy in Oxon Hill. She specifically avoids shopping at retailers that offer her size only online and not in their stores.
Johleen Solly tries on plus-size clothing at Old Navy in Oxon Hill. She specifically avoids shopping at retailers that offer her size only online and not in their stores. "I want to go in the store," she says. (By Pilar Vergara For The Washington Post)

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By Suzanne D'Amato
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

As a 23-year-old woman who stands 5 foot 8, weighs 185 pounds and wears a size 16, Johleen Solly of Arlington exists in retail purgatory: too big to shop at stores like J. Crew and American Eagle, which rarely stock 16s, and "a little too cool," as she puts it, for the dowdier clothes at plus-size stores like Lane Bryant.

"I'd like to be able to walk into a store with a size 2 friend, a size 22 friend and my size 16 self and all buy something to wear out on Friday night," she said. Instead, Solly, a government affairs coordinator for a trade association, builds her wardrobe from an assortment of department stores, boutiques that carry bigger sizes and places like Old Navy. She makes a particular point of avoiding retailers that offer her size only online and not in their stores.

"I want to go in the store," she said. "The way it is now, I feel like the market is telling us we're supposed to feel different."

The young, plus-size shopper, generally defined as a woman who wears a size 14 or greater, is becoming increasingly important to retailers. Plus-size apparel sales last year rose 13.2 percent, and teen plus-size rose 14.2 percent, compared with 5.6 percent for all women's clothes, according to one survey. Yet many young, plus-size women say they are belittled in stores, relegated to buying online -- or ignored, period.

"It's like that 'Pretty Woman' feeling," said Tracy Olivera, who is 5 foot 5 and 180 pounds, referring to a scene in the film in which snobbish salesclerks turn away Julia Roberts's character from a Beverly Hills boutique. "You're like, 'I have money, okay?' "

As of this spring, shoppers such as Olivera, 26, an actress who lives in the District, have two fewer options: H&M and Jennifer Lopez's Sweetface Fashion LLC, brands known for style-conscious yet relatively affordable clothing, are discontinuing their plus-size lines in the United States. (H&M's collection, called BiB for Big is Beautiful, will continue to be sold in other countries.)

A Growing Market
The moves struck some industry watchers as counterintuitive -- if only because Americans are becoming heavier. In 2002, 16 percent of teens were considered overweight, more than triple the figure in 1980. The average woman in her twenties weighs almost 29 pounds more than women did in 1960, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

One frequently cited explanation for the companies' withdrawal from the market: Fat just isn't fashionable. No one wants to be associated with it.

"There are probably great debates in the boardrooms right now about how moving into that plus-size market might impact their core customer," said Wendy Farina, principal at retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates.

"There's a real stigma against fat for the fashion world," said Laurie Henzel, the creative director of Bust magazine, a small-circulation glossy with a feminist bent. It is one of the few magazines to frequently feature plus-size models in fashion shoots.

Asked about H&M's decision to phase out BiB, from which she borrowed samples when she had a plus-size shoot, Henzel said, "I can only imagine [they thought] it wasn't cool enough for them."

Exile to Online

Several retailers, including the Gap and J. Crew as well as more explicitly teen-focused companies such as Delia's and American Eagle, sell larger sizes online than they do in stores. Many women interpret the practice as a case of companies' wanting to profit from the expansion of the American waistline without running the risk of tainting their image. "You can't do it all, so something has to give," said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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