Fashion's Larger Problem
Retailers Offer Young Plus-Size Women Few Options for a Stylish Wardrobe

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.)

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.

Industry research suggests that some plus-size women prefer to shop in private, often based on their negative experiences in stores. "Who are the people who are more willing to shop online than not? Plus-size women. They're so used to being shunned and sent out to the hinterlands that they expect this to be the situation," Cohen said.

While some women may have come to expect that kind of treatment, a growing number find it insulting. "They're made to feel like they have a special problem that has to be addressed by a 'special' part of the organization, and that part can only be found online," said Stephanie Ouyoumjian, a director at Frank About Women, a communications firm that specializes in marketing to women. "They don't belong."

One company that has worked hard to make young, plus-size shoppers feel that they belong is Torrid. The four-year-old California chain has made its name catering to trendy women sizes 12 to 26. (In doing so, some analysts said, it helped offset parent company Hot Topic Inc.'s 17 percent drop in net income last year).

"We're attuned to a recurring question," said Torrid's director of marketing, Regina Woodhouse. " 'I'm a plus-size customer, but I am hip, and there are not a lot of options for me.' "

Unfashionable Figures

Torrid operates 91 stores nationwide and plans to open 30 more by the end of this year. But it must still deal with the same stereotypes its customers face. On a recent Saturday, an ad outside the Torrid store at Westfield Shoppingtown Montgomery featuring a curvy model in a clingy dress drew stares, snickers, and even a stern "You don't ever want to have to go in here, do you?" -- the latter issued by one sixty-something woman to her preteen companion. The girl shook her head.

"The best way to be reminded that you're physically imperfect when you're a size 14 to 18 is to go shopping," Ouyoumjian said.

To some fashion observers, it seemed more than coincidence that H&M discontinued BiB after Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld complained publicly that in a much-hyped collaboration, the company had manufactured his line in larger sizes. "What I created was fashion for slim, slender people," he was quoted as saying.

The designer's recent book, "The Karl Lagerfeld Diet," encourages readers to subsist on raw vegetables, curiously named "protein sachets," and little else -- ostensibly with the goal of looking like the emaciated Lagerfield himself, who pared his 5-foot-11 frame by 80 pounds on the plan.

Lagerfeld's motivation? Not health, as he freely admits in the book's introduction, but the desire to fit into designer clothes.

If you're H&M, Cohen asked, which is more important to the image of your brand: your association with Karl Lagerfeld or serving this market?

The answer, Cohen said, is: "Today, Karl Lagerfeld." That might not be the case three years from now, "but they'll deal with that then," he said.

A Tricky Business

Representatives for H&M, Sweetface, and other brands disagree.

"It's absolutely not an image issue," said Lisa Sandberg, director of communications for H&M in the United States. Her sentiment was echoed by Andy Hilfiger, president and co-founder of Sweetface, as well as representatives of the Gap, J. Crew and other companies that offer extended sizes online.

Sandberg declined to release sales figures, but she said of BiB: "The line did not do well here. I think the American customer was looking for something more colorful or fashion-forward."

According to Hilfiger, the plus-size line "did okay." The problem, he said, was that department stores stocked it in their plus-size departments; Hilfiger wanted it in juniors, next to the brand's other sizes.

"A lot of designers, they're not advertising the plus-size line," Hilfiger said. "I wanted a girl that was a size 2 to shop with a size 13."

Hilfiger admitted that designing for plus-size customers takes experience -- a point that Lane Bryant likes to emphasize.

"I think other retailers entering the market think, 'Oh, there's money to be made. Should we just scale up what we have and see what happens?' " said Catherine Lippincott, spokeswoman for Lane Bryant.

Retailers looking to increase their business have ample incentive to dive in the plus-size pool.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, female college undergraduates outnumber males. "They will be controlling more money in years to come than ever before," Ouyoumjian said. "And many of these women are already plus-sized."

Jamie Cupples, 26, of Alexandria put it simply. "I'd love it if I could go shopping with a skinny friend, and she wouldn't be bored out of her wits while I was at Lane Bryant, and I wouldn't be bored when she was at American Eagle," said Cupples, a program assistant with the National Park Service who is 5 foot 7, 220 pounds and a size 18.

"If the options were there, I would be there."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company