Big girls need style, too

More brands are making trendy and fashionable clothes for plus-size young women

The New York TimesJune 29, 2009 

— Beth Ditto was livid. Topshop, the fast-fashion chain, had approached Ditto, the outsize lead singer with the punk band Gossip, and a favorite mascot of the fashion world, to perform at its flagship store in London. Blowups of her heart-shaped face and rotund form would be on display.

But Ditto, who happily flaunts what the British like to call her "wobbly bits," was having none of it. "I don't think it's fair to put my face somewhere where they would never let me in there to wear their clothes," she complained on a blog. If the chain hoped to capitalize on her grooviness, she wrote, why not accord her the same status it does Kate Moss and let her create a "big girl" line for Topshop.

"Give me the job," Ditto demanded. "I want to design."

Her message, flung down like a gauntlet, reached the ears of the Arcadia Group, the parent company of Topshop. This month, a couple of years after Ditto's sound off, Arcadia plans to unveil a collection that Ditto designed for Evans, the company's plus-size division. Available in the United States on the Web, it highlights cutting-edge looks like a corset dress and a cropped biker jacket.

The collection is the latest in an outpouring of fashions aimed at trend-driven, round-figured teenagers and young women, a population that has long echoed Ditto's complaint that it is ignored by most merchants and brands.

"Up to now it's been difficult to provide adequate fashion content to a large-sized customer," said Jeff Van Sinderen, a retail analyst at B.Riley, a research and investment firm. The woman of size, as she is euphemistically known, "still wants to wear the same clothes as her slimmer counterparts," he added.

Other stores and designers have picked up the message. Forever 21, a purveyor of cheap chic, introduced its plus-size line, Faith 21, this spring. Target recently began offering Pure Energy, exuberantly patterned dresses and tops for young women. Those follow hip niche labels such as Karen Kane and Kiyonna, which are sold at boutiques.

Plus-size market strong

All the lines see potential profit in offering stylish alternatives to the ubiquitous track suit. From a business perspective, that makes sense: The customer base is increasing, as health authorities have long pointed out. Some 17 percent of teenagers are overweight, according to the surgeon general's office, more than three times the rate of a generation ago.

The market for youth-oriented plus sizes (usually 14 to 24) showed strong growth a couple of years ago, several years after the fast-fashion chain H&M entered the business. (H&M has since dropped its plus-size line for reasons it would not disclose.)

Last year, sales of plus sizes to girls and young women ages 13 to 34 reached $5.8 billion, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.

With consumer spending falling everywhere, that momentum has been lost: Sales declined 15.3 percent for plus-size shoppers 13 to 17 and 10.1 percent for those 18 to 34 in April and May, compared with the period a year ago, NPD says.

Plus-size lines aimed at older women have also suffered; chains including Ann Taylor and Old Navy have removed larger sizes from stores. (They still sell them online.)

Despite the slump, some see the market inevitably returning to strength. "The fact that more businesses are getting into this market is a clear indication that the recent lack of growth has been more about the economy than about a lack of interest," said Marshal Cohen, an NPD analyst.

Faith 21 was introduced "because our customers were asking for larger sizes, and to fill a void in the market for trendy and fashionable plus-size clothing," said Linda Chang, the senior manager of marketing for Forever 21. It includes some 250 styles.

Smaller stores are also catering to shoppers who want figure-hugging fashions like their thinner friends. "Some of those girls feel like they have the brio to pull off a fitted look," said Stephanie Sack, the owner of Vive la Femme, a plus-size boutique on fashionable Damen Avenue in Chicago. She confided that when she was 20, "I would have choked somebody to get my hand on a studded belt to fit me."

She might find updated versions of that belt today at Torrid, a division of the youth-oriented Hot Topic chain, which began offering moderately priced, rock-influenced looks to young women nearly a decade ago. Or at Fat Fancy, a new boutique in Portland, Ore., that sells vintage and current styles in sizes up to 24.

"When you're fat, you stand out anyway," said Annie Maribona, the shop's founder and part owner. "It's really important to go all the way and do something fun or even outrageous with your clothes."

Finding role models

Stores as diverse as Kmart and Lord & Taylor have dispensed with conventional big girls' "dos and don'ts," offering the hothouse colors and exuberant prints, the ruffles and flounces of their so-called straight-size counterparts. Even horizontal stripes, once a fashion sin for the overweight, animate some looks in Kmart's Piper & Blue collection.

"I've noticed lately that they are trying to make big sizes more into style," said Kathy Salinas, as she considered a zebra-striped Piper & Blue tunic at a Kmart in downtown Manhattan this week. "You see that at regular stores, not just the plus-size stores, and that's a good thing."

Round-figured young women have found inspiration in popular culture. Ditto, who settled her girth on tiny gilt chairs at some 10 fashion shows this year, along with actress Jennifer Hudson and singer Adele, all appear in full-figured glory in the current issue of Elle.

The glamorously curvy Jordin Sparks captivated viewers on "American Idol," then moved on to a recording career. On "Stylista," a reality show on the CW network last fall, a curvy contestant named Danielle competed for a job as a junior editor at Elle.

More than tokenism, such fashion and media tactics seem born of a conviction that larger young women have become more self-accepting. "They are inclined to show off the parts of their bodies they love," said Sack, the Chicago retailer. Pushing the trend is a broad movement of fat acceptance among academics, anti-bias activists and some psychologists. "It's important to reclaim 'fat' as a descriptive, as even something positive," argued Maribona of Fat Fancy.

But others point to serious health consequences of being overweight. Andrea Marks, a specialist in adolescent medicine in New York, suspects that "the vast majority of overweight girls are not so happy." Apparent self-acceptance, she added, may be a cover for defiance or resignation.

Shoppers, too, can be skeptical. Checking out the Piper & Blue line at Kmart on Monday, Kristin Lopez, 20, a cosmetology student, said "a lot of the clothes look cheap."

"I don't like the way they fit, and, for the quality, the prices are too high," she added. The collection, which includes hot pink leggings, madras sundresses and a boldly striped yellow tank dress, is ticketed from about $13 to $25.

Still, venturesome merchants are undeterred. "The plus-size market is an attractive piece of the fashion business," said Fiona Ross, the brand director for Topshop's Evans line, which includes the Beth Ditto designs. In the United States as in England, Ross declared, "we may want to be part of that opportunity."

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