Fashion : A SPECIAL REPORT: SPRING INTO FALL : Pacific Currents : Under 5-Foot-5 : Designers Create More Styles in the Smallest of the Small Sizes to Give Petite Asian-American Shoppers a Better Fit

The petite fashion market, for women 5 feet, 4 inches tall and under, has become one the busiest in the business. And local retailers say California’s ever-growing Asian-American population is a major factor.

In 1980, Asians composed about 6.1% of Los Angeles County’s ethnic population; in 1986, the figure rose to 8.6%, according to a University of Southern California study, “A Human Mosaic,” by David M. Heer and Pini Herman.

Many Asian women are 5-foot-4 and under, and retailers classify them as petites. Stores that cater to the Asian woman who wears designer labels say they have a clear sense of her priorities.

I. Magnin’s Southern California stores cater to that clientele in virtually every department, says Lily Taylor, vice president for the Southwestern region. In addition to stocking a wealth of petite clothing, even furs, upscale designer departments such as Chanel carry extra-small sizes 2 and 4 in some stores. Taylor says the I. Magnin stores frequented by Asian women include those in Newport Beach, Costa Mesa, Woodland Hills, Sherman Oaks, Palos Verdes and La Jolla.


Asians also have had an impact on Robinson’s petite departments, says Chris Serafin, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of Pacesetter and Petite Sportswear.

“Stores centered in Asian-populated areas have a stronger petite business than neighborhoods that don’t,” says Serafin, citing Robinson’s in Costa Mesa, Westminster and Cerritos as examples. Among the most popular labels in Robinson’s petite departments: Liz Claiborne and Jones New York, especially its suits and career looks.

Southern California has one of the largest petite markets in the country, says Jo Lawley, senior vice president of marketing for The Broadway’s Southern California stores.

According to Sandy Altman, national petite sales manager for Ellen Tracy, shipments sent to the firm’s West Coast vendors contain a heavy concentration of the smallest petite sizes. Other areas of the country receive a more balanced, standard range of sizes.

While retailers are still learning about the needs and desires of their Asian clientele, they have noted two main aspects of the fashion look Asian women prefer. “Conservative styling is key, and a precision fit is paramount,” Serafin says.

Avoiding alterations is what leads one customer, Donna Kato, to the petite department. Kato, a Japanese-American journalist formerly based in Los Angeles, has recently been traveling in Japan. She says she buys the bulk of her working wardrobe in U.S. stores’ petite departments.

She believes the influx of Asian-Americans has influenced the petite market. Along with Los Angeles, she says, San Francisco is a good city for petite shoppers.

Despite the expanded selection of smaller-size petite clothes here, many Asian women believe there is room for improvement.

“There are more petite clothes around now than there was when I was in high school,” says Karen Nakakihara, a Size 2 who lives in Cerritos and works in the Norwalk district attorney’s office. “But the section should still be expanded.”

“Finding dress clothes in my size is a pain,” says Kim Chan, 20, a part-time model and student at the University of California, Irvine. Chan, a Size 3, says that when she finds a style she likes, it is either sold out, or is not available in her size. Though she can order some things, it isn’t always possible. She hopes stores will continue to increase the number of tiny petite sizes.

“I’m sure I must be competing with many other Asian petites who wear the same sizes,” sighs Chan, “but if I’m constantly looking for clothes, others like me must be in need, too.”