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THE INVISIBLE WOMAN

When it comes to shopping, the average American man has it made. At 189.8 pounds and a size 44 regular jacket, he can wear Abercrombie & Fitch, American Apparel or Armani. Department stores, mall retailers and designer boutiques all cater to his physique -- even when it’s saddled with love handles, a sagging chest or a moderate paunch. In menswear, shlubby is accommodated.

But the average U.S. woman, who’s 162.9 pounds and wears a size 14, is treated like an anomaly by apparel brands and retailers -- who seem to assume that no one over size 10 follows fashion’s capricious trends.

Fashion-forward boutiques such as Maxfield and Fred Segal rarely stock anything over a size 10, and in designer shops, sizes beyond 6 or 8 are often hidden like contraband in the “back.” Department stores typically offer tiny sections with only 20 or so brands that fit sizes 14 and up -- compared with the 900-plus brands they carry in their regular women’s wear departments.

That leaves style-loving full-figured women with a clutch of plus-size chains including Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug, Avenue and Torrid. Or big-box stores such as Target, Kohl’s and Wal-Mart, the No. 1 seller of plus-size apparel in the country -- though most of its selection consists of basic, often matronly items. Beyond this, plus-size clothing is largely relegated to the Internet, where customers who already have a complicated relationship with clothes are unable to see, touch or try on merchandise.

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It often seems that it’s easier to find and buy stylish clothes for Chihuahuas than for roughly half the country’s female population.

Americans are getting larger, and 62% of females are already categorized as overweight. But the relationship between the fashion industry and fuller-figure women is at a standoff, marked by suspicion, prejudice and low expectations on both sides. The fear of fat is so ingrained in designers and retailers that even among those who’ve successfully tapped the market, talking plus-size often feels taboo. The fraught relationship between fashion and plus-size is far from new, but seems particularly confounding in a time when retailers are pulling out all the stops to bring in business. Carrying a range of sizes that includes the average female would seem like a good place to start.

“Plus-size has been a challenge for the industry for decades,” said Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst for the research firm NPD Group. “When I interview plus-size women, there’s really nothing [in the market] that the consumer says they like. Because of this, women in this demographic have learned to make fashion not a priority.” The longing for style is strong, but the hopes of finding it are low, and shopping is less fun than frustrating.

The message board at figuremagazine.com, the online incarnation of Figure, a magazine for full-figured women, reads like a laundry list of ways that brands and retailers aren’t connecting with the demographic.

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“Are all big girls supposed to dress like Midwestern farm wives?” asks one reader. “We have money -- why don’t they want to sell to us?”

Another adds, “I don’t want any more polyester, hip-hop gear, frumpy jeans and themed capris! I want the designers not to assume that I am a frumpy 55-year-old, middle-management employee. . . . Is anyone listening to us?”

It’s a which-came-first scenario, Cohen said. Because plus-size women have been ignored for years, they’ve stopped actively looking for shopping opportunities. But when retailers bring savvy style to the plus-size game (as Gap Inc. did with its short-lived concept, Forth & Towne, which carried fashion-forward clothing for career women in sizes 2 to 20), they often shutter their efforts before they have a chance to bloom.

“Retailers don’t have the patience to allow it to evolve,” he added. “This is a market that’s been underserved for 50 years. Customers are saying, ‘For 50 years, you’ve ignored me and now you expect me to react to it instantaneously?’ No.”

Designer line

It’s true that the development phase of a plus-size collection is costly, because fitting bigger bodies is more complicated than simply making smaller sizes larger. When bodies get larger (especially over a size 18), they take on a different proportion -- there’s generally more girth in the middle -- and the ratio between hip and waist changes.

But the payoff for sustaining a successful collection is worth the investment, said Rachel Pally, perhaps the only designer who sells a contemporary collection in trendy boutiques and a plus-size line -- Rachel Pally White Label -- in department stores. Pally’s full-figured collection is one of the top-selling vendors for Nordstrom.

“Fashion-forward plus-size women have no options,” she said. “They’re so thirsty for the product.” Why others don’t jump on the bandwagon, she added, is a mystery. “It’s like, ‘Hello? Don’t you guys want to make money?’ ”

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Many retailers aren’t even game to discuss “plus.” When contacted for this story, nearly every major retailer -- including Nordstrom, Macy’s, H&M;, even Wal-Mart -- declined to give interviews on the subject or didn’t respond to requests. It’s an odd silence, considering how ripe the market is. With hardly any high-end resources at their disposal, full-figured women still spent $18.6 billion on apparel in stores and online from December 2007 to November 2008, according to NPD Group.

That’s only around 20% of the $109.7 billion spent in the regular-size ranges, but bricks-and-mortar plus-size retailers comprise far less than 20% of the total women’s apparel retail industry -- and high-end options in the category are extremely rare, so purchase prices are substantially lower.

At the crux of the inequity, according to some plus-size designers, models and retailers, is prejudice toward women the industry doesn’t find particularly glamorous or sexy. Like fifth-grade girls who secretly live in fear of being ostracized from the cool clique, they don’t want to be caught talking to the fat girl.

Full-figured supermodel Emme sells her own plus-size collection, me by Emme, on QVC, and will be debuting Emme Style, an online clearinghouse for plus-size fashion resources, this year under the same name. Top fashion magazine editors and designers, she said, are guilty of perpetuating the idea that full-figured women and fashion don’t mix.

“It really does come from very few edicts from a few people,” she said. “You have to ask yourself why they are [defending] against this. Seriously, there are issues there.”

‘A lot of resistance’

Fear of the full-figured runs through every cog of the industry once you leave the realm of retailers and brands that are exclusively plus-size. “My sales team was adamantly opposed to me doing a plus-size line,” said Pally, because they feared it would cause her signature line to lose cachet.

“There was a lot of resistance, but I did it anyway. I used to say my brand was for everyone, but it really wasn’t.” She’s not concerned, she said, with “the few . . . who are offended that I’m accommodating women who make up the majority of the population.”

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Designers whose bread and butter rests on their ability to create an aura of cool exclusivity (basically, the bulk of designers seen on the runway, save brands with lifestyle extensions, such as Michael Kors and Calvin Klein) worry that sallying into the market will dilute their brand’s mystique and, ultimately, their sales. Prada designer Miuccia Prada may have had these concerns in mind when she stated that she would not sell clothes over a size 10.

And it’s on these loftiest of perches that the hypocrisy of the fashion industry seems most glaring. Some of the world’s most lauded designers and fashion critics are -- or have at one time been -- too broad in the beam to fit a leg into the designs they create and coo over.

Still, compassion is in short supply. When Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld, who spent most of his adult life battling a serious weight problem, created a capsule collection for H&M; in 2004, the newly svelte designer was incensed that the retailer manufactured the collection in larger sizes. “What I designed was fashion for slender and slim people,” he said. And in an interview in the March issue of Harper’s Bazaar, he sniffed, “The body has to be impeccable . . . if it’s not, buy small sizes and less food.” Issues, indeed.

While it was heartening to see that Vogue’s influential editor Anna Wintour styled plus-size British chanteuse Adele for this year’s Grammy Awards, we probably won’t be seeing the singer on the cover of the magazine any time soon (“Most of the Vogue girls are so thin, tremendously thin, because Miss Anna don’t like fat people,” Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley told Oprah Winfrey in 2005.)

Whitney Thompson, the only plus-size winner of “America’s Next Top Model, " said: “I just want to see a size 6 model once on a runway.” A perfectly proportioned 5 foot 10 inches tall who wears a size 10 or 12, depending on the garment, she’s the first plus-size model to win Tyra Banks’ TV modeling competition, though growing up in Florida, she considered herself to be on the slender side. “I’m not a plus-size person, I’m a plus-size model,” noted the 21-year-old. “On the street, I’m skinny. At castings, I’m a cow.”

What? No 4s?

But it doesn’t take a casting call to make plus-size women feel like cultural lepers. They just have to cruise into any of L.A.'s trendiest boutiques, which create the illusion that this is a town of size 0s and 2s. Fraser Ross, owner of the Kitson boutiques, said he wishes more trendy brands would manufacture 12s and 14s -- but he adds that he doesn’t have the square footage to carry true plus-sizes.

“Stores feel they don’t want to give in to women with more flesh,” Emme said. “There’s this idea of slovenliness and all those stereotypes and myths that have been embraced since the ‘50s. It’s ridiculous.”

Certainly, there are enough retailers out there to ensure that plus-size women won’t be walking around naked any time soon. But resources for fuller-figured women looking to follow trends (and even dabble in the avant-garde) are close to nil. The perception in the industry, said Cohen and Pally, is that full-figured women have less disposable income, and are less concerned with current styles.

This may or may not be another Catch-22. Did the demographic give up on fashion before fashion gave up on the demographic? Or was it the other way around?

Jaye Hersh, owner of the L.A. boutique Intuition on West Pico Boulevard, discovered that the fashion-conscious plus-size customer -- who has money to spend -- is one of the most underserved markets around when she started stocking designer jeans in sizes 32 to 38, and upping her inventory of one-size-fits-all merchandise.

What started as a slow trickle of customers has ballooned into a voracious new client base. “ ‘Enthusiastic’ is an understatement,” she said of the reception. The business has helped buoy Hersh’s company, while other boutiques in L.A. have shuttered en masse this past year.

Similar tales of success would no doubt blossom should more companies decide to start thinking big.

Emme, who was once called a “fatty” by a photographer who refused to shoot her (she was 5 foot 11 inches tall and a size 10), said responsiveness to the average woman can’t come quickly enough. “The market has to change -- fashion can’t be just for the exclusive few,” she said. “We’re responsible for ourselves. They’re responsible for clothing us.”

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emiliink@yahoo.com


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