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Plus-size fashion goes younger and trendier

To some in the fashion industry, the words "plus size" have come to represent women's clothing that is cookie-cutter, untrendy and decidedly ill-fitting.

Still other industry insiders see the plus-size clothing market -- which some consider starting at size 10 and others at size 14 -- as the stepchild of the fashion industry.

Retailers and designers alike have long been accused of cranking out bland and boring lines of clothing that have limited fashion appeal and even less cachet, essentially treating full-figured women as nearly invisible, second-class citizens.

But on Long Island and across the country there are numerous retailers, designers and models who say that despite the plus market's enduring problems -- both real and perceived -- things are indeed changing for the better.

Norman Weiss, owner of Alight (alight.com) in Plainview, says that the plus market has grown thanks to customers who have become "more accepting" of themselves.

"Today, size isn't as much of an issue," says Weiss, who has served the contemporary plus market both online and via his retail store since 1999.

Weiss, who spent years on the retail and manufacturing side, says his sales have grown by focusing on "younger attitudes and trendier clothes," unlike the more mainstream offerings of retailers such as Lane Bryant, Macy's or Avenue.

Other plus retailers have managed to thrive in the market by carving niches for themselves.

Queen of Hearts ( queenofheartsusa.com ) is a boutique in Merrick that specializes in fashion-forward formalwear size 14 and up, and owner Julie Marchesella has an added perspective on the plus market. "I've been a plus-size girl all my life, so I truly understand the problems bigger women have when shopping," she said. "We're all about size acceptance."

Marchesella says that despite the Island's weak economy, her business has been mostly unaffected. "People still have to go to weddings and bar mitzvahs," she said. "Most people don't cancel events just because the economy is bad."

Estelle Schlossberg, owner of the sprawling fashion mega-store Estelle's Dressy Dresses (estellesdressydresses.com) on Route 110 in East Farmingdale, credits her store's 17-year reputation and strong community ties for helping to weather the stormy economy. "We have very loyal customers, and we sponsor many special events in the community," said Schlossberg, whose store carries a full line of dresses and gowns from petites to plus sizes from 14 to 4X.

Some clothing industry experts say that as Americans' waistlines continue to expand, so does the plus-size market. And the numbers seem to bear this out.

Market research company NPD Group in Port Washington reports that despite falling sales in an ailing economy, retail sales of women's and girl's plus-size clothing were a strong $18.3 billion in 2008 against total U.S. apparel sales of $199.6 billion for the year. That's down from sales of $19.3 billion in 2007 but at a smaller percentage than the other women's apparel categories: juniors, misses and petites.

Notwithstanding relatively strong numbers, retail consultant Jeff Green of Jeff Green Partners in Mill Valley, Calif. says there's still much room for improvement when it comes to serving the average U.S. woman, who weighs about 160 pounds, a number that has been going up in recent years. "Few retailers are putting full emphasis on the fashion-forward, plus-size market," says Green. "Many haven't yet been able to get beyond the stigma of the plus-size market."

From stigmatized to stylish

According to Green, that "stigma," basically the fashion industry's aversion to being associated with "curvy women," has been well documented through the years. "It's all tied to our societal/social views of weight," Green says. But he also adds that the plus-size market -- if tapped correctly -- has the most future growth potential.

Chamein Canton, an author and self-described plus-size fashionista from Amityville, agrees there's plenty of untapped growth in the market. "The market has been growing every year," says Canton, who specializes in plus-size wedding planning. "The industry is doing a better job than they used to marketing plus sizes, but they could be doing even better."

Retail experts say today's plus market is highly fragmented -- with big box retailers such as Wal-Mart, Target and Kohl's; retail catalogs and boutiques, as well as online-only businesses -- and the fragmentation has yielded both successes and failures across the region. Just last month, high-end plus-size designer-retailer Abby Z -- best known for outfitting actresses such as Queen Latifah and high-profile types such as model Emme -- filed for bankruptcy and shuttered two New York locations, one in Roosevelt Field Mall and the other in Manhattan's SoHo.

"Retail is tough . . . apparel is tougher, and plus size is even tougher than that. So it's three strikes and you're out," says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for NPD.

"We've seen this before," Cohen says. "Department stores have tried to raise the bar when it came to plus sizes, but it takes a lot of time, patience and effort to perfect. In the women's plus market, it's especially tough to find growth or even stability in a challenging retail environment as we're now in."

Yet, Los-Angeles based Forever 21 announced it is launching a new plus-size line called Faith 21 next month, targeting a younger, more fashion-conscious consumer.

Keeping it local

Actress Nikki Blonsky, the 20-year-old Great Neck native who starred in the 2007 film "Hairspray," says it's something of a challenge to find clothes for her unconventional 4-foot-11 figure. "I want to stay on the cutting edge with trendy clothes that fit, but I'm so short it's tough to find clothes to fit both my height and my curves," Blonsky says. It's not very easy."

She admits to doing a majority of her shopping on Long Island. "While I'm not a typical girl because I don't really enjoy shopping that much, I do like to shop at Lane Bryant in Roosevelt Field," Blonsky says. "I get a lot of my dressier stuff there."

However, Blonsky has some advice for clothing retailers that cater to the full-figured: "I really like some of the clothes for curvy women, but I also wish there was more of a choice for younger women. I feel that with some of the larger stores, the age range is a bit old . . . especially given some of the younger curvy girls that are doing the shopping."

Fran Kauchner, vice president of marketing for Silhouettes.com , an online-only plus-size retailer, says despite the market confusion she's seen a spike in competition in the last five years. "The market has grown, and so has our competition, which includes names such as Lane Bryant, Coldwater Creek and Avenue."

A place to call their own

Calling "curvy" consumers "practical yet trendy," Nancy LeWinter, editorial director of online plus-size fashion mall OneStopPlus.com, says the full-figured woman is now recognized as a viable part of the clothing market.

"For a long time this market was overlooked . . . but now everything that was available for thinner women is available for plus-size women," says LeWinter, a former publishing veteran with Vogue magazine. LeWinter insists that if consumers are "given what they want," they'll be more willing to buy.

Linda Arroz, a former plus model and editor of BBW, Big Beautiful Woman magazine, concurs with LeWinter: "Curvy women are loyal customers because they're always shopping, and when they see something they like, they buy it."

Arroz, who runs a Los Angeles-based public-relations consultancy for apparel clients, says some major designers and retailers get it and some don't. "DKNY didn't do plus sizes well, but Ralph Lauren did."

Retail behemoth Wal-Mart, the number-one seller of plus-size apparel in the country, and Target, also a major player in the market, declined to comment for this story. In the past, some consumers have called Wal-Mart's plus offerings "boxy" and unflattering.

By contrast, upscale designer Monif C, with her "sexy, sophisticated" line of plus-size apparel, says she doesn't downplay women's curves and emphasizes bright colors and rich fabrics in her Manhattan store, online and in scores of specialty boutiques.

"The plus market is not just about making clothes and selling them, it's about making the whole shopping experience exciting," says Monif C, whose designs have been featured on BET's "Rip the Runway Fashion Show," "TLC's What Not to Wear" and on the pages of Essence, Latina and Glamour magazines.

Asked about mainstream retailers, Monif C says too often larger brands don't put effort into marketing offshoot plus brands. "Many retailers just make their smaller sizes larger instead of designing new plus styles from scratch," she says.

Messages posted at 39thandbroadway.com, a blog frequented by New York designers and manufacturers, targeted a recent Los Angeles Times story on plus-size clothing and the dearth of options. Responding to the claim there are few stylish plus-size stores like the Gap's Forth & Towne plus line, which was scuttled after 18 months, one blogger wrote that "what wasn't mentioned was that the Gap lost $40 million on this enterprise when the fashionable plus-size customer failed to show up."

The blogger concluded it is the customer who needs to come back to the marketplace. Only this, she says, will make the "big boys" take notice. "Business is tight right now, and retailers and brands need to see that going after this customer is a financially viable move."

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