NEW YORK — It’s fashion’s great divide.

The apparel business keeps edging closer to the center of pop culture but is keeping its distance from a sweet spot of potential customers. Today, 14 is the most common women’s size and 16 ranks third. In 1985, the most common size was 8.

Of course, the disconnect between the diminutive sizes of styles sported by runway models — as well as the commercial takes predominant in stores — and the sizes donned by many American women is a long-running saga. Clearly, though, it’s a gap that’s been widening rapidly. It’s not surprising, considering nearly two-thirds of Americans are considered as overweight, or 64 percent, up from 43 percent in 1960, according to the American Diabetes Association.

The expansion of the plus-size business is another story.

Plus sizes have been stuck at around a 21 percent share of the women’s apparel business for five years, Port Washington-based market researcher NPD Group has found. That amounted to $19.5 billion of the $90.8 billion in women’s apparel purchases transacted in the 12 months ended this July. Generally, sales of misses’ sizes 16 and up, and plus sizes, also called women’s sizes, 16 and up, are combined under the rubrick of plus-size business.

However, industry observers estimate plus-size volume could constitute as much as 35 percent of the women’s fashion business if there were more merchandise for sale. That would have come to $32 billion in the 12 months ended in July, for instance. The keys, sources agreed, lie in catering to underserved teens and young adults and realizing the untapped potential in department store shoppers of all ages.

“The fashion business is having a hard time being honest,” declared David Wolfe, creative director at Doneger Group. “Fashion has kamikaze tunnel vision about women size 6 and under, ages 18 to 34, with perfectly proportioned bodies. The whole thing is predicated on a lie.”

Indeed, a size 14 is now worn by 10.9 percent of American women; 16 ranks third, worn by 9.2 percent (the same share who wear an 8), and size 12 is second, representing 10.8 percent of women, according to NPD. Overall, more than one-third of American women, or 38 percent, are size 14 or larger, and 48.8 percent are 12 or larger.In contrast, just 12.5 percent are sizes 0 through 6 and 3.8 percent are a 4, the showroom model size.

Meanwhile, over the past 15 years, runway fashion shows have increasingly catered to the media and celebrities, rather than retailers and the broader populace. “The point of view of [most] fashion brands is unrealistic,” said Jack Mulqueen, principal of the Jack Mulqueen Co., who recalled that, a decade or so ago, “you never saw a celebrity at a runway show unless they were a customer of a designer.”

“The whole runway thing has shifted to an event aimed at public relations — not the customer,” continued Mulqueen, who has manufactured sportswear for names ranging from Valentino, Mary McFadden and Zandra Rhodes to Kmart’s Jaclyn Smith. “When that happens, you have the end result you now see in stores: fashion that doesn’t work for most Americans. It’s propaganda for licenses like fragrance and accessories that are profitable.”

The time for fashion’s emphasis on small sizes may be growing short, however, particularly given apparel’s shrinking share of the consumer’s wallet, a figure that’s fallen steadily since 1980.Currently, apparel wins just 3.5 percent of Americans’ wallet, on average, down from 4.9 percent in 1980, based on data from the Census Bureau and Columbus, Ohio-based consultant Retail Forward.

Nor is that picture expected to brighten anytime soon. Apparel’s share of the average person’s wallet is expected by the Commerce Department and Retail Forward to remain at 3.5 percent next year and in 2005, and then ease to 3.4 percent in 2006.

The dangers in much of the fashion industry’s persistent bet on a slimming slice of the population are quickly rising for other reasons as well:

  • Apparel production prices are spiraling upward — on a collision course with consumers’ spending priorities, which have shifted to products such as home goods, services like health care and education, and experiences, including travel and entertainment.

  • Size availability this year has become the third most-important trigger of a consumer’s decision to buy apparel, after quality and value, NPD has found. Size availability did not rate as a top trigger in 2002 (value, brand, style) or in 2001 (brand, style, value).
  • There are more large-size customers than average among two of the country’s fastest-growing groups, Hispanics and African-Americans, who now account for a combined 26 percent of the U.S. population — and spend more of their wallet than average on fashion.

  • The country’s aging population. According to the AARP, seven people turn 50 each minute — and many of them are seeing their bodies beginning to expand. Also, consumers now in their mid-40s through mid-50s have the most to spend: annual median household income of $58,000, versus $47,039 for all American women.

“Are we going to believe people have suddenly lost their taste for fashion, just because they wear plus-sizes?” asked Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at Port Washington-based market researcher NPD Group. Cohen answered his own question with an emphatic “no;” and even less so, he added, as so much of the population is now overweight, although not all such women are plus-size. Even a woman who wears a size 10 could be considered by a doctor to be overweight, for example.

Further, said Doneger’s Wolfe, “Fashion can’t get any tighter or barer looking than it is now, so the pendulum will swing toward looser, slightly oversized clothes. This will help. Americans are changing their view of what is attractive,” he noted, citing the attitudes of the consumers with whom he speaks. “There is a generally antiskinny feeling among American women, but people in design and the media haven’t responded.”

One sign of how far the fashion business has yet to travel, in that regard, can be found at Chico’s, an apparel chain that has forged its successful appeal to 35- to 55-year-old women, in part, with the offer of a unique sizing system — one whose largest size, 3, is equivalent to a traditional misses size 14/16. The intent is to enhance customers’ comfort with their size, particularly when it heads north. Still, even Chico’s does not want to be perceived as a marketer of plus-size fashion.

“It’s a business based on fantasy, on entertainment,” observed Jim Frain, Chico’s senior vice president of marketing. “Yes, we are dressing real women for real situations. But in marketing images, if we err on the side of overweight models or underweight models, we want to err on the side of underweight,” admitted Frain, who believes most women would rather be thinner and younger. “We do not want to be mistaken as a plus-size company; that would be very bad. It’s a matter of perception versus reality.”

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