NEW YORK — From patterned socks to anticellulite pantyhose and footless tights, vendors have been working for some time to lure women back into legwear departments.

Now, a number of legwear makers are stepping up their efforts in the plus-size arena, adding larger sizes to their existing assortment or launching new lines that cater directly to the larger customer.

According to several hosiery executives, up to 35 percent of women in America require plus-size hosiery. With the total legwear business estimated to be in the region of $3 billion, plus-size legwear has a $1 billion potential at that figure. It’s no surprise, then, that legwear makers are sitting up and taking notice.

“From some of our own research, we know the number of women wearing queen-size or plus-size hosiery has grown 25 percent over the last five years,” said Karen Howland, director of new products at No Nonsense, a subsidiary of Golden Lady SpA, which is distributed in the food, drug and mass retail channels.

John Flynn, vice president of sales at Levante USA, added: “The plus-size is becoming very important, much more than the petite size. If you look at women aged 18 to 30, they tend to be much taller, and, for the most part, larger than their mothers were at the same age. They are also very fashion-conscious.”

Where once plus-size hosiery was considered to be a dowdy, old-fashioned sibling to the trendy offerings in regular departments, there are now many fashionable alternatives for plus-sized women. Companies from Wolford and Levante to No Nonsense are aggressively building their larger-size assortments, and this fall sees the launch of The Emme Collection, named for the model and TV personality.

The Emme hosiery line is licensed to Phantom USA, a subsidiary of Toronto-based Phantom Industries, which also manufactures Silks and has the Hanes Hosiery license for Canada. The line offers ultra-sheer, Lycra spandex and nylon, with such features as Lycra Soft waistbands to eliminate binding, and styles like lace-thigh highs, fishnet tights and trouser socks with stripes and florals. At retail prices of $8.50 to $16, it targets department and specialty stores. Emme is also launching a True Beauty by Emme collection, which is exclusive to J.C. Penney and will retail for $8 to $12. Sales projections were not available for the lines.In 2001, No Nonsense launched No Nonsense Woman, which targets the plus-size woman. “As fibers and knitting technologies have improved over the years, we are able to better address her comfort and fit needs,” said Howland at No Nonsense.

Howland declined to gives sales information for the division, but she said it is already distributed in up to 10,000 doors in the food, drug and mass retail channels.

Levante, meanwhile, offers Levante Extra, a collection of pantyhose that targets the plus-size customer with ultra-sheer styles featuring control tops and panel-free briefs for additional comfort.

Wolford, too, is stepping up its offering in larger sizes for spring, though specifics were still being worked out. Large sizes account for 16 percent of Wolford’s classic legwear and 20 percent of its trend sales. “We see an opportunity there,” said Maria Basquil, national sales manager.

Many vendors agreed that patterns can be a challenge in plus sizes.

“Some of the textures tend to not be flattering on the larger leg, so there is a challenge to design fashion that is flattering,” said Wayne Lederman, president at Leg Resource, where plus sizes represent about 22 percent of the total business, up from 15 percent last year.

Wolford carefully chooses the patterns that best suit a larger-size customer.

“For every size, we use a different size of knitting cylinder on a knitting machine, and for the larger sizes, that could be a problem if you add a pattern,” said Petra Tassaddikari, Wolford’s product manager.

As for marketing and merchandising, most agreed that plus-size women need to be marketed to just like the mainstream customer and they want to buy their hosiery on regular fixtures.

“Her fashion point of view is no different than a regular-size customer, so she deserves to have the same fashion selection,” said Pat McNellis, president of women’s brands at Royce Hosiery Mills, Dockers legwear licensee. Dockers refers to its larger sizes not as “extended women’s size,” and offers the label’s regular basics alongside textures like ribs and flat knits. This fall, it will add patterns such as florals in the extended size.Many agreed plus-sizes are not immune to the challenges facing hosiery overall.

“The space is a challenge for plus-size brands,” said Angela Hawkins, director of marketing at Sara Lee Hosiery, which includes the L’eggs and Just My Size brands. “Because the plus-size category is still evolving in terms of retailers designating sufficient space, you still do not see that much space allocated for the assortment.”

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