Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink. Until recently, this sentiment seemed to sum up the experience of the plus-size woman looking to quench her style thirst. Thankfully, times have changed for the better, and today's woman with curves enjoys a greater array of styles in extended sizes and specialty lines created just for her.

"This market was under-served for so long," explains Michele Weston, executive editor of the online magazine AmaZe, which launches this month, offering plus- size women apparel ideas from A to Z. Relates Weston, "Fortunately, things have improved in the last decade and it's a far more evolved market." Part of that evolution includes the realization that the plus-size shopper is just like any other woman, and not just a statistic in a niche market.

"She's not a specialty consumer," insists designer Richard Metzger, whose creations have been worn by curvy celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Queen Latifah and Camryn Manheim. "She's the same as anyone else; she wants to feel feminine and sexy when she gets dressed. Designers and merchants are finally waking up to this fact, and offering the same styles and fabrications to women of all sizes."

Current Dress Size
 04Q105Q1+/- pts.
0 to 620.3%20.6%1.4
7 to 11 29.3%28.1%-1.2
12 to 1423.7%23.4%-0.3
"I traveled in and out of Paris for years and never found any beautiful clothes in anything over a size 10," shares designer Gayla Bentley. "I finally decided that I should just starting making these clothes myself. Women with curves want flattering clothes and they shouldn't have to just make do."

"Our easy fit strategy ensures that every woman is able to easily find something that fits and fits comfortably," shares Jim Frain, COO of Chico's. "Shoppers will always be able to find something new in their size, particularly if they shop the Web, where there is a greater range of sizes available."

The Internet has certainly changed the availability of fashions for all women. "Style has no limits and that includes size," relates Norman Weiss, who founded alight.com five years ago for the plus-sized consumer. "We offer the fashion items that women haven't always been able to find in stores in their sizes."

There are an increasing number of women who may be taking advantage of these offerings. According to Cotton Incorporated's Lifestyle Monitor™, 24.9% of women in the first quarter of 2005 stated that they wear a size 15 or greater, up from 21.5% for the same year-ago period. Approximately another one in four women today wears a size 12 to 14. Attests Weston, "A size 20 woman wants to be able to shop with her size 12 and size 4 friends and have the same options."

That's precisely why retailers like Old Navy have extended their size offerings. "In our stores, the larger sizes are not isolated or placed in a special area; they are mixed in with all the other sizes," relates spokesperson Andrea Lui.

"It's extremely important that plus-size women have the opportunity to shop in the main sections of a store versus being segregated to a certain area as they've been in the past," observes Metzger. "It goes a long way in offering a fashion liberation for these consumers."

This also means a liberation from premium prices and staid styles. "In our focus groups, plus-size women told us that they had a hard time finding fun clothes, and what they did see was really expensive," tells Lui from Old Navy. "No matter what your size, there are some items you know you won't wear next year, so why should you spend a lot of money on them?"Another element in this newfound freedom is the right to bare arms – and legs and shoulders. "For so long, plus-size women believed that they had to cover up," recounts Weiss from alight.com. "No one was offering them revealing fashions. Some of our best sellers are strappy, sexy, skin-baring tank tops, sleeveless shirts and capri pants."

"I've held trunk shows for years and so many women would come and tell me what they couldn't wear or, sadly, what they were told they couldn't wear because of their size," shares Metzger. "Plus-size women have been held back; there are plenty of things that they can wear and it's time they embraced the full range of offerings."

This particularly includes jumping on trends, says Weston. "Fifties influences and Bohemian Chic look great on women with curves. They can wear long cotton Bermuda shorts, which cut the leg at a great angle, and pair it with a shapely sleeveless top. Tiered skirts and Indian tunics with the boho touch also look fantastic for the plussize woman."

Never underestimate this consumer's penchant for trends, Weiss emphasizes. "I have never come across an item that is fashion right that has not done well on our site."

As women, we are more alike than we are different, reminds Weston. "The biggest challenge for any woman of any size is fit," she says. "Any woman is going to try on a dozen pair of jeans to find the right fit."

Female respondents cited fit as the number one reason they no longer liked a particular garment, according to the Monitor. Nearly another third stated that they just didn't like the way a garment looked on them anymore.

We all want to feel good about how we look, asserts designer Bentley. "When you find something that fits, is comfortable and looks great, at whatever the cost, you've got it all."

And that's a real plus for any woman!

This story is one in a series of articles based on findings from Cotton Incorporated's Lifestyle Monitor™ tracking research. Each story will focus on a specific topic as it relates to the American consumer and her attitudes and behavior regarding clothing, appearance, fashion, fiber selection and many other timely, relevant subjects.

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