By  on June 1, 1994

NEW YORK -- The special sizes denim market is expanding -- in more ways than one. With competition heating up, more and more manufacturers are finding the foray into the petite and plus-size areas a rewarding source of fast growth and untapped opportunities.

Ruff Hewn, the High Point, N.C., denim maker, introduced a line of plus-size jeans in sizes 14-24 a year and a half ago. They were first tested in two or three stores, then were placed in 150 doors across the country. The line promptly exceeded the company's original projected target by 20 percent, accounting for more than $2 million in sales for 1994. As a result of the success, the company will start delivering a five-pocket petite version in June for fall 1994.

"We had a number of accounts ask us to go into petites," said Robert Benner, president and chief executive officer of Ruff Hewn. "We initially felt that there was a better opportunity in plus sizes, so we did them first. Now, petites have taken off and we are overwhelmed by their acceptance."

The petite category is projected to earn $750,000 in 1994, doubling to $1.5 million for 1995. Petites are being rolled out to 50 targeted doors, according to Benner.

"Plus sizes are a fast-growing portion of our business," said Benner. "The Southeast, Southwest and West Coast have been selling the best in plus sizes," he said, "but that is mainly because Ruff Hewn has a very strong name recognition in those areas."

Strong as the plus-size business has been, Benner confirmed that the company feels the real growth opportunity is in petite. "We are doing more business and quicker than with the plus sizes. There was a void in the petite market in denim and twill-based casual sportswear and novelty items." He declined to say whether petites would sell faster than plus sizes.

With fit as a priority, Greensboro, N.C.-based Wrangler recently created a new line of jeans called Wrangler America for Women. Launched last July, it offers petite, which are considered part of the misses' category, and plus-size jeans, ranging from size 18 to 26."We spent a lot of time on getting a good misses' fit," said Joyce Markwell, merchandising manager for Wrangler America. "So it was natural for us to go into special sizes. It was a major opportunity for us in the market." Philip Dunn, vice president and general manager of Wrangler, said there would be a major push in special sizes through 1996.

"If we didn't get into petites, we would have missed a big part of the misses' market," he said. "Petites are now moving fastest for us only because we have a big volume there. We think it will equal out when we put a bigger push on plus sizes."

While Dunn declined to give sales figures, he said, "This is the biggest new introduction Wrangler has done for a first full year. We exceeded initial expectations. We thought there was an opportunity here and it has proven itself.

"The Wrangler for women program has been successful almost everywhere we've placed it," he said. "We've had an excellent sell-through in every region. We only deal with mass merchants, and we're in 2,000 doors."

"Plus sizes are a total growth area," said Barry Zelman, vice president of merchandising at Faded Glory, here. The company started its line of plus-size jeans from size 14 to 26 last fall. It now generates 12 percent of the company's overall volume. "We found that 35 percent of women in America are size 14 and over. That alone tells us that something is going on," said Zelman."If we are going to be a sportswear line that caters to a whole lifestyle, then we have to see the needs of the consumer. And that means women who are over size 12."

Zelman said that at retail, sizes 18 and 20 were selling the best and that Faded Glory would look into a line of "super-size" jeans in sizes 28, 30 and 32. "Eleven percent of the specialty store business is in this size range."

Zelman said sales for the line met the company's first-year projections and a 15-percent increase was expected in the next year. The push into the special size market was "an easy transition," according to Zelman, because most retailers are looking to expand. In the future, the company is considering a petite plus-size line as well as a true separate petite line. "Right now we are trying to get the plus sizes off the ground," he said.Two and a half years ago, Bonjour undertook a program to resize the inseam and rise of its women's jeans, a move that included the company's petite line, according to Nora Gilles, an account executive at Bonjour.

In the year that followed, sales exceeded the company's projections by 10 percent and increased 25 percent the following year. "We thought that 20 to 25 percent of our customers would be petites," said Gilles, "but we found that it was actually about 30 percent."

Gilles said Bonjour has developed a program for plus-size jeans, but could not say when it would hit the market.

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