Byline: Karyn Monget

NEW YORK — While average-size bras continue to dominate retail business, the demand for special sizes — big and small — is growing at a healthy pace, according to manufacturers.
Makers generally credit expanded assortments of fashion and updated styles, more color and a growing range of sizes for making the full-busted, large-size and smaller-than-average classification click. They also say the increasing availability of pliable, lightweight fabric blends such as UltraTouch and Lycra spandex are helping give special-size bras — particularly full-figure and large-size bras — a modern spin.
Lace also is a top idea, whether it’s lace embellishments that give a bra a softer, prettier look of lingerie, or allover lace styling, they said. And seamless construction — a hit over the past year in the average-size bra business — is yet another factor transforming special sizes into a fashion business.
Vendors generally say the potential is substantial in the special-size market, a consumer segment that was long ignored in the past. And a lot of it has to do with changing demographics and the fact that the average figure size of American women has gotten bigger over the past decade.
According to marketing estimates from Playtex Apparel, a Sara Lee Corp. division, approximately half of the adult female population in the U.S. — some 70 million women — wears a size 14 or larger dress. The average woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 142 pounds. Over the past 10 years, the average bra size has expanded to 36C from 34B, said Playtex officials.
Cheryl Vitali, vice president of marketing at Playtex Apparel, said she believes the opportunity for large-size bra business is “huge.” Indeed, it appears big for Playtex, which is projecting first-year retail sales of nearly $40 million for its Body Language line of large-size bras. The line began shipping this month.
“We think it will be an immense area of growth for us, because we are addressing the specific needs of this customer with esthetics and allover body comfort,” Vitali said. “The category is not necessarily the classic full-busted woman, but women who may have a larger back size and may not be large busted.”
Bra sizes for Body Language by Playtex are 38C to 50DD. Coordinating panties are XL to 8XL. Colors are white, black, almond and cappuccino.
Regarding smaller-than-average sizes, Vitali said a hit for spring is a seamless, cotton-lined, soft-cup style in the Thank Goodness It Fits group by Playtex. Sizes are Nearly A, Perfect A, Nearly B and Perfect B, which was added six months ago.
At Olga Co., a unit of The Warnaco Group, John Caleo, vice president of merchandising and design, said, “We keep testing the limits of our full-figure bras to see how the structure holds up, and we’ve added more DDD cup sizes in 40, 42 and 44.
“Full-figure is a very important classification. It accounts for over 30 percent of overall bra sales at department stores, and it could be bigger at chains,” Caleo said. “We’ve added to our mix of full-figure and petite sizes at the same pace we add products in average sizes.”
Over the past 1 1/2 years, the number of full-figure bra styles has more than doubled in the Olga line, totaling 15, and more than tripled in petite sizes, totaling 13, he said.
“We don’t make big industrial-looking full-figure bras. We do youthful-looking bras for a younger, more contemporary customer,” Caleo said, noting that the March market will feature “many new full-figure styles.”
Greta Shugrue, director of marketing at the Vanity Fair Intimates division of VF Corp., noted: “Our new Skin to Skin by Vanity Fair launch in March will include a full-figure underwire minimizer. The target customer is a working woman, a mom, who won’t sacrifice comfort for everyday wear.
“She wants to feel comfortable and secure at work — no show-through or bounce.”
The Skin to Skin minimizer of UltraTouch nylon and Lycra has a “warm, luscious, butter-like hand,” said Shugrue. C cup sizes are 34 to 42; D cup sizes are 34 to 40.
Susan Malinowski, vice president of marketing at Maidenform Worldwide, singled out Comfort Front & Center as a top-selling full-figure group for spring. Bra sizes are 34C to 42DD.
“The bras have a soft center. The underwires do not extend to the center,” Malinowski said. “Full-figured women often complain about the underwires, especially if they are shorter in stature, because the underwires stand away from the body, and pinch and poke.”
Malinowski further noted that a 38DD bra size was added to the licensed Oscar de le Renta line for spring. She said, though, that bras in larger cup sizes generally are a “slow build because of the way designer intimates are merchandised at stores — you can’t put up signs saying ‘Now in DD.”‘
“Where we really spend most of our time in special sizes is with Lilyette,” said Bruce Getz, Maidenform’s vice president of merchandising. “The biggest thing for Lilyette is a two-ply fabric minimizer that’s seamless. The inner cup is CoolMax and the exterior is nylon and Lycra.”
The front-closure minimizer is particularly comfortable, because it features different-sized front closures for different bra sizes.
“The front closure is bigger for D and DD cup sizes,” Getz said.
Turning to the other side of the size scale, Malinowski said, “If you are a minus figure, you really don’t need a cup size. So, we were inspired to do an entire new collection of bralets. Bralets really address a minus figure.”
The Maidenform bralets, which will be shown in March, are back-sized 34 and 36.
Tiziano de Franco, owner of Tiziano, an importer and sales representative here, said, “Demi styles in lace and in fashion colors by Prima Donna have been among my best-booking full-figure bras. Demi styles in full-figure — especially bras that are very sexy looking — are very difficult to find.”
Prima Donna is a specialty full-figure and large-size bra label from Belgium that de Franco brought to the U.S. market in August. There are four styles of coordinating panties: a full brief, a high-cut bikini, a boy-leg brief with tummy control and a G-string. Sizes are S to 6XL.
The number-one-selling color is aubergine.
Tiziano also features Marie Jo, an updated full-figure line from Belgium in lace and microfibers, which he described as “contemporary, for the younger woman who is into fashion and full busted.”
“Full-figured women are hungry to buy full-figure fashion bras, and they will definitely spend the money for them. It’s an opportunity for stores to develop an extremely loyal clientele,” he said.
Ellen Jacobson, vice president of merchandising and design at Goddess Bra Co., Boston, said the firm has two full-figure hits for spring: a basic underwire style that is “built for ease and comfort” in the Cotton Collections group and a bandless, allover-stretch-lace bra with a support panel in the Luxurious Creations group. Both styles are available in sizes 34C to 48DDD.
“The allover-lace style looks lightweight on the outside, but it’s very supportive on the inside,” Jacobson said.
Goddess does bra sizes up to 56I. Jacobson noted the company recently has been seeing increased demand for 32D cups, and B cups in 40 and 42.
“It’s becoming more mainstream now, and full-figured women feel better about themselves,” Jacobson said. “People are accepting the fact that the average size isn’t 34B anymore. And we are getting retail support for a greater numbers of sku’s in fashion colors.”