Byline: Rusty Williamson

DALLAS — Why does plus-size have to be frumpy? It’s a question makers — and consumers — have wrestled with. But now, thanks to a younger demographic and trend-driven silhouettes, makers are starting to close the style gap between misses’ and plus-size divisions.
Firms such as Leslie Fay, Sag Harbor, Carole Little, Liz Claiborne and McNaughton Apparel Group that target both size ranges feel all that is separating plus-size styles from their misses’ counterparts is the size itself — and maybe a 10 to 15 percent higher wholesale price to cover the cost of extra materials.
For many firms, plus-size divisions are seeing the biggest sales increases — average gains of about 20 percent. The category is getting its big boost from younger shoppers.
Company executives said plus-size teens and women in their 20s are craving more fashion today. New advertising and marketing campaigns and in-store promotions such as fashion-focus weeks are helping woo the younger crowd.
For fall, hot looks from the runways, such as animal prints — especially python and zebra — fur and leather trims, ladylike suits and textured luxury fabrics are getting lots of play in large sizes.
“If it’s OK for misses’, it has got to be OK for women’s and petites,” said Chuck Stein, vice president of sales at Leslie Fay Haberdashery in New York.
“The trend gap is narrowing. If a trend is not appropriate for large sizes, then we’re not going to run it in other divisions, either. We want all our fashion looks to be congruent in look and feel. We wouldn’t run very big bold plaids or stripes that go the wrong way in any division.”
Stein explained that style congruency is important among Leslie Fay’s labels, especially misses’ and plus sizes, because there is lots of crossover shopping between the two collections. Leslie Fay Haberdashery targets women 45 and over with its relaxed career sportswear.
“With our stretch and elastic backs, we get crossover customers. We run up to size 20 in misses’ and go from 16W to 24W in women’s,” Stein said. “The large-size woman wants to look like her misses’-size counterpart and even sometimes her junior counterpart. When she sees a fashion ad in a magazine, she envisions herself wearing it.”
For fall, Leslie Fay Haberdashery interprets a number of hot trends, including cowgirl chic, soft structure, animal prints, printed fake suede and a color story of vicuna, eggplant, olive, black and chile.
“There’s tremendous opportunity in the plus sizes,” added Stein. “We’re looking at 12 to 18 percent sales increases for women’s this year.”
At Sag Harbor, a division of Kellwood Co., St. Louis, trends aren’t limited to size ranges, said Robin Laden, divisional manager for large sizes.
“For all categories, we interpret fashion in a flattering way without eliminating the trend,” Laden said. “Both misses’ and plus-size women want apparel with a good fit and a sense of style, and sometimes the large-size consumer is more trend-conscious than her misses’ counterpart. We can tailor almost any look to suit the large-size market.”
Laden said there’s a noticeable uptick in large-size business generated by younger consumers.
“It’s a real opportunity, and it calls for us to clue into the trends more than ever,” she said.
Fall trends include animal prints such as cheetah and snake, leather and moleskin. Sag Harbor offers plus sizes in each of its three lifestyle divisions: Sag Harbor sportswear, Bice updated styles and Sag Harbor Sport casual apparel. Double-digit gains are planned this year for all three lines.
Sag Harbor has tentative plans to launch a new advertising and marketing campaign later this year, part of which will focus on plus sizes.
“Large-size customers are much more open to trends, and the trends are usually very easy to interpret for the plus-size market,” said Carole Little, designer and owner of her eponymous sportswear company based in Los Angeles. “Once in a while, we may have to adjust the darts in the top or change the sleeve, but nothing major. The plus-size woman also likes anything that shows off her body. They take pride in their appearance.”
Little, whose plus-size line is called Carole Little II, recalled how many stores used to merchandise plus-size apparel well off the beaten path.
“Now it’s out there and very well merchandised,” she said. “All the plus-size celebrities in the media now, such as Camryn Manheim, are really helping the category.”
Plus sizes generate 18 percent of the Carole Little’s total volume, and Little said the sales projection for 2000 calls for stronger increases than misses,’ though she wouldn’t cite percentages.
“The business outlook for 2000 is very strong due to better price points and fashion,” she said. “Plus sizes is a good growth area for retailers. They keep increasing their dollars.”
Fall trends at Carole Little focus on soft structure, including hip-length jackets, animal prints, tartan plaids, leather and fake fur.
At Elisabeth, the plus-size division of Liz Claiborne, fit is a key consideration when interpreting trends for the plus-size market, said Pat Kenny, vice president and general manager for the label.
“We feel very strongly that as long as the fit of the garment is right, our consumer can wear any style, color or pattern. This fall, we are looking to offer several new silhouettes, including longer skirts, barn jackets, zipper jackets and colored stretch jeans.”
Kenney believes the trend gap between misses’ and plus sizes is narrowing.
“However, if a designer is just scaling up their misses’ sizes, the plus-size consumer may not receive the attention to detail and fit that is needed to ensure they can wear a specific item and feel comfortable. It is important to remember that there has to be a balance; that fashion and fit must be combined.”
Among the fall trends at Elisabeth are laser-cut trims and feminine embroidery, animal and floral prints and textured fabrics such as faux suede and stretch velvet. Colors include golden neutrals and shades of orange and blue.”
At Norton McNaughton in New York, trend styling variables are factored into the company’s signature misses’ label and its Maggie McNaughton plus-size collections, said Lynne Fish, executive vice president of merchandising.
“The current trend in styling right now are looks that are cleaner and more simplified with less emphasis on embellishment. This works well for both customer bases,” she said, citing jackets and tunics that work well in both size ranges.
“The longer, 36-inch jacket has been good for both divisions, and we will be putting shorter, boxier styles in our misses’ line,” she said. “We will be putting different pant styles in the Maggie line this fall that are flattering to this customer, with stomach insert panels and side elastic waistbands for comfort.”
Like many other vendors who offer plus sizes, Maggy McNaughton is addressing younger consumers.
“This customer wants to be offered clothing that is fashionable,” said Fish. “We try to offer our Maggie customer the important trends that are tailored to her needs.”
For fall, she cited stretch comfort fabrics, boucle suitings and chunky sweaters with flannel cutout skirts.
“The boucle suitings work well for both misses’ and Maggie customers,” Fish said. “We will style the jackets to be longer and more relaxed and merchandise them over solid pants in tricotine in Maggie. For misses’, we will make the jacket shorter and boxier and merchandise it with boucle bottoms, giving a more suited look. The chunky sweaters are more difficult for the Maggy customer as many of them are with turtlenecks. We will offer the Maggy customer this sweater look but with a V neck or a crew neck so it is not as constricting on the neckline.”
Norton McNaughton is planning double-digit gains this year in its misses’ and large-size divisions.
The company recently launched a new ad campaign in the March issues of major women’s magazines, with the tag line, “It Just Looks Expensive.”
When interpreting fashion trends for large sizes, some companies tailor their collections to specific stores’ needs.
“At the department store level, buyers see the large-size customers as an extension of the misses’ business, and fashions are more conservatively styled,” said Ellen Becker, vice president for design and merchandising at Requirements, based in New York.
“Specialty stores consider the plus-size consumer more updated and forward, and we do a lot of private label plus sizes that are trendier,” Becker said. “The most contemporary styling often sells best, such as embellished capri pants or younger-looking sweaters.”
Requirements is planning to increase both its misses’ and large-size lineup this year, though Becker wouldn’t cite numbers.

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