PLUS-SIZE PETITES: THE PITFALLS & POSSIBILITIES

Byline: Rusty Williamson

DALLAS — Moderate plus-size vendors are chasing the women’s petites business with determination and a bit of frustration.
Though they called plus-size petites a formidable market and said there’s business to be done, makers such as Sag Harbor, Leslie Fay, Notations, Carole Little and others said that dressing short and stocky women poses unique challenges that require creative solutions.
That’s why several of the companies are slowly wading into the business, even though they’ve produced regular plus-size labels for years.
So what’s the reluctance? Fitting the women’s plus-size petite customers, typically defined as someone 5 feet 4 inches or shorter and a size 14 or larger, requires a big commitment not only from the vendor but from the stores that will carry the merchandise.
The plus-size market last year generated $26 billion at retail, and petites is the fastest-growing segment of the plus-size category, according to industry sources.
But writing pattern specifications for the classification can be a technical nightmare and often requires hiring several fit models of various physical proportions.
Designers also walk a tightrope finding styles that will flatter these women. As for trends, not everything will work. Some looks to avoid are graphic colorblocking or wide-belted styles that divide the torso, sleeveless tops that draw attention to the upper arms, elongated jackets that make legs look shorter and oversize prints that simply overwhelm the wearer, according to industry executives.
What looks best, they said, are styles that minimize and lengthen the silhouette, including small broken prints, thin pinstripes, small windowpane plaids, shirtdresses, tunics worn over stretch pants and colors such as red, black and navy.
“It’s a much harder customer to fit than the normal plus-size woman. It requires extra patterns and a whole new size scale,” said Kurt Erman, president and chief executive officer at Notations, a New York-based dress and sportswear firm that is launching women’s petites for holiday.
“Plus-size petite women want the same fashion look as other women, but the styles require shorter specifications,” Erman said. “We’re going to start slowly with 10 or 15 basic styles and keep it simple at first. We’re going to get out there and get a feel for the market, because there are lots of plus-size petite women in the U.S. We were asked to do the line by some major stores.”
Regular plus sizes generate nearly 40 percent of Notations yearly volume, and the area is growing by double digits each year. Erman was reluctant to project sales figures for the new women’s petites business.
Bob Salem, director of marketing at the Leslie Fay Co., said a chief hurdle facing plus-size petites is finding coveted floor space at major department stores.
“Because of space problems, we have a retail community that is not recognizing the money to be made with women’s petites,” Salem said. “The supply is not up to the demand for the American plus-size consumer, especially the petite segment. It is a really neglected market and a dissatisfied consumer group.
“As a vendor, we believe the margin for error is very small, because you’ve first got to get the retailer to devote space to this business, and if you have a flawed design, you will fail with that consumer. We’re selling smarter and doing very progressive marketing outreach programs across the board, including to the regular plus-size and women’s petite customers.”
Leslie Fay routinely stages plus-size seminars and style shows at its major accounts. Salem said consumer feedback consistently reinforces that women’s petites customers are brand-conscious and want to wear hot fashion trends.
“If you want to make the women’s petite customer look long and trim, don’t sell her a sportswear outfit with a white shirt and black pants,” Salem said. “When you divide, you shorten. Instead, go with small broken prints, because they draw the eye to the print and not the silhouette. We sold out of capri pants for spring, and they’re fine for this customer as long as they fit properly. When it comes to large sizes, short or otherwise, fashion is king.”
Plus-size apparel, including petites, generates about 15 percent of Leslie Fay’s annual volume. Salem said the company hopes to double the business with continued in-store consumer-outreach programs, including seminars, style shows and offering retailers its branded plus-size fixtures at no cost.
“We’re producing Leslie Fay large-size displays with Lucite toppers so that there is some identity and clarity for the label,” he added. “When our Web site is complete, we’ll also have a vast amount of information, including links, for plus-size customers.”
Sag Harbor is launching several women’s petites styles for early spring, said Robin Laden, divisional merchandise manager for large sizes, noting that the company has done such styles occasionally before but never in depth.
“We see the category as a definite opportunity,” Laden said. “We will offer women’s petites in all groupings when it will fit in and enhance. Fit is the big issue, and not everything will work.
“The most important factor is the pants issue. It’s a little different fit, and the length and the rise are affected when you’re targeting a shorter woman. It’s all about proportion, whether pants, sleeves or collars.”
The plus-size division now generates about 25 percent of Sag Harbor’s annual volume, noted Laden, who projected double-digit growth over the next year, due in part to women’s petites.
Like Sag Harbor, Carole Little also produces women’s petites and integrates the styles into its regular plus-size collections.
“The large-size petite customer is a part of the business, and you have to pay attention to her needs,” said Giorgi Duval, senior vice president of sales at Carole Little.
“We try to find silhouettes that will work on the shorter women’s body, including shorter jackets, cropped or tapered pants, shirts with three-quarter sleeves and shorter skirts,” she added. “They also like smaller prints. It’s all about balance. Within our plus-size division, we have a specialist who travels to stores and plays up the fact that we offer women’s petites.”
Plus-size clothing accounts for about 20 percent of the annual sales at Carole Little and is one of the company’s fastest-growing divisions. It offers plus sizes under two brands: Carole Little for St. Tropez II, which is a moderate label, and Carole Little II, a better label.
Last fall, Tandy Peterson, a plus-size industry veteran who for 20 years owned the now-closed Chez California dress house, opened a new “super-size” sportswear business for spring called Tandy Connection’s, which is based in Dallas.
Super sizes, she explained, range from 4x to 6x and equate to sizes 28 to 34. Within the next year, she plans to add super-size petites to her collection.