NEW YORK — The women’s plus-size market isn’t underserved, said Raphael Benaroya, president of the specialty chain Avenue, it’s just not well served.
“I don’t see any plus-sized women walking around naked,” Benaroya said in a discussion shortly before introducing a sample of Avenue’s new spring and summer assortments Tuesday at a company store here on Third Avenue. Rather, he said, while there are plenty of apparel choices for plus-sized women, very few retailers serve her correctly with a variety of fashionable clothes, shoes and accessories from career to casual to lingerie.
That diversification for women’s sizes 12 to 32 is precisely Avenue’s main goal. And what further differentiates Avenue’s concept, Benaroya said, is that the merchandise is designed with the attitude — not necessarily the size — of its target customer foremost in mind. Core customers are seen as aspirational, independent and confident. While obviously size plays a part in merchandise designs, “we address fashion first, size last,” Benaroya said.
The Avenue brand is owned by the publicly held company United Retail Group Inc., formerly a unit of The Limited, now Limited Brands Inc. In the second quarter ended July 31, United Retail posted a loss of $1.6 million, or 12 cents a share, on a total sales decrease of 3.3 percent to $101.3 million. That compared with a loss of $4.2 million, or 33 cents, in the year-earlier period.
The now 550-unit Avenue brand was formed when United Retail converted stores from two other plus-sized retailers, Size Unlimited and Lerner Woman (both owned at that time by The Limited), to Avenue stores in 1991. Today, Avenue is relaunching its whole concept, which Benaroya hopes will help the chain grow to about 1,000 stores.
“Either you change or you go out,” said Benaroya, referring to a defining moment when he woke up one morning and realized he didn’t like anything in the Avenue stores.
So Benaroya brought in an ex-Federated Department Stores designer, Joann Fielder, who started as the company’s chief design officer six months ago. Fielder is redesigning Avenue’s spate of entirely proprietary merchandise, saying at a recent preview that, when she joined Avenue, the retailer’s fashions were a bit off trend. She conceded that the company still has to “play a little catch-up.”
Nonetheless, certain of the outfits displayed at the preview had an aggressive flair, including long, lean shorts in soft colors that fall to just below the knee and several tastefully designed floral patterns, emphasizing “the feel of the tropics,” in both shirts and skirts. Spring tops feature spandex knot-cut shirts and double- and triple-layer mesh shirts. Most tops feature certain varieties of embellishments, such as beads, lace trims and embroidery. Apparel price points run from $15 to $100.
Other new spring fashions include cropped pants for the workplace that come in four colors and slimming, long, full-length trousers. Shades of pink and lavender are expected to remain popular colors going into spring, and fabrics such as bouclé will add texture to outfits, Fielder said.
Benaroya also touted Avenue’s undergarment line, called Avenue Body, as a one-of-a-kind offering for the plus-sized woman. Terri Meichner, senior vice president of Avenue Body, said the company’s “shapewear” garments — including popular seamless panties called Cheeky’s — currently has nine items and four more will be available in spring. Avenue Body price points run from $15 to $32.
In the end, Avenue demonstrates that plus sizes for women have come a long way — from muumuus and polyester, as Benaroya noted — to flattering floral designs and even shorts.