NEW YORK — Teens always struggle with their self-esteem, and a lack of fashion choices for girls who wear size 15 and above hasn’t helped matters for that group.

According to the June 2001 “American Demographics,” the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey, 14 percent of teens aged 12 to 19 and 13 percent of children aged 6 to 11 are potential plus-size junior customers.

Now, more junior brands have ventured into the plus-size arena offering merchandise that’s equally as trendy as their core collections. Retailers said they are looking for more, as soon as they can find the floor space.

Kelly Martin, junior buyer for Fred Meyer, a Portland, Ore.-based chain with about 300 units, said the retailer is testing a small collection of plus-sized junior apparel mixed in with the junior clothing in 121 doors, but finding floor space for a plus-size junior department is an issue.

“I would eventually love to see this expand into a separate department, since it is a very important area,” she said. “But if this tests well, I think we will do it.”

So far, Martin said the testing is going well, and Fred Meyer has considered moving the collections to mix with plus-size women’s clothes, but doesn’t think it will work as well.

“The junior customer who is plus-sized wants to buy clothes that her friends are wearing,” she said. “Her mother might shop in the plus-size department, so she doesn’t want to shop there. Juniors has a whole new attitude, which she wants to experience with her friends.”

Sears has been offering junior plus-size clothing since 1998, and according to Diane Paccione, vice president, division merchandise manager for ready-to-wear, it is performing well and will likely be expanded for fall.

“This is an excellent business for us,” she said. “And we plan to expand our selection of screened T-shirts and denim, since those items sell the best.”

Sears has found success in merchandising the junior plus-size apparel within the existing women’s plus-size collection. This way, Paccione said, the customer has more of a choice and can mix her junior clothes with women’s basics in her size.

“We tried to sell the collection in the junior department and it failed,” she said, noting that some of the older plus-size customers also like to buy some junior plus-size pieces.

Out of the 863 Sears doors, the junior plus-size clothes are selling in 500 locations, and Paccione called on heavy hitters in the junior sportswear market to come out with plus-size lines.

“I would love to see brands like Mudd and LEI come out with plus-sized denim,” she said.

Many junior brands, including One Step Up, Tag Rag, Zana-di, L.A. Movers, Paris Blues, Self Esteem, Fubu and Younique have all added plus-sizes to their collections. However, most department stores are focused on big brands such as Guess, XOXO, Rampage and Esprit de Corp., none of which currently offer large-size apparel.

The Bon Ton is another department store chain that realizes the need for plus-sized junior sportswear. According to a spokeswoman, Bon Ton would consider finding the floor space if there were enough offerings from vendors.

“Our biggest problem is that our key vendors do not offer plus-sized apparel,” she said. “If they did, we would look into taking it. Floor space can be altered and room will be made to meet the demands of our customers.”

Torrid, a relatively new retail concept developed by Hot Topic stores, is a destination for the junior customer sized 14 to 26. The company opened six test stores across the country in late April and has found such success that it plans to open 15 more stores beginning in May.

“It all began when we started getting requests from customers at Hot Topic saying they wanted to see some higher sizes,” said Christine Thompson, marketing manager for Torrid. “After further research, we found that what they really wanted was their own store.”

While Torrid does carry about 10 percent of same merchandise as Hot Topic, Thompson stressed that the store does stand on its own with a variety of choices the customer will not see at the parent chain. She said that while the clothes are just as edgy as they are at Hot Topic, they are also more “girly.”

While retailers seem open to expanding their array of junior plus-size fashions, there are vendors who understand the troubles of filling this customer’s needs.

Jackie Wilson, president of the Syracuse, N.Y.-based Ransom, a new junior line that offers sizes 2 to 32 in its collection, said she finds that the biggest problem that retailers face is finding enough floor space.

“I find that they just don’t know where to place it: in juniors or in women’s,” Wilson said. “They know the business is out there. If it was my choice, I would suggest incorporating it within junior departments. The traditional plus customer shops in plus. The junior girl shops in the junior department where their friends are shopping.”

Despite these issues, Wilson said bookings are encouraging at Ransom and that she is planning to move ahead and continue offering the clothes in lower and higher size ranges. Popular trends for the junior plus-size line are halter tops, lace-up and screened T-shirts. Peasant tops and flowing skirts are booking, as well as activewear-inspired items such as zip-up fleece hoodies.

“We understand that fashion does not stop at size 7,” Wilson said. “So, we design for the junior customer, where the clothes are needed.”

Constance Burge, vice president of merchandising at Chica, a Gardena, Calif.-based junior brand, said the company offers a variety of T-shirts for the plus-sized junior customer.

“This junior plus-size market seems to be a major opportunity for us,” she said. “What we offer is booking very well. There are so many regular junior brands out there. A large percentage of these junior customers can’t fit into that.”

Unlike Wilson, Burge believes that in order for the merchandise to sell, it needs a department of its own.

“The merchandise can’t blend with juniors,” she said. “It has to be set apart so people know it’s there.”

Burge said that while she understands that the development of a junior plus-size department is a major corporate decision on the retailer’s part, it is a necessary one.

“If they were to incorporate the plus-size junior clothes within the plus-size misses’ departments, the existing plus-size department would have to be completely redefined so the customer understands that it is not just for the misses’ customer,” she added.

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