A lack of plus-size professional clothing

Ashley Flacon

TEXT OF STORY

Kai Ryssdal: I'm more of a "Project Runway" guy than an "America's Next Top Model" guy, but I'm reliably told that on last night's season premiere of ANTM, there was a plus-size model among the finalists. It's not the first time that's happened. But it is the most recent example of the growing trend. Magazines are hiring plus-size columnists. They're putting more normal-looking models on their covers. And the industry is finally waking up to the size of the plus-sized market.

But professional women say they have been left behind, as Sally Herships reports.


SALLY HERSHIPS: I went shopping with my friend Andrea recently. We hit some Brooklyn boutiques to check out the new spring clothes. We saw some sophisticated dresses and colorful cardigans, but there was nothing for Andrea.

HERSHIPS: What do you think of this sweater?

ANDREA: It's nice, it's nice, I don't know if it would fit across all of the parts of my body.

Andrea is a size 18; that makes her what's known as plus size. There was nothing in the store that would fit her. She says that happens most of the time.

ANDREA: It's incredibly frustrating. I have money in my pocket, and I want to spend it and nobody wants to take it.

Deb Holland knows the feeling. She's a marketing executive in Dallas. Her clients are Fortune 100 companies. When she makes a presentation, she needs to look the part. That's not easy when you wear a size 26. She says only three designers make clothes she can wear for business.

DEB HOLLAND: I own everything in every one of those three lines. And I don't have enough clothes to make it through a two-week business trip.

Holland says that the lack of large size professional clothes is more than a question of fashion. It can cause real problems at work. Early in her career, Holland worked at an ad agency.

HOLLAND: We got a new president, and he walked in one day and he fired me. Because he said my wardrobe just wasn't up to his standards.

There are many casual options for women like Holland -- lots of tops and leggings and sweats at stores Like Lane Bryant. In fact, women who wear larger sizes spent $18.6 billion on apparel in 2008.

But Holland still has to have her business wardrobe tailored or custom made. And that's expensive -- hundreds of dollars for suits and blouses.

HOLLAND: It shouldn't be so hard to buy a long sleeved button down, white, good quality shirt. It just shouldn't.

So why is it so hard? There are a lot of theories out there. One of the most popular is that high-priced designers don't want to see their creations in larger sizes. Another is that a size 20 dress just doesn't look good on the rack. I wanted to ask Ann Taylor if that was behind the retailers' decision to pull its plus-sizes from stores and sell them only online instead. The store declined our requests for an interview.

But retail analyst Madison Riley says he doesn't think size is the issue.

MADISON RILEY: I don't see a stigma attached to it. Retailers are very adept in this country. It's one of the best retail markets in the world. If a retailer sees demand, they'll pursue it.

Over a third of American women are overweight enough to be classified as obese. But Riley says...

RILEY: The bulk of America, American women, is still very much in what we call a missy size range, you know, 8-16.

Which means shoppers who wear much bigger sizes are still a small group. And that group is divided into even smaller groups, because different women want different clothes. Some, like Deb Holland want professional clothes. But others want sun dresses, or maybe jeans. Riley says, for big retailers, selling to those narrow markets doesn't make economic sense.

RILEY: The inventory commitment you'd need to pursue it is just not in line with the revenue. And that's where I think the rub comes.

Some specialty retailers are finding profit in dressing plus-size professional women. Talbots clothing chain stocks bigger sizes in 200 stores.

Lizanne Kindler is senior vice president of merchandising for Talbots. She says the plus-size customer is worth pursuing.

LIZANNE KINDLER: She tends to focus on full-price shopping. She tends to spend more than the average customer when she's in the store. She tends to buy more items and more expensive items.

HERSHIPS: Wow, this sounds like the dream customer.

KINDLER: It is, which is why we believe that it's a growth initiative for us.

Retail analyst Madison Riley agrees. While shoppers like Deb Holland don't have many options now, if you'll pardon the pun, the future of plus-size fashion is growing.

In New York, I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace.

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