Brands, boutiques see opportunities in plus-size retail

When Amanda Medina tagged along on shopping outings with her female relatives as a teenager, she noticed that they often had trouble finding appealing clothes in larger sizes.

Despite the racks piled with clothing at department and discount stores, plus-size dresses, pants and tops tended to be ill-fitting, more expensive than smaller sizes or offered in muted patterns and solid colors — when they were even in stock.

It made Medina's relatives fearful of going shopping because few items fit and they often left the dressing room feeling worse about themselves than when they came in, she said.

"They couldn't just walk in anywhere and find things," Medina said. "Nothing fit, or the material and prints were bad. Just because you're a bigger girl doesn't mean you want to wear black all the time."

Their experiences inspired the Troy native to open a boutique catering to women of all sizes and shapes. She opened Topsy Curvy Boutique in 2016 on Congress Street before relocating to a bigger space on Second Street last year. The store sells cocktail and event dresses, some casual wear, sweaters, scarves, hats and jewelry.

Medina originally planned to only sell clothes for plus-size women, generally defined as a "Misses" size 14 and up, but she encountered a familiar problem: frustrated by their in-store experience, her target customer was looking for bigger sizes online and buying from e-commerce brands. She began selling a bigger range of sizes and is working on setting up an online store for the boutique that will offer more items.

"It was hard to keep investing if they weren't coming in, but I get it because I saw what my family went through," Medina said.

The plus-size market represents an opportunity for retailers — research by industry groups generally puts it between $18 billion and $20 billion and growing steadily, and plus-size clothing makes up about 10 percent of retail sales.

Teens have fueled part of the push: The percentage of U.S. teens buying plus-size clothing grew from 19 percent in 2012 to 34 percent in 2015, according to NPD Group. With the average American woman wearing between a size 16 and 18, according to a study by Washington State University assistant professor Deborah Christel, some have argued that the term "plus-size" is problematic because it categorizes a growing share of women and reinforces negative stereotypes.

After feeling ignored or mistreated by the fashion and retail industries for decades, women are leaving the brick-and-mortar stores and turning instead to e-commerce brands meeting their needs. While entrepreneurs and Internet startups may not have the name-brand recognition of established retailers like Lane Bryant, they're seizing a growing share of the market.

"These e-tailers are filling a huge gap," said Beth DuFault, an assistant business professor at the University at Albany. "They've discovered the plus-size market."

After The Limited shuttered plus-size fashion brand Eloquii in 2013, the retailer relaunched as an independent online-only label a year later selling occasion dresses, tops, workwear and other items in sizes 14 to 28. The brand has doubled sales annually since then, hitting about $80 million last year, MarketWatch reported. Monif C, Eight & Sand, Torrid, ModCloth and other companies offering fashion-forward clothing in larger sizes have seen similar success.

The disconnect between mainstream retailers and customers has been credited to lower sales levels, lack of devoted resources and higher manufacturing and labor costs associated with designing plus-size clothing. DuFault said traditional retailers often have misplaced ideas about consumers' preferences, and design students looking to the runway for their inspiration often don't see curvier, larger models.

"Brick-and-mortar retailers stayed in this old mindset about what women want," she said. "The average size American woman wants to be wearing fashion that's stylish, modern and trendy, but to be stuck in some old-fashioned design style — nobody's going to buy that."

DuFault also credits online brands' success to reinforcing a pleasant shopping experience for customers. Department and discount stores often have a limited selection of plus-size clothing that's relegated to a separate section apart from other sizes, while online brands can offer a greater range of options and styles. The clothing is often cut differently to better fit a range of shapes and curves and arrives in attractive packaging.

"They're delivering a spectacular experience," she said. "They design and create the clothes with care, and you're treated as a valuable customer."

A customer's in-store experience is one of the factors Medina focuses on to set Topsy Curvy apart from other brick-and-mortar retailers. She acts as a personal shopper for some customers, surprising them with finds she thinks they will like, and in some cases works with designers directly on developing new styles, taking what she's heard from customers back to them.

"I want my women to leave the store feeling valued, fabulous and comfortable in their skin," Medina said.

Legacy companies have begun to adapt, with brands like JCPenney, Michael Kors and Target adding collections with more fits and cuts, and curvier models are hitting the runway at fashion shows.

Bloggers, Instagram influencers, activists and plus-size models like Ashley Graham with "the cultural capital to be able to influence the institutions" are another factor behind this shift in the retail and fashion industries, DuFault said.

Events and marketing campaigns celebrating diverse shapes and sizes have also helped. Curvention, an annual event in Albany that includes a variety show of music, comedy, fashion and poetry for plus-size women, celebrated its fifth year in 2017 and will return in 2019 after a brief break. The organizers — Samantha Pittman, Laquisha Rucker and Winell Soures — said ideas about what plus-size women can or cannot wear have begun to change as a result of these factors.

"In the past it was, 'You need to cover that up, put that away, tuck that in,'" Rucker said. "It makes plus-size women become shadows of themselves with no personality or dimension in their clothing."

Beyond educating women on new styles and trends, the event is aimed at "the woman in the clothes," the organizers said. In many cases, participants have self-esteem issues because they've been teased and insulted about their weight. Curvention isn't about glorifying obesity, but rather helping women modify and embrace the body they're in, the organizers said.

With more brands making clothing cut and styled for a range of shapes, more women are feeling confident in "owning their curves and not apologizing for it" and the Curvention organizers are hopeful that this trend will continue.

"We are the majority, but we're not represented as that," Pittman said. "It needs to happen because one curve doesn't fit everyone, and we're not going anywhere." • 518-454-5018 • @madisoniszler

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