Big Women, Big Profits

Diane Odom, an Alabama marketing executive, walked into a fashionable boutique in Manhattan's Rockefeller Center a few weeks ago and surveyed the merchandise with a skeptical eye. What would she find that would be right for her? When she walked out two hours later, she was carrying two Italian suede suits, a classic black wool pantsuit and a stunning beaded red gown with a matching cape edged in fox. She had spent $14,000. But the price wasn't the only shock. The biggest surprise was her size - 18.

Big sizes have become big business. In The Forgotten Woman, the boutique where Odom found her new wardrobe, sales are booming. "We are not going to take part in any recession," says its founder and CEO, Nancye Radmin. She's not kidding. The large-size industry grew 25 percent last year, compared with only 7 percent for the rest of the women's and children's clothing business. In the past decade, annual large-size sales have surged from $2 billion to $10 billion. There are now more than 100 specialty stores catering to the bigger woman, and department stores are rapidly adding large-size divisions. Even top designers like Oscar de la Renta and Bob Mackie - who would never have made anything as imperfect as a size 14 a few years ago - have weighed in, offering their ample creations at The Forgotten Woman's new boutique.

After years of pretending that no one wears any size larger than a 6, Seventh Avenue is finally realizing that there are plenty of big women with deep pockets. "I think the perception used to be that all fat women were poor and lived in trailers," says Deborah Eden, an advertising executive for BBW (Big Beautiful Woman) magazine. As a result, the clothing industry targeted an impossibly slender customer while heavy women hungered for fashionable clothes. Now the larger woman is coming out of the closet and demanding style in all sizes. Fed up with uselessly pummeling and depriving her body (99 percent of successful dieters gain back their loss within five years) she's giving voice to a new esthetic: "Big is beautiful," she says. "Besides, I'm doing the best I can."

A new group of large-as-life celebrities has helped set the tone. After losing 67 highly public pounds in 1988, Oprah Winfrey has been steadily putting them back on for the past two years. Delta Burke, a former Miss Florida, faces the world plump and proud on TV's "Designing Women."

They are just two of the more than 35 million women in America who wear a size 14 or larger. These customers are tailor-made for a recession. While others can make do with what they have, the large-size customer is still building her wardrobe. For years, choices were so limited that large women bought almost anything that fit. Lane Bryant, the original "fat-lady shop," was doing a $200 million business in 1982, even though it sold dingy dusters made of polyester so thick it looked bullet-proof. That year the store was bought by The Limited and updated to attract a more fashion-conscious customer. By 1988, annual sales reached $1 billion.

Lane Bryant's success did not go unnoticed. Major labels like Liz Claiborne and Adrienne Vittadini have added large-size divisions in the last two years. Spiegel which recently opened its fourth For You shop for larger women in Chicago, will launch two new stores in Washington, D.C., this August. Lord & Taylor expanded its large-size division to target a trendy, career-oriented customer interested in the same Pucci-print blouses thinner women wear. Even Saks Fifth Avenue, which had resisted reopening the large-size department it closed more than a decade ago recently relented. By next fall, Saks will have departments for the bigger woman in several stores.

It's surprising the big boom took so long to explode. As anyone who has seen a cross section of Americans at Disney World knows, America is not predominantly a size 8 nation. According to Hara Marano, author of the upcoming book "Style Is Not A Size," the average American woman is a little under 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighs 146 pounds and wears a size 12/14. "There are as many size 18s as there are size 8s," says Marano, who claims that only 25 percent of American women are both tall and thin, yet 95 percent of fashion is directed at this "model" customer. "No wonder the industry is in trouble," she says.

Although fashion has always been pitched to the young and thin crowd, today's styles - form-fitting Lycra stretch miniskirts, for example seem more explicitly (and exclusively) aimed at them. New York retail analyst Walter Levy says that one of the reasons for declining sales in women's clothes is that "the baby-boom generation is getting older and designers are still designing for a younger woman who is more their ideal than a reality." The figures show that despite media emphasis on exercise and low-fat diets, women may actually be getting heavier. In a study done by the National Center for Health Statistics from 1976 to 1980, the average American woman weighed 138 pounds. By 1988, according to Marano, she weighed 146.

The news doesn't surprise Nancye Radmin. Since 1977, when she opened The Forgotten Woman in New York, she has made a crusade of persuading manufacturers to produce large-size styles. A wealthy woman who was accustomed to wearing designer clothes, Radmin got mad when she couldn't find anything fashionable to fit her postpregnancy bulk. "Fat was the F word of fashion," she says. "Absolutely nothing stylish was available." She asked her husband to give her $10,000 to start her own shop and stocked it with large-size copies of the designer outfits she wore in her thinner days. "I just knew I wasn't the only fat woman in New York," declares Radmin. Sure enough, her little boutique ballooned to a big business that now includes 25 shops around the country with annual sales of $40 million.

In The Forgotten Woman, style is more important than size. In a kind of fashion newspeak that would impress George Orwell, the store has renumbered the sizes on all its merchandise. Real-life sizes 14-24 are transformed on labels into sizes 1-6. Even in an industry built on dreams, this gives new meaning to the concept of fashion illusion. It also helps build larger women's self-esteem and encourages them to indulge their impulses. "I'm tired of putting my life on hold and not buying something I like so I can get it in some future time when I tell myself I'll be thin," says advertising executive Eden. "I want to live now."

Of course, the new enthusiasm has its price. A Givenchy En Plus ensemble from The Forgotten Woman can cost more than a thousand dollars. "In the old days, shopping for large sizes was so humiliating it was really punitive," says Mary Duffy, the size-16 founder of Big Beauties modeling agency in New York City. "They really made you pay for that last piece of pizza." Now overweight women are paying for fashion the same way everyone else does - through the nose.