For years, fashion advice for larger women has come in one size: wear black and avoid stripes. Now, many women are embracing their curves and demanding that retailers cater to them, not the other way round.
Hot Topic Inc. and Fifth & Pacific Cos.'s Lucky Brand are among several retailers selling clothes -- including striped skirts -- to women who want to be just as fashionable as their skinnier sisters. On blogs and social media, millennials -- who are aged about 18 to 34 -- have appropriated the F Word and dubbed the new looks "fatshion," a rebuke to an industry that still employs waif-like models to sell its wares.
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Torrid, Hot Topic's plus-size brand, has introduced figure- hugging Stiletto skinny jeans made extra stretchy, boosted its selection of intimates and added a "Look Book" section to its website, highlighting such trends as fashionable work clothes and pops of color.
"For so long, women have been told by the fashion elite that they can't wear horizontal stripes, everything they wear should be loose and they should steer away from anything that's form-fitting and tailored," said Catherine Moellering, executive vice president of Tobe, a New York-based fashion retail consulting firm. "This younger generation isn't interested in their rules."
Retailers are betting that new fabrics and styles will help lift U.S. sales of plus-size women's apparel, which grew 1 percent in the year ending June 2012 to $15.4 billion, while the overall women's apparel industry grew 3 percent to $108 billion, according to NPD Group, a Port Washington, New York-based market research firm.
The potential market is worth chasing because the average American woman is a size 14, and plus-sizes, often classified as 14 to 34, account for 67 percent of the population, according to Houston-based Plunkett Research Ltd.
Retailers investing in fashion-forward plus-size apparel appear to have the leeway to take on additional risk. Hot Topic trades at a 25 percent premium to the Standard & Poor's 500 Retailing Index on a price-to-earnings basis while Hennes & Mauritz AB, which has introduced an H&M plus-size line, trades at a 13 percent premium. Fifth & Pacific also trades at a premium to the index.
Signs of a shift in attitudes toward plus-size women are rife in the popular culture. Grammy-award-winning singer Adele Adkins and actress Queen Latifah, both full-figured women, urge fans to embrace their shapes. Meanwhile, pop star Lady Gaga, a slighter woman, has made acceptance a cornerstone of her image with the hit album "Born This Way."
Each month, fashion magazine Marie Claire exposes its 15 million readers to such subjects as "fool-proof layering" and figure-flattering winter coats in its "Big Girl in a Skinny World" column. InStyle magazine is introducing a "Great Style Has No Size" page starting with its October issue.
The rise of a sharing culture where anyone can be a celebrity is key to promoting fatshion and removing the stigma associated with plus sizes, said Nicolette Mason, the 26-year-old who writes the Marie Claire column.
"Every single person with an iPhone or an Instagram account or Internet access can create a platform," Mason said in an interview. "It's kind of normalizing and making things more visible for the average person."
After becoming Hot Topic's chief executive officer last year, Lisa Harper ditched Mr. Pinkerton, a canine mascot for the retailer's Torrid chain. The bespectacled dog wore a bowtie and suit and told customers what to wear, which seemed "patronizing" and "totally inappropriate," she said.
The 11-year-old brand replaced Mr. Pinkerton with an "I am Torrid" campaign to reposition the chain as a fashion destination for sexy, voluptuous young women. The campaign features sultry black-and-white images of plus-size women wearing intimate apparel and denim that's tailored to their bodies. Its Facebook page shares popular fashions, such as chiffon tops and seasonal colors, without emphasizing that Torrid targets women sized 12 and up.
"These girls that we're finding are independent and have a point of view and a voice and they're becoming more bold," Harper said. "We've reworked the brand to refocus on fashion, pure and simple, without the apologies, without the curvy conversation, the body type or any of that."
Retailers may find it challenging to jump into the market because it's expensive to make clothes for plus-size women, as bodies tend to change in more ways above a size 14 than below that. For designs to suit those changes, they require more research and often additional and different fabrics. Eloquii, a plus-size brand started last year by closely held The Limited, offers five different body "shapes" on its website, of diamond, teardrop, heart, infinity and emerald.
Researching fabrics for curvy women is a departure for designers of contemporary clothes, who have less experience in this area than their counterparts at such athletic-wear companies as LuluLemon Athletica Inc., said Liz Crystal, chief marketing officer at Lane Bryant. The chain, which has long sold plus-size fashion, is introducing a "Fashion, Fit Right" marketing campaign this month to stress it has the latest trends and best fits. Established in 1904, Lane Bryant has more than 700 locations.
Waistlines in the U.S. have long been growing, as more than one-third of adults and 18 percent of children are obese, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The total rate may rise to 42 percent by 2030.
"Fifteen years ago, when I started, it was just older women's fashion," said Marita Aikonen, who oversees an online- only plus-size line for Gap Inc.'s Old Navy brand. The full- figured population now includes a range of ages, said Aikonen, who started a similar collection at Levi Strauss & Co.
Rising numbers of larger women helped The Limited CEO Linda Heasley pitch Eloquii to investors. Since rolling out inside the company's namesake stores, Eloquii has proved sufficiently popular to expand to standalone locations next year, Heasley said.
"This customer has a significant voice and a lot of that's been aided by social media," she said. While women of all ages are showing interest in plus-size fashion, "there are these wonderful young women that are helping to remove the stigma associated with it," she said.
Hot Topic, based in City of Industry, California, is opening 45 Torrid stores this year and increasing its strip-mall locations, CEO Harper said. The chain, which will end the fiscal year at 192 stores, may ultimately be a 600-store concept, she said.
"We definitely see that opportunity," she said. "The overwhelming message that comes out is: be comfortable with yourself and dress yourself to your best advantage."