Canada’s new fashion leader: the plus-sized woman

Top retailers are marketing to the larger woman like never before, and no wonder: sales are growing at three times the overall rate

Canada’s growing obesity rate and the resulting junk food backlash are well known, but as sizes have increased, another transformation has been quietly underway: this one in the fashion world. A perennial wallflower at the fashion show for decades, the plus-size woman is now being eagerly wooed by apparel marketers across Canada and around the world.

So who’s defined as plus-size these days? It depends. In the mass market, it’s any woman who wears size 14 or larger. In haute couture, where a ludicrous ‘size zero’ is the holy grail, anyone whose girth is upwards of size 10 is strictly beyond the pale.

So why are plus-size women finally so popular? Demographics and corresponding buying power.

Roughly 30% of Canadian women now wear size 14 and up, according to Statistics Canada, and at least two-thirds of American women are now overweight.

That’s a far statistical cry from the situation a couple of decades ago, when the average woman wore size eight and a fashion buyer for a major retailer thought nothing of displaying a callous attitude toward larger customers. Asked why so many plus-size clothes were made of hideous polyester, she drawled, ‘Well, these women eat a lot, right? So they probably spill a lot and have to keep washing their clothes. So why not give them polyester?’

Today’s radically different perspective was recently typified by a no-nonsense remark from Dorrit Bern, CEO of Lane Bryant, the leading American plus-size retailer: ‘Our customer is the average woman, not the minority.’

Bern’s counterparts on this side of the border obviously agree. Says Toronto-based Brian Burgess, general merchandise manager for The Bay: ‘We consider the plus-size customer as just a size extension. She wants the same level of fashion, service and ambience within the store as any other person and we intend to make sure she gets it.’

And ever since a newly appointed Burgess took a ‘disappointing’ tour of The Bay’s Above Average department in its flagship Toronto store two years ago, he says he’s been determined to make that intention a reality.

‘Above Average used to be just an afterthought at the back of the store…where, instead of the kind of shops and imaging you saw on the rest of the floor, there was just a sea of racks.’

But today, Burgess says The Bay’s plus-size clothing departments are enticingly merchandised areas in prominent positions within the stores. The stock consists of ever-increasing lines and varieties of clothing including exclusive-to-The Bay labels such as INC, Nine & Company and Nine West. ‘Now, Above Average is something our whole team is proud of and excited by, and so are our customers.’

The same logic and sentiments apply to Wal-Mart Canada, says Toronto-based corporate communications manager Kevin Groh.

‘We knew that plus-size customers were traditionally under-served and we decided to be the exception by just taking within the standard course of our business that we’ll be serving these customers. And we go a step further to recognize that it’s not good enough just to provide her with clothing; we want to provide her with the options that have been so lacking.’

Groh says a glaring example was intimate apparel, which is why Wal-Mart launched its Curvations line in fall 2003. ‘It’s the first intimate apparel brand designed specifically for [plus-size women] and it’s been hugely popular.’

What prompted the change of heart evident at Wal-Mart, The Bay and other retailers, says retail analyst John Torella, a senior partner at Toronto’s JC Williams Group, is that ‘they just started to listen to the consumer and saw the push-back that segment was giving them in terms of wanting not just clothing, but more up-to-date fashion.’

Listening to customers in the stores and in focus groups is already paying off handsomely for the marketers who are catering to plus-size customers. Industry Canada recently reported that sales in this segment now account for about 25% of the overall women’s clothing market. And in 2001, while overall apparel sales in Canada grew by only 2.6%, sales of size 14 and up clothing rose by 8.3%.

In the U.S. that same year, general clothing sales dropped 4.3% overall, but plus-size sales increased by 11%, according to Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Fashionworld.

While The Bay’s Burgess declines to cite actual sales figures since Above Average was revamped, he says ‘our most profitable increase has come from that segment… which is why we are planning that size range more aggressively than any other size we carry.’

Even Cotton Ginny, a Canadian retailer which has served the plus-size market for most of its 25-year history, is currently adding emphasis to its larger line, Cotton Ginny Plus, says Toronto-based Lorena Santin-Andrade, director of product design.

‘We were one of the first [chains] to offer plus-size customers natural fibres and we’re now introducing new fabrications in knit and woven co-ordinates for them. We’re also currently looking at improving our merchandising and overall visual presentation’ in the 140 Cotton Ginny stores that carry the plus line.’

As for the future, apparel marketers are very much aware of the demographic reality that youngsters are growing significantly larger than in the past and therefore represent a continuing market for plus-size clothing. A study funded by the Canadian Population Health Initiative revealed the number of overweight Canadian girls leapt from 13% in 1981 to 27% in 1997.

No wonder Torella says, ‘It’s the younger customers who are really driving most of [the impetus]. Regardless of their size, they definitely want the looks that are in.’

Reitmans Canada responded to that demand for more youthful fashion when it launched its MXM line about two years ago, says Montreal-based marketing/visual director Trudy Crane.

‘MXM is the junior plus line for our more trendy customer and she is represented in our advertising by Mia Tyler, who is the daughter of Steven Tyler from Aerosmith and the sister of [actress] Liv Tyler.’

Crane adds that, by purchasing Penningtons and Addition Elle – Canada’s leading plus-size suppliers – in 1995, Reitmans had already identified ‘an eager and significant market.’ It has since grown the chains to 128 and 67 stores respectively, in addition to 49 Addition Elle Fashion Outlets.

Fashion choices for larger women are burgeoning, partly thanks to the arrival of new players, notably City of Industry, Calif.-based fashion retailer Hot Topic’s new Torrid line and H&M’s BIB line (see ‘H&M’s ‘cheap chic’ takes Toronto by storm’ on page 7).

But not everyone in the fashion world is getting the message about the lucrative market segment they’ve been ignoring for so long.

U.S. plus-sized retailer Lane Bryant participated in New York’s Fashion Week last year, with raucous and rotund comedian Roseanne as MC. But Canada’s equivalent, Toronto Fashion Week, which strutted down runways last month, has yet to include any garment larger than size 10.

H&M’s ‘cheap chic’ takes Toronto by storm

There’s nothing like the arrival of a feisty new competitor to kick existing marketers into a higher gear.

Sweden’s renowned H&M ‘cheap chic’ chain of women’s and men’s fashions has certainly been having that effect since its North American debut in New York City two years ago, according to retail analyst John Torella, a senior partner at Toronto’s JC Williams Group.

He says there was such a big advance buzz ‘that people lined up around the block for hours’ when H&M’s first Manhattan store opened on Fifth Avenue in 2002.

Excitement was also high in Toronto last month when H&M opened its first two Canadian stores, at the Fairview and Promenade malls. Three more H&Ms are scheduled to open in Toronto this fall, with the chain’s trendy BIB plus-size line due to be launched at the Eaton Centre location.

Since debuting with a single shop in Stockholm in 1947, Hennes & Mauritz has expanded to more than 950 stores in 18 countries. While many other apparel marketers struggled, H&M’s 2003 sales worldwide topped $10 billion.

What’s so revolutionary about the chain that Business Week magazine recently opined, ‘Not since IKEA set out to conquer the world…has a Swedish retailer displayed such bold international ambition’?

The general consensus is that it’s H&M’s savvy strategy of rushing ever-changing designs – which are inspired by everything from movies and TV shows to flea markets – to customers at a breakneck pace.

Garments often fly from drawing board to rack in a mere three weeks, after which H&M’s phenomenal tracking system of what’s hot and what’s not keeps inventory moving as swiftly as if it were perishable produce.

Curves tops 600 Canadian clubs

Quarterly mag latest innovation at ‘larger woman’ gym chain

Based on the premise that larger-than-average women feel unwelcome and uncomfortable working out in regular gyms, Gary and Diane Heavin opened a females-only fitness club in the small Texas town of Harlingen in 1992 and called it Curves.
Three years later, they began selling franchises. With no promotion beyond word of mouth during its first 10 years, the chain managed to mushroom to more than 5,000 clubs worldwide.

Since Curves International commissioned Publicis’ Dallas office to design and launch its first television ad campaign – which broke on shows such as Oprah, Dr. Phil and The View in January 2003 – the chain has grown to more than 7,000 clubs including over 600 in Canada.

Set to the gospel tune ‘This Little Light of Mine,’ the four executions, which are still running, feature size-14 women. ‘That’s because our main focus is real women, who mostly do fall between size 12 and size 16,’ says Waco, Tex.-based Curves public relations co-ordinator Nicole Heavin (niece of the founders). ‘And we want our commercials to portray real women feeling comfortable and inspired by working out in our clubs.’
Curves’ latest innovation is a quarterly members’ magazine called Diane, which launched last month.

The women-only circuit-training concept pioneered by Curves has already attracted a Canadian imitator, Express Fit for Women, which has grown to approximately 30 franchised clubs across the country over the past two years.