Matt Rourke/AP
A woman shops at a Lane Bryant store in King of Prussia, Pa.

Recession Leads to Plus-Size Fashion Emergency

June 05, 2009 08:00 AM
by Anne Szustek
Sales of plus-size lines have decreased more sharply during the recession than other lines. Is it smart business to cut back on apparel worn by half of America’s women?

Slender Sales Means Fewer Plus-Sized Clothing Options

According to Crain’s New York Business, several well-known lines of women’s apparel, including Ann Taylor and Ellen Tracy, are responding to declines in plus-size sales by reducing or eliminating available clothing in those sizes. Plus-sized women’s fashion sales in the United States have dropped 8 percent during the current recession. In comparison, sales of women’s apparel in misses’ sizes, namely sizes 0 to 10, 12 or 14 (depending on the clothing line), have only gone down by some 2 percent.

Bensalem. Pa.-based Charming Shoppes, Inc., the parent company of plus-size women’s fashion chain Lane Bryant, beat first-quarter sales expectations; however, its numbers still took a beating, according to Business First of Columbus. Overall, sales were down 16 percent year-on-year and same-store sales at locations open more than a year were down 13 percent from the same period during 2008.
But does eliminating plus sizes make business sense? New York Magazine’s The Cut blog cites Women’s Wear Daily statistics that the most commonly worn size by American women last year was 14, the size at which many junior/misses’ lines end and plus-size collections begin. According to the blog entry, approximately 56 percent of women in the United States wear size 14 or larger.
The Economist’s Free Exchange blog points out that plus-sized women tend to have less disposable income than do their less zaftig counterparts, so the drop in fashion spending may be a consequence of tighter overall budgets. Catherine Schuller, an expert on the plus-size fashion segment and a former editor at plus-size fashion magazine Mode, told Crain’s New York Business that many plus-size women “are homemakers who can't spend considerable amounts on clothes and are willing to sacrifice their own spending for their families, especially now.”

Plus-sized fashion lines are also more expensive to produce, given the extra material needed and the need to hire size models.

Lower-cost apparel stores such as Forever 21 and Target have stepped up with fashionable plus-sized lines, also these are geared to teens and 20-somethings. For the more mature larger-sized woman, however fashion options are dwindling.

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Background: Plus-sized fashion popularity waxes, then wanes

Plus-size women, after decades of being forced to wear dowdy apparel that did little except hang there and dampen wearers’ self-esteem, saw their fashion woes addressed some 10 years ago. Globally recognized brands such as Donna Karan and Tommy Hilfiger launched lines catering to women who wear clothes larger than size 14.

But today, few high-end designers cater to the plus-size market. And mid-level labels are phasing out their plus-size lines, if department stores don’t push them off the sales floor first.

Liz Claiborne nixed its plus-size line Elisabeth when the company restructured two years ago, and then shut down Sigrid Olsen, a label geared towards baby boomers that offered larger sizes. The company then divested its Ellen Tracy line to Fashionology Group, which later ended its plus-size line, citing a lack of orders from higher-end department stores such as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. According to Crain’s New York Business, Bloomingdale’s flagship store in Manhattan moved its plus-sized women’s apparel department from the third floor to the basement, nearly halving its floor space and shifted its AK Anne Klein Plus line to online sales only. Saks, Ann Taylor, Old Navy and Banana Republic, the latter two owned by Gap, Inc., have also moved much of their plus-size offerings out of stores and into e-commerce.

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