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Published Jul. 6, 2006

Donna Berberat loves to buy nice clothes, but she has been doubly cursed.

"I'm 6 feet tall and I'm big," said the middle-aged Tampa homemaker. "So it's very hard to find clothes that fit. And what they do have makes you look like you're 70. To find the plus-size department all you do is look for frumpy."

Berberat is far from alone. Today, 33 percent of the female population wears plus sizes _ a cut for larger women that begins at size 14. And as the baby boomers enter middle age that number is forecast to hit 42 percent within six years. Yet this fastest-growing segment of the struggling apparel industry continues to be its most ignored, most underserved and most angered.

Forget the stereotype of the big woman in a mumu and slippers. The plus-size woman wants mainstream fashion _ and she isn't much bigger than anybody else.

The average American woman today is 5 feet 4, 144 pounds. That's a size 12, one step away from the plus sizes. Yet all the forces trying to dictate fashion focus on smaller women who wear sizes 6 to 8.

After getting a glimpse of the future shopper, retailers and apparelmakers have tried to clean up their act.

Now there is some fashion savvy and broader selection in the plus-size department. But the progress continues to come v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.

Department stores such as Burdines and Dillard's have doubled their plus-size selections, and a raft of specialty chains such as budget-priced Catherine's and Today's Woman have joined the ranks of Lane Bryant in selling exclusively to larger women. The off-price Dress Barn now gets 40 percent of its business from plus sizes. And designers ranging from Liz Claiborne and Dana Buchman to the pricier Ellen Tracy finally produce plus-size goods in a plethora of new colors and fabrics.

"When I started 19 years ago, we had only five manufacturers. Today it's more than 500," said Elaine Berkman, who heads the plus-size operation for Doneger Group, one of the nation's largest buying services for retailers.

But after years of suffering thinly veiled insults from the very retailers now trying to win their favor, larger-sized women are hardly satisfied customers.

A clear majority still have difficulty even finding stores that sell their size. An overwhelming 84 percent say there is less fashion and style in their size than others. And 70 percent complain about a limited selection of brand names, according to a national study of plus-size customers that's about to be released by Kurt Salmon Associates.

"Everything today is supposed to be customer driven, yet it doesn't take brain surgery to see that a lot of needs are yet to be filled among large-size customers," said Catherine Shin, who did the research. "Availability seems to be the top issue. It's hard for these people to complain about fit and a lack of fashion when a majority cannot even find the clothes."

Girth of a nation, a change in sizing

Cindi Cramer of Tampa grew up wearing fashionable clothes. But for the past 15 years she has been a plus size. That has meant driving all over town to find stores that carried her size. Even then she found the pickings slim.

"For years I wore black all the time because that was all they had in my size," she said.

Forget all that hype about healthy eating, health clubs and Hollywood. Americans _ men and women _ have been getting bigger for years.

After holding steady for two decades at a quarter of the population, the percentage of medically overweight adults (those who weigh 20 percent more than the ideal body weight for their height) jumped to a third by 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

It's not just aging boomers who are getting bigger. During the 1970s about 15 percent of teenagers were medically overweight. In 1995 that had grown to 21 percent, according to the CDC.

Apparel manufacturers' answer to this trend has been to make the sizes bigger. Over the past 25 years, they have added about 3 inches to the standard garment's bust, waist and hips. The idea partly is to keep women from realizing they are getting bigger and to persuade them they can still fit in the sizes of their youth.

A woman who is a size 8 today would have been a size 12 in 1971; today's size 12 would have been a 16. (See chart)

"Because the customer was getting bigger they had to do it. Otherwise they would have had to eliminate all the smaller sizes," said Martin Bornstein, president of Consult, an Englewood, N.J., firm that tracks body measurements for apparelmakers.

Although there are generally accepted sizes in women's apparel, a lot of apparelmakers ignore them, so customer confusion is rampant.

One brand's size 8 may be another brand's size 6 _ an effort to make the customer think she's smaller than she really is.

And tracking the evolution of women's sizes is akin to following a noodle into a plate of spaghetti.

In a marketing stunt worthy of a "Cathy" comic strip, apparelmakers came up with so-called vanity sizes. These overlapping sizes were invented to keep misses and juniors customers _ who traditionally have been smaller or younger than plus-size women _ from having to confront the reality that they have grown into a plus size.

Misses sizes that used to end at 14 now run right on up to 20, six sizes into plus-size range. Even juniors go up to size 19. The only difference in misses, juniors and plus sizes is subtle changes in the cut of the fit.

There's a method to this size madness. Fashion mavens market according to what they think women's aspirations are. And for the past 20 years that has translated to thin. But today, according to Management Horizons, the Price Waterhouse retailing unit, "thin may be in, but fat is where it's at."

"Women have had enough of the diets," said David Forell, chief financial officer of Catherine's Stores Corp., a plus-size specialist with 470 stores, including four in the Tampa Bay area. "She says, "I want to be myself and look good.' She wants to wear what everybody else does."

"Once you've won her over, the plus customer is the most loyal customer you can find," said Howard Buerkle, president of Jones New York's 183-unit outlet chain, which has a store in Ellenton.

By adopting fit to the true shape of today's woman, some experts think the apparel industry can make more customers happy.

Unlike men's clothes, which are based on body proportions, women's are loosely based on height. And the garment industry is working from a blueprint of women's body and bone structures that was last measured right after World War II, when women had different lifestyles and body shapes.

Back then the ready-to-wear industry worked with seven types of figures. Today, thanks to pressure from retailers and manufacturers' own interest in controlling their inventory (it's cheaper to manufacture fewer sizes), it's boiling down to three: small, medium and large.

"The industry has been trying to make women think they're the same size (and shape) when they aren't," said Ellen Goldsberry, a University of Arizona professor raising money for the first nationwide size update in 50 years. "Women are too smart to believe the sizes anymore. If the companies understood that and put out fashion more related to size, sales would skyrocket."

Goldsberry headed a study committee for the American Society of Testing Materials that sized apparel for women older than 55. Some of the findings were a shock. Garment manufacturers had never taken into account the fact that older women's bone structure changes. They bulge below the belly button and lose shape in the caboose.

"We found older women who actually put their pants on backwards to be comfortable," she said.

Improvements, snags

Talk to women who wear plus sizes and you'll hear a chorus of past slights by retailers who make them feel like misfits.

Retailers typically stick the plus-size department right next to the petite department in a remote corner of the store. Even retailers that specialize in plus sizes paper their store walls with pictures of perfectly proportioned models shaped nothing like most of their customers. On top of all that, plus sizes usually cost 10 to 15 percent more than other sizes.

A lot of that has changed in the past few years.

The link between plus and petite harkens back to when department stores had only one buying staff for "special sizes." Now the big chains have buying staffs that trade exclusively in plus sizes or petites.

"And being next to petites is an improvement over the space we used to get, right next to the bathrooms," said Berkman of the Doneger Group buying service.

Many retailers now hire plus-size models who more closely resemble their customers. And often they are not 14s but 18s and 20s. Wal-Mart even uses its own employees as models.

But when it comes to picking what to sell, retailers are continually challenged.

"Unfortunately," said David Wolfe, trends director for Doneger, "most of the directions in fashion, such as the bare midriff, are poison to plus sizes."

Most of what is in the stores are adaptations of the few current fashion trends that can be translated for larger women. In plus sizes today that's pretty much tunics and stretch pants, A-line outfits, broomstick dresses and lots of denim.

"It makes no sense," said Berberat, acknowledging that someone should be designing clothes for the large woman from scratch rather than copying what's selling to the rest of the ready-to-wear market.

Stores, too, are perplexed about whether they should refrain from carrying fashions that make plus-size women look bigger or give customers the option of buying a jumper in bold, horizontal stripes.

At JCPenney, which mails 3-million plus-size catalogs four times a year, Ramona Bigelow, manager of catalog merchandise, recalls a focus group in which plus-size women said big check prints should never be stocked in larger sizes.

"They were complaining about ugly big prints, yet half of them were wearing them," she said.

One big marketing problem for the industry has been the lack of role models _ celebrities with a positive image who are content with their size. Liz Taylor is out because she has constantly sought to be smaller, Wolfe said. Roseanne's line of plus-sized clothes bombed partly because "of her personality," he added.

Delta Burke, who was fired from the TV series Designing Women after she plumped out, is the latest entrant. During its first month on the market, her line of plus-size clothes has sold well at both Dillard's and JCPenney.

A tricky business

This huge underserved market has not gone unnoticed by retailers. But several bay area specialty stores created expressly for larger customers have found the business trickier than it appears.

Forgotten Woman is in bankruptcy. August Max Woman pulled out of the Tampa Bay market entirely. Georgette Diaz, a savvy 18-year veteran of the bay area apparel retailing scene, closed Georgette's Extra Touch, which specialized in fashionable special-occasion dresses priced at $175 to $600, after a two-year run in Tampa.

"We poured a fortune into it," she said. "We learned it's a very emotional and sensitive business. A lot of plus-size customers are very self-conscious. They think their weight is only temporary. So they are reluctant to spend a lot on themselves. Our typical customer spends 15 minutes in a dressing room and buys two dresses. The plus-size customer often spends an hour in there with clothes I know make them look great. Then they walk out without buying anything."

To counter the temporary-weight issue, she even offered free alterations for up to six months should the customer lose weight.

Only two customers ever took advantage of the offer.

After closing the store, Diaz moved her plus-size collection into her other Old Hyde Park store, Georgette's, which gets rave reviews from plus-size buyers like Cindi Cramer and Donna Berberat.

Some retailers think larger women are self-conscious and less confident about fashion. So a growing crop of mail-order catalogs has emerged to offer women the option of making choices in the privacy of their homes.

Most chains distribute catalogs at their stores and try to get customers' names and addresses. But using the mails to find new customers is a slippery slope. Catherine's, for instance, used a data base of driver's licenses to find those whose weight suggested a plus size.

The chain gave up after discovering how many people fib about their weight on driver's license applications.

Catalogs today control about 10 percent of the business, proportionately more than their market share for the rest of apparel. But customers say they overwhelmingly prefer buying in stores where they can feel the fabric and test the fit before buying.

And stores are racing to outdo competitors.

Dillard's, for instance, has broadened its plus-size selection to suits, dresses, hosiery and belts in styles once only stocked in the misses department.

Now Dillard's is going to add active wear _ jogging suits and workout clothes.

"The old mentality was that the plus-size customer just wanted the basics in black, brown or white," said David Doub, president of Dillard's Florida Division. "We've dispelled those old notions."

_ Times researcher Carolyn Hardnett contributed to this story.

More inches, same size

The average woman (5 feet 4, 144 pounds) is a size 12, just one step short of a plus size. One way the apparel industry has gone about hiding American' women's growing girth has been to change the sizing system gradually. In the past 25 years, most manufacturers have added about 3 inches to the bust, waist and hips of all sizes. As a result, today's size 12 was a size 16 in 1971.

Size 12 today

Bust: 37{ inches

Waist: 29{ inches

Hips: 40 inches

Size 12 in 1971

Bust: 35 inches

Waist: 26 inches

Hips: 36 inches

Source: American Society of Testing Materials

An unserved market

Despite recent efforts to make amends, the plus-size industry still is a long way from having satisfied customers.

57 percent say it still is difficult to find stores that carry their size.

84 percent say there is less fashion and style in their sizes than other sizes.

70 percent say the choice of brand names in their size is too limited.

Source: Kurt Salmon Associates