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Curve appeal: Fashion takes note of plus-size women

| Sunday, April 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

On a recent shopping trip with my curvy pal J., we spent a fruitless hour and a half in a Nordstrom dressing room hunting for a size 16 cocktail outfit. One lacy tunic flattered her bosom but wouldn't quite fasten in the back; a little black dress that looked OK on the hanger screamed Reform School Matron on her. We eventually gave up and left to get a glass of wine at the food court. But her frustration — and the cash she didn't drop — stuck with me.

After all, every woman (well, maybe not Kate Upton or Demi Moore) struggles to find jeans that fit and bathing suits that give her confidence, not conniptions. But if you're among the estimated 67 percent of U.S. women who wear from size 14 to 34 — aka plus size — shopping for fashionable, flattering clothing can make you feel as lonely as a Tea Partier at a Democratic fundraiser.

“Women's” sections (the other, none-too-flattering moniker for plus) at department stores tend to be relegated to the Siberia of the highest floor. Big-name retailers (J. Crew, Banana Republic) only go up to size 16; some don't even do that (we give you the stink-eye, skinny-loving Zara). And curvier models are conspicuously missing from major-label print ads, though Ralph Lauren recently earned props for using Aussie plus-size babe Robyn Lawley.

“Many designers are surrounded by waif-like models, and they just think of plus-size women as Honey Boo Boo's mom,” says Arlington, Va., government contractor Alexis Benjamin, 31, a size 16. “It's like they think, I'll design a checked tent!”

Indeed, many fashion megawatts (Diane von Furstenberg, Marc Jacobs) don't cut clothes for the zaftig set. And those with extended sizes — Michael Kors, Donna Karan — do little to promote them. “Is it that they don't want fat women associated with their brands?” asks Chicago-based Gabi Gregg, of plus-size blog Gabifresh.com. “It's harder to design and execute a line for curvier girls, but still.”

“The lack of good plus options can be frustrating for consumers,” says Oona McSweeney, vice president of retail and special markets for fashion forecasting firm Stylesight. “But there are realities. A plus-size line requires more fabric, and consumers often aren't willing to pay higher prices for that. It can mean retailers don't want to put their money into plus size.” And cutting a dress for a size 2 and a size 22 means rethinking the entire garment, something some brands aren't interested in.

Still, in the past few years, a surge of far-beyond-skeletal celebrities willing to flaunt their figures (Adele, Rebel Wilson) and style blogs run by voluptuous fashionistas like Gregg do suggest that thin is no longer the only size that's in. Online and on the street, heavier women are willing to take greater risks than in the past.

Gregg, a size 18, famously posted an image of herself in a striped “fatkini” last spring — deep cleavage, non-skinny legs and all. Other bloggers such as the San Francisco area's Tanesha Awasthi of Girl with Curves (Girlwithcurves.com) are strutting outfits that once might have seemed off limits for anyone besides Kate Moss — peplum tops and skinny jeans, cropped tees and full skirts. “I think it's about stepping outside your comfort zone and not thinking, ‘That's not for me because I'm curvy,'” Gregg says.

Some brands and entrepreneurs take notice of the lack of plus options and tap into the market's lucrative possibilities. The Limited launched a plus-size line, Eloquii, in 2011. Late last year, 109-year-old retailer Lane Bryant introduced Lane, an upscale division within its plus-size stores. Monifc.com sells luxury styles in sizes 18 to 24 at its e-boutique. “These customers don't want smushy, shapeless knits,' says Jodi Arnold, vice president for design at Eloquii. “Plus-size women want structure, neatness and boldness, too.”

But in larger sizes, there still seems to be a one stilettoed step forward, two loafered steps back situation.

At The Limited in Arlington's Pentagon City mall, Eloquii's Tory Burch-esque print tunics are prettily displayed across the store from similar “straight”-size styles. Yet on a recent shopping trip in Maryland, we found that Saks Fifth Avenue has taken its plus-size Salon Z online only, and Neiman Marcus yielded nothing, though another customer suggested we try Chico's up the street. Ouch!

It felt like a style defeat, but maybe soon, being plus won't be a fashion minus. “Any savvy retailer is discussing how to get these consumers,” McSweeney says. “A groundswell is coming.”

Jennifer Barger is a staff writer for The Washington Post.

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