Promises Profits

It’s a startling figure: 62% of American women wear a size 12 or larger. At present, they account for less than 25% of total spending for apparel, but they hold a mostly untapped $21 billion in potential purchasing power.

The full-figure market is full of misconceptions, said panelists at a recent seminar hosted by The Fashion Group International. Mode magazine, a new high-fashion publication for women who wear size 12 and above, co-sponsored the seminar.

The worst misconception about the plus-size market, said panelists, is that these women are couch potatoes who shop only in discount stores. Yet the income, education and shopping demographics of the plus-size market exactly parallel those of American women as a whole. Yes, many full-figured women do buy clothes at Wal-Mart or Marshalls. But so do many skinny women. Panelists said full-figured customers actually tend to be more loyal and far more willing than their more slender counterparts to pay full price for quality apparel and accessories, including fine jewelry.

Frank Doroff, executive vice president and general merchandise manager of Bloomingdale’s, said sales in the plus-size department are growing faster than all other apparel departments; the biggest, most profitable plus-size departments are in some of the chain’s chicest, most upscale locations such as Short Hills, N.J. Indeed, the Century City branch in figure-conscious Los Angeles boasts the chain’s fourth largest plus-size department in the U.S.

Most critical, said Doroff: “This is not a budget business. It is bridge business!”

(Note: In apparel terms, “bridge” refers to clothes priced just below “designer” lines. A bridge suit, for example, may retail anywhere from $400 to $900 or so; some lines edge even closer to “designer” price points.)

The misconception that large-size women are slothful and out of shape was also put to rest. A survey conducted by Runner’s World magazine found full-figured women are actually more likely to exercise regularly and are more concerned with being healthy and fit than is the female population as a whole.

But panelists unanimously stressed that attitudes about plus-size women must change. The first step, they agreed, is to stop using the word “they,” as though these women were a separate species.

Designer Caroline Simonelli summed it up. “They’re not ‘they,’ they’re part of ‘we.’” These women, just like any others, want to feel feminine, beautiful and exciting. They have husbands, jobs and children, versatile lives and varied needs. They swim, play and dance, get runs in their pantyhose, laugh, cry – and shop for clothes because they want a certain look, not just a certain size. That look, added Roger Eulace, president of The Forgotten Woman specialty chain, “is not circus tents in strange colors not in this season’s palette!”

Colombe M. Nicholas, the new CEO of Anne Klein, said that when she moved to a small town in Ohio, she saw what American women are really wearing. It was a revelation. “With no disrespect meant to Giorgio Armani,” she said, “it’s sure not his mushroom-colored suits in size 2!”

A plus for jewelry. All this should be good news for jewelers. Indeed, jewelers got a jump on apparel makers because jewelry, like scarves and handbags, is a category where plus-size women always have had about the same selection as have other women. Until recently, when fashionable, high-quality, plus-size apparel finally became widely available, jewelers could snap up the extra dollars women would have spent on clothing. After all, if you couldn’t find clothes you love, why not dress up the clothes you had with jewelry you love?

Now, of course, more spending options are open to plus-size women. But that shouldn’t end their love affair with jewelry.

Susan Garvey, Mode magazine’s senior fashion editor for accessories, says jewelry proportion is more critical than jewelry size. A plus-size petite woman (under 5’4”) may find large jewelry overpowering, yet a tiny chain with a tiny charm will look very good if it hits just the right spot. Garvey appreciates jewelry designers who make the same style in two or three different proportions, rather than just add extenders to one size.

Laurie Harris, buyer for Tapper’s Fine Jewelry in West Bloomfield, Mich., says fashion-conscious, full-figured women make great designer jewelry customers. A larger woman, she says, can carry off wide omega chains and other pieces that would overpower a small woman.

“Some of the designer lines look so good on a larger woman. Seidengang, for example, looks fabulous! David Yurman’s gold line looks very good [on larger women], a lot of the Lagos line, and some of the John Hardy line, too. Charles Krypell [jewelry] is very flattering on a larger woman, especially his rings.”

The current trend for large South Sea pearls has been a boon to Harris’s plus-size customers. A larger chain with a pendant or enhancer looks great. But the tiny, delicate, minimalist jewelry that fashion magazines have featured in the past few years poses a problem for full-figured women, she says. Yet, “Some women just want what’s ‘in.’”

Tim Gannaway, co-owner of Gannaway Brothers Jewelers in Warrenton, Ore., finds that age affects jewelry size preference more than body type. “I get a lot of full-figure customers,” he says, “but I’d have to say more of them are over 50 than under 25. Older women in general are more likely to buy bigger, fashion-oriented jewelry.”

Gannaway actively targets the over-50 market, and makes sure he has plenty of merchandise that fits. “I keep lots of size 8 and 9 rings in stock. When the customer tries one on, it fits. It doesn’t stop at the knuckle and leave her to visualize how it would look in the right place.

“Any time I get a larger stone, like an 8 by 6mm, I’ll automatically make a ring in a size 8, and not even consider a 6. A two-stone-wide sapphire rainbow bracelet I’ll make in size 71/2 or 8, but a $250 gold bracelet I’d get in a size 7.”

Apparel designer Sylvia Heisel defines customers by wallet size, not waist size. She makes clothes to fit each individual client, regardless of size.

“It’s about time designers created clothes to fit the bodies women have, instead of telling women to change their bodies to fit the clothes. All women are beautiful, and a larger woman is not going to spend $2,000 to hide her figure!”

Fit to Be Jeweled

Unless they’re very lucky or very disciplined, most people find their weight fluctuates – often by enough to keep a range of sizes in their closets. But unless she gains or loses a significant amount of weight, a women’s jewelry (or shoe) size won’t change.

Mode’s Susan Garvey says any time the magazine has a styling session, both models and office staff rush right to the accessories and eagerly paw through the piles. “You can have a bad clothing day, but you never have a bad watch day!” she says.

So, jewelry fits everybody, right?

Wrong. It’s true that jewelry (usually) is easier to

adjust to plus size than is apparel. You can change a garment pattern from size 6 to size 10 by moving the seams a half inch, but changing it to size 16 requires you to redraw all the proportions – adding things like deeper curves at the arm openings, extra fabric across the front or seat, etc.

Jewelry usually is simpler to fix: just add extra links or other extensions. Rigid pieces like bangle bracelets, collars and rings must be ordered in a larger size, but many manufacturers stock multiple sizes. Some have developed hinge-and-clasp mechanisms that allow a piece to fit over hand or knuckle. (These also are a tremendous boon to women whose knuckles are disfigured by arthritis.)

Sizing Up the Market

  • The size 12 and over market is estimated at $21 billion annually, and it is growing faster than the rest of the apparel market combined.

  • An International Wool Secretariat survey found that 79% of large-size consumers are 35 years old or older; 74% have household incomes over $60,000. Most (93%) feel that appearance and projected image will influence their career success and earning potential. A third (35%) of plus-size women surveyed spend more than $2,000 a year on their career wardrobe.

  • Americans as a whole are getting larger, says Roger Eulace, president of The Forgotten Woman specialty chain. Children are bigger, cars are bigger, houses are bigger and all apparel sizes, from 2 to 22 and beyond, are being made larger than they used to be. And, by the way, American backsides are four inches wider than they were in 1900!

  • The average American size for women’s apparel is 14 and 35% of the total apparel market wears size 14 or larger. This is expected to top 40% by the year 2000.

  • Approximately 200 manufacturers served the full-figure market in 1987; now there are more than 2,000.

Jewelry That Flatters

Women – whatever size they are – choose jewelry that expresses their taste and their self-image. Thus, a large woman may choose dainty jewels, just as a tiny woman may want the biggest, boldest statement piece you have.

If a customer wants what’s “in,” even if it’s inappropriate for her build, you can’t do much about it. But if she’s undecided, you may be able (tactfully) to guide her toward more flattering choices.

Here are some of JCK’s tips to flatter a range of bodies:

  • NEVER criticize a customer’s taste! Remember that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But since it’s your job to sell jewelry, she won’t think it’s odd if you enthusiastically bring out a few more pieces to show.

  • Select earrings according to her face shape. Full round faces look best in drops, dangles or on-the-ear long shapes such as a rectangle or marquise. Square faces need fluid lines that soften a strong jaw, such as round spheres, drops that fall above the corner of the jaw, or hoops and freeforms. Heart-shape faces look best with something that fills in the space between ear and chin. Avoid long dangles that accentuate their slight chins. Long thin faces look best in wide, on-the-ear styles or in drops that have some width.

  • An on-the-ear style is best for fleshy, aged or stretched-out earlobes; fish hooks and Euro-wires are a no-no. Earring stabilizers like an oversize back or plastic disc help keep earrings in place.

  • A long (24 in. or more) necklace is flattering to a round face or a short or thick neck. If your customer wants a short necklace, show her a “Y” shape, an asymmetrical front or other style that has a “V” in front.

  • A full-busted woman should try necklaces that are shorter than 22 in. or very long – 60 in. or so, perhaps with a loose knot tied either at the waist or above (not on!) the bust.

  • When a large woman wants delicate jewelry, show her pieces with delicate detailing but bigger overall dimensions. For example, suggest a wider ring in lacy filigree, or show the versatility of several tiny bands stacked together.

  • In necklaces, look for one where individual links are delicate but have a large diameter. If someone wants delicate station necklaces, Susan Garvey suggests wearing several together as an attractive interpretation of the trend.

  • When a tiny woman likes bold jewelry, try to find a similar style in a scaled-down size, to get the same look without the overpowering dimensions. One should always notice the woman first, not her jewelry.

  • If you can see right away that a woman has large wrists or fingers, pull out larger size rings and bracelets. It’s hard to visualize how a ring will look when it won’t go past the knuckle.

  • Try this test, developed by makeup artists to avoid applying too much blusher: Look in a mirror from about six feet back. If blusher is the first thing you notice, you have on too much. If jewelry is the first thing you notice, it’s probably overpowering you. Everything should work in harmony to form a unified, beautiful picture!