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Brands chasing younger plus-size shoppers, but in-store options still sparse

Target in 2015 launched its Ava & Viv plus-size fashion line, increasing the company’s sales of plus-size apparel by 30 percent. (Courtesy Target Corp.)
Target in 2015 launched its Ava & Viv plus-size fashion line, increasing the company’s sales of plus-size apparel by 30 percent. (Courtesy Target Corp.)
By Lauren Zumbach Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO – Natalie Craig is a 24-year-old fashion blogger who says she hopes she can inspire readers to own their look and feel confident.

Her relationship with the actual act of shopping is a little more complicated. Craig, who considers herself plus size, said the range of on-trend plus-size fashion options has been improving. But while it’s clear brands want to court plus-size shoppers, she said, how well they do it varies widely, and in-store options remain sparse.

“There are just so few options,” said Craig, a Chicagoan who edits a trade publication in addition to writing her blog, Natalie in the City. “At the end of the day, there are still times I feel there are no clothes for me.”

The market for plus-size apparel in the U.S. is growing, with sales hitting $20.4 billion in the year ending in February 2016, up 3 percent from the year before, according to market research firm The NPD Group. Interest in the category is growing particularly quickly among teens and younger women, said Marshal Cohen, The NPD Group’s fashion industry analyst. About a third of 13- to 17-year-old girls said they considered buying plus-size clothing in 2015, up from 19 percent in 2012 and 16 percent in 2010, according to an NPD Group survey.

Americans of all ages tend to be heavier than in prior years, but Cohen chalks the rapid uptick in teens’ interest in the category to the fact that more brands are starting to sell plus-size clothes younger shoppers might actually want to wear.

“Kids had to get creative before with the limited product that was available, which was stifling the true potential for growth,” he said.

The past few years have seen steady growth in the range of plus-size options. Torrid planned to open 60 stores last year.

Online shops like ModCloth, Asos.com, Carmakoma and ELOQUII aren’t pitched to teens, but make Teen Vogue roundups of brands that are fashionable, not frumpy.

ELOQUII – a size-14-to-28 fast-fashion e-commerce company initially owned, then shut down, by women’s retailer The Limited, relaunched as a stand-alone business in 2014. ELOQUII announced raising $15 million in funding earlier this month and said revenue grew 165 percent in 2015.

Fast-fashion retailers popular with teens also have launched or expanded plus-size lines.

In January, Forever 21’s extended-sizes line, Forever 21 Plus, introduced a range of activewear with advertisements featuring plus-size model Ashley Graham.

Teen-friendly brand Charlotte Russe added a plus size-line in 2015. In 2012, H&M rebranded its plus-size collections – previously known in-store as “Big is Beautiful” – as H&M+, “meaning fashion will always come before size at H&M,” the company said in a statement on its website.

Not to be left behind, retail giant Target last year launched plus-size line Ava & Viv. Since then, plus-size apparel sales have grown 30 percent, said spokeswoman Jessica Carlson.

But even though there are trendier choices, brands have been slower to put them in stores than Amanda Stilwell, who blogs about plus-size fashion at In the Thick of It, expected. Both she and Craig sometimes receive free merchandise from brands hoping to reach their readers.

During the recession, with consumers cutting back, many retailers also cut back on the range of products they offered, particularly when it came to teens with less disposable income, Cohen said.

Marilyn Correa, 19, shopping at Target for a first-day-of-work outfit with her friend Maria Delgadillo, 19, said they like the funky patterns and ’70s-inspired style at stores like Forever 21 and H&M. But the plus selection is often “super small,” Correa said.

Then there’s the debate over whether “plus size” should be a category at all, recently kicked up again when comedian Amy Schumer questioned her inclusion in a Glamour magazine edition celebrating women “chic at any size.” In a series of tweets, Schumer eventually declared size labels “unnecessary.”

Teens were more likely than any other age group to say they felt brands designed plus-size clothing as an afterthought and that plus-size clothing should be available in the same styles sold in smaller sizes, according to The NPD Group.

Both Stilwell and Craig said their ideal shopping experience would include walking into any store and finding the same apparel in their size as in sizes 0 to 4 – and not in a “dimly lit, undermarketed corner,” Craig said.

Angelo D’Agostino, vice president of brand marketing at teen-friendly Wet Seal, said the company hates the term. “A Wet Seal girl is a Wet Seal girl,” he said. “If we’re coming out with the next great thing, we want everyone to be able to wear it.”

D’Agostino declined to say what share of Wet Seal’s business comes from plus-size apparel, but called it “a fair percentage.”

“It’s big enough where if we didn’t pay attention, there would be pain,” he said.

A 2014 survey conducted by ModCloth found 88 percent of plus-size women said they would buy more clothing if they had better options.

“I know there are millions of women who love to shop who are over a size 14. I don’t know what the disconnect is,” Stilwell said.

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