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Thu, Jan 14, 2010
Urban, The Straits Times
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Big girls just want to have fun
by Ruth La Ferla

Beth Ditto was livid. Fast-fashion chain Topshop had approached the plus-sized lead singer with the punk band Gossip, and a favourite mascot of the fashion world, to perform at its flagship store in London.

Blow-ups of her heart-shaped face and rotund form would be on display. But Ditto, who happily flaunts what the British like to call her 'wobbly bits', was having none of it.

'I don't think it's fair to put my face somewhere where they would never let me in there to wear their clothes,' she complained on a blog.

Why not accord her the same status it does Kate Moss and let her create a 'big girl' line for Topshop, she wrote.

'Give me the job,' she demanded. 'I want to design.'

Her message, flung down like a gauntlet, reached the ears of the Arcadia Group, the parent company of Topshop.

This month, a couple of years after her sound off, Arcadia plans to unveil a collection that she designed for Evans, the company's plus-sized division.

The collection is the latest in an outpouring of fashions aimed at trend-driven, round-figured teenagers and young women, a population that has long echoed Ditto's complaint that it is ignored by most merchants and brands.

The woman of size, as she is euphemistically known, 'still wants to wear the same clothes as her slimmer counterparts', said Jeff Van Sinderen, a retail analyst at B.Riley, a research and investment firm.

Other stores and designers have picked up the message. Forever 21, a purveyor of cheap chic, introduced its plus-sized line, Faith 21, in spring.

Target recently began offering Pure Energy, exuberantly patterned dresses and tops for young women. Those follow hip niche labels like Karen Kane and Kiyonna, which are sold at boutiques.

All the lines see potential profit in offering stylish alternatives to the ubiquitous track suit. From a business perspective, that makes sense: The customer base is increasing, as health authorities have long pointed out.

Some 17 per cent of teenagers in the United States are overweight, according to official statistics, more than three times the rate of a generation ago.

The market for youth-oriented plus sizes (usually 14 to 24) showed strong growth a couple of years ago, several years after the fast-fashion chain H&M entered the business. (It has since dropped its plus-sized line, for reasons it would not disclose.)

Last year, US sales of plus sizes to girls and young women aged 13 to 34 reached US$5.8 billion

(S$8.4 billion), according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.

Despite the slump, some see the market inevitably returning to strength. 'The fact that more businesses are getting into this market is a clear indication that the recent lack of growth has been more about the economy than about a lack of interest,' said Marshal Cohen, an NPD analyst.

Smaller stores are also catering to shoppers who want figure-hugging fashions like their thinner friends.

'Some of those girls feel like they have the brio to pull off a fitted look,' said Stephanie Sack, the owner of Vive la Femme, a plus-sized boutique on fashionable Damen Avenue in Chicago.

Stores as diverse as Kmart and Lord & Taylor have dispensed with conventional big girls' dos and don'ts, offering the hothouse colours and exuberant prints, the ruffles and flounces of their so-called straight-sized counterparts.

Even horizontal stripes, once a fashion sin for the overweight, animate some looks in Kmart's Piper & Blue collection.

Round-figured young women have found inspiration in popular culture. Ditto, who settled her girth on tiny gilt chairs at some 10 fashion shows this year, along with actress Jennifer Hudson and singer Adele, all appear in full-figured glory in the current issue of Elle.

The glamorously curvy Jordin Sparks captivated viewers on American Idol, then moved on to a recording career.

More than tokenism, such fashion and media tactics seem born of a conviction that larger young women have become more self-accepting.

The plus-sized market is 'an attractive piece of the fashion business', said Fiona Ross, brand director of Topshop's Evans line.

In the US as in Britain, she declared, 'we may want to be part of that opportunity'.

This article was first published in Urban, The Straits Times.

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