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Is American fashion finally embracing the plus-size woman?

Shopping for the fuller figure can be a grim experience

Barbara Nitke/Lifetime
Ashley Nell Tipton is a plus-size designer competing on the current season of “Project Runway.”

Is American fashion finally beginning to embrace the plus-size woman?

A number of recent initiatives from companies including J.C. Penney Co. Inc., Nordstrom Inc. and Target Corp. seem to be signaling a shift in how retailers and labels view what is often a neglected market segment as they grapple with competitive pressures.

It’s a segment with a lot of opportunity for growth. Roughly 67% of women in the U.S. wear sizes 14 to 34, according to research company Plunkett Research. Yet many complain about the difficulty in finding fashionable items on the racks.

“There are more brands and retailers getting involved in plus size again,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at The NPD Group. The word ‘again’ is apposite, as plus size is a well that retailers tend to dip into on an eight- to 10-year cyclical basis, he said.

The most recent data from The NPD Group shows that sales of plus-size women’s clothing grew 5% to $17.5 billion in April 2014 from $16.7 billion in May 2013. Women’s apparel is a business with sales of more than $100 billion a year.

“When it’s time to look for growth, retailers look for places they haven’t been playing. Then it’s plus size,” said Cohen. “Stores have a finite space. When they want to expand in a place like accessories and footwear, they take away from someplace else.” Plus sizes are still considered a “niche space,” so that’s where cuts are made.

J.C. Penney JCP, -1.37% is stepping up its plus-size offerings both online and in-store, according to trade magazine Women’s Wear Daily. The plus-size section of the retailer’s website will be renamed “The Boutique,” with more contemporary merchandise coming to 12 stores on October 9. Actress Melissa McCarthy launched a line, Melissa McCarthy Seven7, in the past month that’s available in stores such as Nordstrom JWN, -0.91% and on TV shopping channel, Home Shopping Network. And Target TGT, -0.27% launched a line called Ava & Viv in February.

“Companies that have plus-size clothing, why aren’t they taking more risks?” Ashley Nell Tipton, plus-size designer and Project Runway contestant

One problem is that many believe plus-size women simply aren’t fashionable, said Cohen. Some companies don’t want their clothing showcased on plus-size customers. But that resistance is beginning to shift, thanks in large part to the Internet, he said.

“It’s the last hurrah for the retailer that’s been vacillating,” he said. “If you’re not going to have the product all the time, the customer will go elsewhere.”

Pop culture and mass media are also playing a role. One of the contestants on this season’s “Project Runway” is 24-year-old Ashley Nell Tipton, a plus-size designer who focuses on sizes 10 through 32. Tipton designed her first collection in college and was named Best Newcomer Designer of 2012 by Marie Denee, the blogger behind Curvy Fashionista. She sells her designs on her website, and has created garments with bright colors and prints while on the program.

Whether she wins or loses the competition, Tipton is dedicated to filling the many holes she sees in plus-size fashion, among them, a lack of trendy options and too much black.

“Companies that have plus-size clothing, why aren’t they taking more risks?” she asked. Tipton worked in a plus-size shop for five years and said she could sense the company’s reluctance to take a chance on their customers.