Retailers are now learning what millions of thighs have been telling their female owners for years: The only size eights in their closets are their shoes.
At long last, women who don't wear standard misses' sizes from two to 14 are finding current, high-quality fashions that fit their fuller figures. Select boutique chains such as August Max Woman and the Forgotten Woman have catered to the larger customer since the mid-1980s. But now such upscale department stores as Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord and Taylor have taken large sizes front and center with designer and better sportswear labels.
For example, later this summer Saks in the Dallas Galleria plans to open Salon Z, an in-store boutique of designs by Adrienne Vittadini, Albert Nipon, Adolfo, Mary McFadden and more.
It's a revolution too late in coming for many.
"The customer base has always been there, but it has been ignored," says Karen Fullem, general manager for large sizes at the For You division of Speigel Inc. "But now, as business becomes more difficult, people are looking for more opportunities to improve the balance sheet."
At last, the larger woman is an asset to stores, instead of the customer once banished to the basement.
The statistics finally caught the attention of manufacturers and stores desperate for business. Plus-size women make up nearly one-third of the country's female population but account for only 15 percent of apparel purchases -- an imbalance the clothing industry now is trying to correct.
In the past decade, large-size sales have grown from $2 billion to $10 billion annually.
In 1990, plus sizes increased in sales 25 percent, while misses' and children's clothing sales increased only 7 percent.
Stores and manufacturers tapped into a willing market. Many women say they didn't buy because they couldn't find anything they really liked. The plus-size woman's problems may be fewer, but they aren't over.
"I think it's made a big turnaround in the past few years," says plus-size customer Lana Adams, a hair and makeup artist with the Kim Dawson Agency in Dallas. "It used to be all polyester pants, but now it's more current." Ms. Adams puts together her casual outfits from The Gap's men's and women's departments and a new line of sportswear at Lane Bryant. She still avoids department stores.
"They're terrible for large sizes. I'm 30 and I feel a lot of the department stores go toward the older generation," Ms. Adams says. She shops around a lot to create outfits, whether it's a sheer shirt from Neiman Marcus or shorts from The Gap.
"I think they're just now realizing that large people want to be fashionable, too," says Ms. Adams.
Plus-size women with an eye toward cutting-edge designs have been the most deprived. As the fashion editor of the Houston Chronicle, Linda Gillan Griffin often sees trends bypass the plus-size departments.
"Generally, I find large-size designers aren't keeping up with the styles," says Ms. Gillan Griffin. "Everything has been so gaudy for large-size women. You go into these stores and it looks like the inside of a circus tent."
Style is only part of the challenge.
Adding insult to injury, many plus-size designs have been cheap -- in quality as well as price.
But that's changing, too. Expensive designers such as Gianni Versace, Pauline Trigere, Givenchy, Bob Mackie, Oscar de la Renta and Geoffrey Beene now have large-size lines -- but at a price. Their items sell for between $600 and $8,000.
Virtually every store that has opened or expanded its plus-size department has enjoyed unexpected sales, retailers say. The response has been just as positive among stores such as August Max Woman that offer merchandise in the upper-moderate price range.
"When we open a new store, our sales are huge. Customers come in and spend $1,000 easily," says Marie Mager-Prager, a vice president at August Max Woman. "Then they come back and build their wardrobes." The store's average-priced dress LTC sells for about $110; suits, $200; and pants and skirts are about $55.
Liz Claiborne's 3-year-old Elisabeth division has become the largest brand name in the plus-size industry. Linda Larsen-German, president of the division, says initial sales exceeded the company's expectations "by a lot."
The secret to success has been in giving the larger woman fashions similar to her misses-sized sisters, says Shari Dillard, a fashion specialist who stages shows and seminars for plus-size women. She recently hosted spring wardrobe seminars at some Dallas-area Dillard's stores.
"They're giving us style. Manufacturers have figured out that what large sizes want is what missy wants," says Ms. Dillard, 31, who also wears a plus size.
But even as the questions of quality and style move closer to a solution, not all the glitches are gone.