Big Business

The plus-size and "big and tall" markets are doing unbelievable business, and, according to market research group Packaged Facts, will reach $107 billion in sales by 2012. The plus-size lingerie segment of this market also is experiencing exponential growth. It seems women of all shapes and sizes are wanting-and buying-all manner of luscious and lascivious lingerie, from crotchless panties, vinyl boots, and sexy corsets to a whole lingerie drawer full of other high-end specialty intimates.

What's spurring this growth and market boom? It's a synergistic combination of factors, including a demographic that literally gets larger by the year and a market that has been, up until recently, wildly underserved.

Many mainstream lingerie brands carried in the primary intimates retail channel, department stores, don't go beyond a C cup. Even Limited Brand Inc.'s mall giant, Victoria's Secret, has a paltry selection of styles available in sizes above C, maybe D. Even the very definition of the term "plus size" is shifting. Manufacturers used to offer extra-large sizes, maybe two levels up to 2XL. Now, "plus" typically encompasses 1X to 6X, with other manufacturers serving the market up through 12X.

Shopping for slinky intimates is supposed to be fun, allowing a woman to celebrate her feminine side and indulge in feeling beautiful and naughty. A shopping trip for a plus-size woman, however, often is a depressing debacle. Larger ladies are forced to walk past the variety of smaller-sized, adorable intimates in an array of colors, complete with pretty, delicate straps and beautiful detailing, to a meager plus-size section, which can often be characterized by decidedly unsexy adjectives-like "bulky," "frumpy," "utilitarian," and even "plain." They can flip through the racks interminably, only to find drab variations in color and fabric, a sea of white, black, and taupe cotton.

Given the ripe market and the dearth of attractive, pretty, and, yes, even sexy, styles, plus-size women finally are rejoicing at having some options. The main manifestation of their appreciation? Spending money.

An expanding market

The American public is getting larger. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 140 pounds-and growing. This equates to a size 10 or 12. The average American bra size also has increased, going from 34B to 36C in just a few decades. Whether this is the result of nutrition, sedentary lifestyle, or breast augmentation, the proportions of American women have shifted.

Cultural psychology has shifted, as well: Big is beautiful. Now, plus-size women are feeling more comfortable with their bodies and open to having a more positive self-image, while society is becoming more cognizant of the fact that plus-size women are interested in looking sexy and-believe it or not-having sex.

So how does this acceptance of full-figured women figure into the current market? Are plus-size women becoming more comfortable with their bodies and ready to show them off? Or have plus-size women always been interested in these styles but found themselves penned in by frumpy lingerie choices?

"I believe it is a combination of both," says Rona Bonilla, a lingerie and apparel buyer for Peekay Inc., a Seattle-based adult retailer. "I think women have learned to embrace and love who they are, no matter what size, but there is also a limited amount of ‘sexy' lingerie out there for the plus-size woman. Just because you are a bit larger, who says you can't look or feel sexy?"

This is a sentiment echoed by Dana Schlobohm-Walczuk, head of design and marketing at lingerie and costume manufacturer Shirley of Hollywood. According to her, the market has always been there. The real catalyst for recent sales, she suggests, may be the media. "There has always been a plus-size market," she explains. "But with the help [of] the media and all of the talk shows discussing the full-figured woman's sexiness and voluptuousness, the willingness to show off their bodies has helped drive the sales."

Christopher Scharff, chief executive officer of Dreamgirl International, a manufacturer of fashion lingerie and sexy costumes, agrees that plus-size women are becoming more outspoken about what they are looking for in their lingerie. "In the U.S., plus-size women are increasingly more confident of their bodies and are demanding sexier and more revealing styling."

Scharff also says it isn't just women who are buoying this market: "One little-known fact is that an increasing portion of plus-size sales, particularly in urban areas, come from cross-dressing men."

Whatever the reasons for the previous dearth of plus-size alternatives, the reality is that manufacturers and retailers now are beginning to see the possibilities in the plus-size market, and they are giving these consumers respect through vastly improved selections. Now that plus-size women have options, they are proving an enthusiastic consumer base.

Take, for example, Vanity Fair's Curvation brand, which has done extremely well since its launch. The combination of quality and fit for everyday wear with an overall philosophy of positive body image and feel-good marketing has given the company's brand a unique platform that has resounded with its consumer base. Selling in quantity at reasonable prices at retail outlets such as Wal-Mart and Kmart has ensured the brand's success while taking pretty plus-size intimates mainstream.

Says Curvation lingerie spokesperson Queen Latifah on the company's website: "Most women in this country are a size 10 or better ... and it's like, c'mon. We are consumers. We are buying this stuff. Make things for us."

Janelle Jackson, owner of, has the exact same sentiment. She gave up on hoping someone would sell sexy lingerie and risqué clubwear-and took on the challenge herself. "I am a plus-size woman," she explains. The inspiration to put Big Gals Lingerie together was "endless, frustrating hours of trying to shop for sexy stuff and not being able to find anything sexy in my size." She realized that if this was her retail experience, it must be the same for other women, as well. "The bigger sizes are always something dull and boring and not something I would even consider wearing," Jackson laments. "Just because I'm big doesn't mean I want to wear a big, flower-covered muumuu to spice things up in the bedroom."

Perhaps the self-acceptance and feel-good campaigns championed by mainstream plus-size lingerie brands like Curvation is just rose-colored PR fluff. Maybe it boils down not to how a woman feels about herself or her lingerie, but to how it makes her, and her significant other, feel about their time together. "To me, it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks about what I look good in," Jackson says. "The only thing that matters is that I like it and my partner likes it-and we should be able to buy it."

It's only fitting

Any woman who wears a D cup or larger can tell you that, until recently, as soon as you hit that size threshold, there was a corresponding decline in the stylishness of the lingerie. The only selections that offered the feminine qualities that lingerie is supposed to have were French imports with eyebrow-raising prices. As for hot, sexy looks incorporating tart-like and fun designs and materials? Those didn't even exist.

Selection for plus-size women has increased at a rapid rate in the past decade, for both daily lingerie options as well as for the naughtiest, smokin'-hot styles a girl could want. So how have manufacturers responded to creating lingerie that fits the plus-size figure?

First, they threw out the old method of creating templates for "plus" sizes, which essentially consisted of multiplying the measurements of regular sizes. Plus-size fit models are employed by lingerie manufacturer Shirley of Hollywood to ensure the styles are made with the actual customer in mind.

Electric Lingerie went for variety with its plus-size collection. "We'd need to offer a little something for everyone if we were going to grab the consumer," says Brian Wagner, the company's director of operations. "Some want styles that cover up, and others want the same skimpy items the ‘little girls' get," he continues. "We tried to offer a wide selection of body styles, and we've provided them in an array of color combos in order to ensure we met the concerns of the plus-size shopper." Construction also is adapted to the customers' needs via thicker materials with more stretch and underwire cups.

Janelle Jackson acts as a fit model for Big Gals, ensuring the aesthetic of the design translates into something that works for a larger body. Big Gals even takes the process a step further and offers custom-made pieces, which are a hybrid of Delicate Illusion's "skinny girl" designs and Big Gals' own line of hot lingerie, which comes in sizes 1X to 12X. "We can even make things bigger, if you need it," says Jackson.

Online opportunities

People in search of plus-size apparel appear to be practical online consumers. "Big people seem to prefer to buy their clothing online, where the offerings-not only in terms of sizes available, but also fashionable selections-are often far superior to what they find in brick-and-mortar venues," notes Tatjana Meerman, the managing editor of Packaged Facts. Plus-size women often feel alienated in retail environments, uncomfortable, and dispirited by the changing-room rigmarole and spare selection, Meerman adds.

This makes online shopping a comparative nirvana-a cornucopia of specialty selections in sizes 1X through 12X. "To get really nice and sexy plus-size styles, you have to shop online," Jackson says. Indeed, a quick Google search of "plus-size lingerie" yields a variety of specialty sites dedicated solely to this market. The choices span the spectrum, from high-end luxury lingerie made from the most sumptuous fabrics available and accented with intricate detailing to smutty, slutty, fabulously filthy styles for all occasions.

Online retailers of plus-size lingerie sport names like Big Gals Lingerie, Ample Pleasure, Hips and Curves, and have images of plus-size women from 1X to 12X vamping it up in the same types of styles made for "regular" sizes. Moreover, consumers are responding to the choices offered, buying appreciatively and returning for more.

Are there any pitfalls to online sales? What is the product-return rate for this demographic? "We have a very low return rate," Jackson notes, indicating that the high quality of the products' fabric and design (which are selected with an eye toward flattering fit and drape for plus-size body shapes) likely affect this statistic. She also works diligently to create a friendly online-shopping environment, a welcome change from a plus-size customer's usual retail nightmare. Big Gals Lingerie endeavours to make customers 100 percent happy. "We have lots of happy husbands and boyfriends, too," Jackson adds.


Which styles appeal to plus-size women? The same types of styles that all women like: those that make them feel sexy. For this demographic, this often includes shaping pieces that cover the tummy, flattering cuts, and thoughtful design that takes into account a plus-size woman's proportions.

Shirley's best-sellers for plus-size women are the company's signature corsets, particularly its strapless designs made of luxurious Jacquard tapestry and featuring hook-and-eye closures and back laces that provide a double whammy-waist-whittling and knockout cleavage.

Wagner agrees that babydolls and sheer dresses with extra tummy coverage are tops for his company. As far as color selection, "black is always best, but we've seen great numbers on our blue items, as well," he adds, referring to a deep royal blue the Electric Lingerie frequently employs.

Big Gals' top-sellers include long-sleeved mesh minis and a fabulous black corset dress with hot-pink ruffle accents and a lace-up front. A good number of the company's best-sellers are nothing short of unabashedly come-hither quality, yet they offer adequate tummy coverage.

Plus-size business sense

Rona Bonilla notes that Peekay's plus-size business took some time to take off, but not because the market wasn't there. She attributes that to the lack of response from manufacturers to the wants of plus-size customers. "[Manufacturers] were slow to offer the extended sizes, so as a result, our selections were sparse," she recalls.

Now in 2007, the viability of the plus-size market is undeniable and still wide open in terms of finding niche products, superior design, and finding markets abroad. With such an open arena for business, many manufacturers are stepping up their plus-size lines, and retailers in all channels of commerce are offering a more meaningful selection to this segment.

Savvy manufacturers now are listening and delivering the products that plus-size women are demanding. Scharff says a third of Dreamgirl's line contains plus-size offerings, with these styles accounting for the equivalent percentage of the company's total annual sales. Bonilla sends out a message to other manufacturers to catch up: "[Help] to turn the heat up in the bedroom with some lingerie to accommodate the average-size woman."

The bottom line is clear to Shirley's sales director, Eric Schlobohm. (A full 20 percent of Shirley's collection is available in the company's plus-size collection, as well as a selection of items specifically for plus-size clients.) "If you are not offering plus sizes in your merchandising, you are missing a fantastic market covering a third of America and, potentially, 20 to 30 percent more sales."

Jackson couldn't agree more. Although she believes the plus-size market has improved in quality and offerings, she thinks manufacturers and designers should take heed of the market trend. "All in all, the plus-size market is getting better every year," she posits. "It's just time for the big manufacturers to realize that big girls have money and they want to spend it."