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SPORTS CLOTHING MAKERS STRETCH TO FIT PLUS SIZES

From Serena Williams' tie-dyed purple-and-black Puma tennis togs to Lindsay Davenport's near-traditional Nike garb, the U.S. Open offers a gamut of colors, fabrics and styles. But still excluded from access to these tennis brands and many other sports fashions are larger women, a market now starting to find champions because of accelerating sales.

Big women play sports and exercise, and big women shop.

"Everyone is looking at large sizes as an opportunity, and sports apparel is no different," says Marshal Cohen, senior apparel analyst at the NPD Group, a marketing information company based in Port Washington.

What attracts manufacturers and retailers to the space are projections for exceptional growth in the next few years, in part reflecting demographics highlighting a surge in the numbers of women reaching 50 years of age.

With age in many cases comes weight, but also with age come loyalty to brands and the financial wherewithal to pay up for flattering clothes.

Cohen said he expects plus-size women's apparel sales to grow at an 8 percent annual rate for the next few years, doubling the 4 percent yearly increase projected for the overall women's market.

Plus-size women's apparel, considered size 14W and up, accounted for sales of $26 billion in 1999, up 15 percent in two years, according to the NPD Group. Total women's sales have grown about 3 percent for each of the past few years.

Sales of plus-size women's clothing in 1999 accounted for 27.1 percent of total, up from 25.4 percent in 1997.

Some of the most successful women's retailers this year, notably Talbots, are catering to plus-size apparel to speed sales. But the trend has yet to break through into sports clothes, although retailers claim demand is there.

"I believe very strongly in keeping the older woman happy," said Deborah Branch, owner of the Tennis Shop of Montecito, who sees the older market and plus sizes as a growing part of her business. "I have to have things in here for people over 50 ... they're the ones with the money."

But it's not easy to source large-size sports apparel, and the form-fitting fashions for stars such as Nike's Mary Pierce or Reebok's Venus Williams mostly just get buyers into the door. "They look at the tight stuff and then buy something else," said Branch, whose shop is near Santa Barbara, Calif.

On a broader scale, women's sportswear e-commerce company Lucy.com offers plus sizes under certain labels, and says the business is significantly larger than was anticipated when the site went live in November a year ago.

"It's under-served -- especially in the sports category," said Susie Kuhn, plus-size buyer for the company. Large sizes have tended to be "offered in navy and black and then, 'Hey, get on with it'," she said.

Not anymore. Lucy.com's plus sizes include brands Everlast, Danskin's Plus line, and A Big Attitude. Moving Comfort will offer an exclusive plus-size running line through Lucy.com this spring. And Lucy.com in April plans to introduce its own in-house designed line of plus-size wear.

Lucy.com -- a sponsor of the Sanex Women's Tennis Association Tour -- says the average order size from plus customers totals more than its overall order size, and larger women tend to buy in multiples. The return rate also is far below the company's average.

"Retailers are realizing what a viable and profitable business it can be," said Kuhn. The Portland, Ore.-based company sent out its first targeted direct mail piece for plus sizes in August.

But there are hurdles for manufacturers, including the risk of putting resources into what is still a small market. Too, larger clothes are more costly to make, and some retailers are reluctant to pay more for them.

Then there's perception: 'Big' for women rarely means just 'big,' as it often does for large men; it can carry a connotation of fat.

"A lot of people are concerned about marketing and advertising it. (They) don't want a brand identified with a large woman," said George Horowitz, chief executive officer of Active Apparel Group in New York. "Certainly, we don't agree with that."

Horowitz, whose company in late August said it intends to buy privately held Everlast, says he believes in the long-term growth of the category and is committed to creating fashion for it. Active Apparel has held a licensing agreement to sell Everlast's women's line since 1992.

"I think a lot of the retailers aren't paying enough attention to it, nor are the manufacturers," Horowitz said.

Active Apparel is "at least breaking even" on its large size Everlast sales but is "nowhere near the profitability" of the company's other lines, he said. And, "it's tiny compared to our overall business."

Horowitz said the company refocused on plus-size sales a year and a half ago, after backing away from efforts in the early 1990s because of a lack of encouragement from retailers.

It is still not easy to find retailers to support the product. "Retailers don't want to pay more ... and it's not the same," said Horowitz of the extra production costs. "I don't think the problem is on the consumer end."

For its part, Nike indicates it is open to the idea of plus sizes, provided the market is there. "We'll always look at what the market is demanding," said Mike Nakajima, Nike's director of U.S. sports marketing for tennis. "If consumer demand is there, we'll certainly look into it."

Says NPD's marketing specialist Cohen of the major sports brands: "I can't imagine they aren't looking at it. If they're not, they should be."

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