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Addition Elle is moving more upscale to serve a younger, trendier customer.CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/The Globe and Mail

A new battle for the plus-size woman is taking shape as fashion players turn their attention to an often-neglected customer.

Retailers ranging from specialty purveyors Penningtons and Addition Elle to department-store merchant the Bay are putting a new push on their plus-size offerings in the face of tough new competition.

On Wednesday, the country's premier flash-sale discount fashion site,, will unveil a separate section devoted to items in size 14 and larger. By March, U.S. style-conscious chain Target Corp. will open its first discount stores in Canada, which are expected to have their own plus-size styles like those in its U.S. outlets.

"We're prepared for the new competition," said Jeremy Reitman, chief executive officer of Reitmans (Canada) Ltd. in Montreal, which owns Penningtons and Addition Elle, the largest players in the segment. "The mantra is: 'Size democracy.' Fashion democracy is not limited by size."

The business appeal is evident: While as many as two-thirds of women fall into plus-size territory, only an estimated 15 per cent of women's apparel sales are in that range, according to researcher NPD Group, whose recent study on the market concluded that it is underserved.

Women have complained for years about the lack of attractive styles in larger sizes.

However, the void grew after the recession when retailers scaled back on their plus-size offerings in search of safer apparel bets. As the economy begins to recover and new competitors move into Canada, retailers are renewing their focus on the potentially lucrative sector.

Stores are stepping up their marketing and body-shape research in the field, adding high-profile lines such as Ralph Lauren, pumping up the fashion quotient in their styling and building their online plus-size presence to draw younger consumers.

Still, business costs can be steeper to develop different patterns with more fabric for larger women. Retailers often struggle to come up with well-fitting products that merit a price that is often as much as 10-per-cent higher than a comparable item in regular lines.

Even so, retailers' efforts can pay off as full-figured shapes become more acceptable, and celebrities such as singer Adele help to give the ample-sized business a positive spin. While sales in the overall $13.2-billion Canadian women's apparel market shrank by 1 per cent in the year ended Aug. 31, sales in the $1.9-billion plus-size segment picked up by 1.6 per cent in the same period, NPD data show.

"Plus-size apparel is the fastest growing category and probably the most underserved market - we hear that loud and clear from our customers," said Yona Shtern, chief executive officer of Beyond The Rack in Montreal, which is launching this week its new My Curvy Closet plus-size division. "They can't find enough product in a broad enough offering on a consistent basis."

Mr. Reitman said his research found that customers were dissatisfied with the "level of fashion" they were getting at his plus-size chains. In the past year or so, under new managers, Addition Elle and Penningtons have refocused, with Addition Elle moving more upscale to serve a younger, trendier customer while Penningtons caters to a more mainstream consumer.

Addition Elle has added fashionable brands, such as DKNY and Buffalo denims, boots with more room in the calf area of the leg and footwear with wider soles and more ankle room. It hired a New York design firm, which worked on high-end Nordstrom and Louis Vuitton shops, to update its stores with glass chandeliers and metal-beaded curtains to give them a more luxurious look.

Ed Gribbin, president of Alvanon Inc., a clothing sizing consultancy in New York, has worked with Reitmans to develop new fits for its plus-size chains.

He said while many retailers simply widen their regular sizes, Reitmans and other global chains now work with specially designed shapes. The most popular is a "modified hourglass" which is about six to eight centimetres wider at the waist, while the proportions at the bust and hips are the same as in regular sizes.

Mr. Gribbin has also worked with Target to update its modified-hourglass shape. "Target does an exceptionally good job," he said. "It's going to make all the Canadian retailers stay on their toes. Fit is a significant value proposition for Target. They spend a lot of time and effort to get it right."

Reitmans' plus-size chains are gearing up for the new competition with a television advertising campaign to trumpet their new styles. "We had a bit of a stumble but I think we're coming back strong in the area," Mr. Reitman said.

The initiatives of plus-size purveyors couldn't come soon enough for Annette Bradford. "I love smart, up-to-date clothing," said the 46-year old Toronto digital television producer, who is a size 14 or 16 with an "extreme" hourglass-shaped frame. "But it is a constant struggle for bigger-sized women."