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The Oprah Effect

The plus-size woman can have fashionable and sexy innerwear at last.

Oprah Winfrey

Oprah Winfrey’s show helped put a focus on plus-size fashion.

Photo By Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWDStyle issue 01/24/2011

The plus-size woman can have fashionable and sexy innerwear at last — and they can thank Oprah.

“The Oprah Winfrey Show” began featuring bra-fitting segments in 2005, and retailers and manufacturers got the message that women with fuller figures want innerwear that is comfortable and functional, but also fashionable. Another impact on the category: red-carpet divas including Jennifer Lopez, Queen Latifah, Fergie, Mo’Nique and Beyoncé, who have made it no secret that voluptuous curves were chic and desirable.

Since 2005, the average dress size in America has grown to 14 from 12, while the average bra cup size has graduated to 36C from 34B a decade earlier. As a result, major bra brands such as Just My Size at Hanesbrands; Warner’s and Olga at The Warnaco Group; Flexees and Lilyette at Maidenform, and Wacoal have responded to the growing demand for larger sizes with broader assortments of cup sizes, in the D, DD or larger range, as well as novelty styles such as strapless. Shapewear specialists including Spanx, Rago, Va Bien, Body Wrap, Sassybax, DuMi, Shapeez, Squeem and Cass have expanded into plus sizes as well.

Despite the strong demand for plus-size undergarments cited by retailers and makers, the total plus-size intimates business was down 4.5 percent to $3.22 billion in the 12 months through November, compared with plus-size apparel, which dipped 1.6 percent to $17.59 billion during the same period, according to NPD Group. But two classifications in intimate apparel are showing positive results: Sales of panties increased 3.4 percent to $638.1 million, and shapewear posted a 27.7 percent gain to $419.8 million.

Addressing the popularity of large-size intimates, Linda LoRe, president of the Frederick’s of Hollywood Group Inc., said: “It’s no secret America is getting larger, with the average dress size now being 14, and more full-­figured women know their [intimate apparel] size. We made a conscious effort over the past four to five years to build the plus-size and full-figure [bra and corset] business because of the plus-size customer’s loyalty factor. This customer wants to be treated the same as a woman who wears an A- or B-cup bra. She wants fashion colors, pretty fabrics and patterns and seasonal bras and lingerie.”

Maureen Stabnau, senior vice president of merchandising at barenecessities.com, agreed that plus-size women demanded more style options and the growth of the market caused vendors to come out with more designs, including sports bras and deep plunge bras. She said the full-figure sports bra business is projected to generate percentage sales gains in the “midteens” this year. Brands include Natori, Le Mystère, Shock Absorber, Anita, Goddess, Elomi and Champion. Plus-size shapewear by Dr. Rey, Body Wrap, Bali, Annette, Va Bien and ShaToBu are also “great growth categories.”

“There’s been a growing demand for plus-size shapewear and bras over the past five years,” said Michele Martins-Crawbuck, divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel at Woman Within, a retail division of Redcats USA. “Customers really didn’t feel good about themselves because they didn’t have the offerings. We partnered with our factories and we now offer seamless technology shapewear up to 4X, which is hard to find.”

Woman Within sells plus-size intimates bearing the Comfort Choice and Amoureuse labels and just launched its proprietary Dreams & Co. brand.

Vendors said the appetite for fashion merchandise continues to build.

Mary Alice Kelly, director of Eveden Inc., the U.S. operation of London-based Eveden Group, said, “We now do some styles [in] up to six fashion colors and we rotate colors because we’ve found our customers want us to run the same color [for] up to 18 months.”

Kelly added that Eveden will launch a line of plus-size shapewear at the February market for fall 2011 called Elomi Curves. Gregory Gimble, vice president of Va Bien Inc., said plus-size intimates are a strong category for online retailers: “We have seen our e-commerce and our specialty store business grow considerably over the past few years.”