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Clothing Industry Looks Beyond Perfect Size 6 to Larger Women

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THE average American woman is 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighs 143 pounds, and wears a size 12 on top and a 14 on the bottom, says Suzan Nanfeldt, a plus-size image consultant based in Cliffside Park, N. J. Yet, until recently, she contends, there has been a tremendous discrepancy between the amount of clothes manufactured for small women and those made for larger women.

While sales in the rest of the women's apparel industry have remained relatively flat over the last several years, the plus-size market (generally sizes 14-24) has emerged as one of the fastest-growing and most profitable areas for manufacturers and retailers of women's clothing.

The women's plus-size market accounts for 21.4 percent ($14.4 billion) of the $67.6 billion women's clothing industry, according to NPD Research Inc., a marketing and research group in Pt. Washington, N.Y. In 1992-93, the women's plus-size clothing industry grew 5.4 percent, NPD Group reports, and 10.8 percent in 1991-92.

``During the depths of the recession, an awful lot of manufacturers and retailers were having an abysmal time,'' Ms. Nanfeldt says. ``[But] this market continued to expand.''

More than 35 million women - or 1 in 3 - in the US wear a size 14 or larger, according to industry reports. Analysts project that the primary plus-size market, defined as women aged 35 to 64, will increase 16.5 percent during the next decade as baby boomers approach middle age.

``If you're a plus person and you open any fashion magazine, turn on any television show, you don't exist,'' Nanfeldt says, who is herself a large-size customer.

But in the last five to six years, manufacturers and retailers at all levels of the industry - those who produce low-cost, moderately priced, and more expensive clothing - have begun to recognize the potential of this market.

Upscale department stores such as Bloomingdale's, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom's, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, and Macy's have opened entire departments or expanded existing ones specifically for women's plus sizes. In addition, the number of specialty retailers coming on the scene has been growing by ``leaps and bounds,'' Nanfedlt says, citing August Max, Lane Bryant, Audrey Jones, and The Forgotten Woman as a few.

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