New York Fashion Week has come and gone, but on a mild evening recently, editors from Vogue, Glamour and People StyleWatch were sitting in the front row for another fashion show. Lane Bryant, the plus-size retailer, was presenting a collection designed by Isabel Toledo, a designer probably best known for the lemon-grass wool lace dress and matching coat Michelle Obama wore on the cold morning of the 2009 inauguration. As waiters circulated with trays of champagne, the editors gathered at the Seagram Building were conspicuously curious about the show.
“This seems very different from the usual mass retailer collaboration,” said Sasha Iglehart, the deputy fashion director of Glamour. “There are two very difference forces coming together. Who knows how it may turn out.”
Toledo, a native of Cuba who has been making clothes for 30 years, is often thought of as a designer’s designer because of her attention to craft and her eye to detail. And here, on the Lane Bryant runway, she did not hold back on her usual signatures. On display were her textures (laces, chiffons and embroidery), her prints (including a jazzy monochrome by her husband, the illustrator Ruben Toledo) and her shapes (wrap dresses, shirt jackets and slim shifts).
Though Isabel Toledo’s namesake line is typically carried in sizes 2 to 8 at shops like Bergdorf Goodman and Ikram in Chicago, at prices often in the four figures, she said that her Lane Bryant collection ($98 to $178) was far from watered down. Nor did she tweak the shapes or colors specifically for a plus-size woman.
“It’s really about proportion and fit, which can be a challenge at any size,” she said. “I didn’t decide suddenly that I was going to add an elastic band.”
That is exactly what plus-size customers (generally defined as size 14 and above) want to hear, said Linda Heasley, the chief executive of Lane Bryant. Indeed, a 2012 report from the consumer research company NPD Group found that 79 percent of plus-size women want clothing in the same styles as that offered for their smaller friends.
“There’s a myth that this client only wants basics,” Heasley said. “She has been told she can’t wear horizontal stripes or she can’t wear belts. That’s not true. We wanted to change the conversation.”
In its first such collaboration, the company approached Toledo last October, partly because of her association with the first lady, but also, Heasley said, because “we serve a nice Latina population, so her Cuban-American heritage resonates.”
Lane Bryant, with more than 800 stores nationwide, is hardly alone in recognizing that plus-size women want more fashionable clothes. Eric Peterson, the founder of Janeric Fashions, a manufacturer and wholesaler in New York with clients like Dress Barn and Fred Meyer, has witnessed the shifting attitudes.
“The buyers were pointing to their e-commerce sites, where customers were asking for trendier looks,” Peterson said. He also noted that the plus-size junior is driving a lot of the demand. “She doesn’t want to wear her mom’s clothing or an oversize fit from the juniors department,” he said. “She is willing to take more risks. So the stores will maybe try a trend piece in junior plus before adding it in for the plus woman.”
As Heasley, who has already lined up Sophie Theallet to design a lingerie collection for fall, pointed out, we see more actresses in that size range on the red carpet these days. “And some of them have made it onto the cover of Vogue or InStyle,” she said.
At awards shows, actresses like Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer and Gabourey Sidibe are often dressed by Tadashi Shoji, an eveningwear specialist based in Los Angeles. Eleven years ago, when Shoji started making plus sizes, he was aware of a stigma in the industry, but now he senses that the prejudice is waning as the category booms. From 2012 to 2013, he had a 62 percent increase in his plus-size business. (According to NPD’s latest figures, the plus-size market takes in more than $19 billion a year.)
“Many American women are a 14 now,” Shoji said, “and they have the same wants as any woman: to feel beautiful.”
Although this is her first time designing for the plus-size market, Toledo echoed the sentiment. “Maybe this category has not been addressed as much, but that’s changing,” she said. “Women of all types are great customers if they love fashion.”