Full-Figured Fashion Week
Full-Figured Fashion Week. (Nana Brew-Hammond)

On the closing night of last week’s Full Figured Fashion Week (FFFWeek), which took place June 17-22 in New York City, online boutique ASOS received the Retailer of the Year Award.

With their plus-size Curve & Inspire collection being less than three years old — and more established plus-size retailers Lane Bryant and Ashley Stewart remaining relegated among the title sponsors of the week — the award was evidence of the shifting landscape of plus-size apparel retailers.

When Ashley Stewart founder Joseph Sitt opened the store in 1991, Lane Bryant (founded in the 1920s) was probably its biggest competition. But in the last five years, “straight size” retailers like H&M, Forever 21, and The Limited (via their eloquii line, which is now being retired) have entered the plus-size marketplace, among a wave of retailers turning their attention to the full-figured customer.

FFFWeek founder Gwen DeVoe says her event has evolved to match the industry’s growing focus on the plus-size business opportunity. “The first two years, it was definitely about empowering plus-size women and letting them know there are additional fashion choices available to them,” DeVoe explains of the event,  now in its fifth year.

Today, she says, “Full-Figured Fashion Week has become the number one networking opportunity for all small businesses with products and services for plus-size women.”

Full Figured Fashion Week creates community

Instead of a weeklong calendar of fashion shows, the lion’s share of FFFWeek’s schedule featured opportunities for attendees to trade notes in workshops and at panel discussions. There were even creative social mixers. (Curvy Idol Karaoke, anyone?)

Meanwhile, brands hoped to make connections with curvy influencers — the bloggers, independent designers, fashion industry professionals, and entrepreneurs in attendance who are driving the plus-size market. Marie Denee, founder of the popular blog The Curvy Fashionista was among the tastemakers on hand. Bloomingdale’s also hosted a private fashion show at their offices to honor FFFWeek, while Kmart, Ashley Stewart and Lane Bryant hosted blogger events.

Overall, fashion retail sales are slowly rebounding from the 2008 financial crisis, and the subsequent fiscal slump. While apparel and accessories stores reported a 0.2 percent decrease in sales in May 2013 sales compared to the same month last year, annual sales are up nearly 5 percent.

That said, investors are increasingly interested in the growth potential of the plus-size apparel market in particular.

The booming plus-size market

According to The Wall Street Journal, private equity firm Sycamore Partners acquired Hot Topic, Inc. in March for the express purpose of growing their plus-size subsidiary Torrid. Another firm, PWP Growth Equity, joined other investors in infusing $18.2 million into plus-sized retailer B. Lane, Inc.  Likewise, Charlesbank Capital Partners invested $525 million in plus-sized women’s retailer OneStopPlus.

Citing a report by OneStopPlus, WSJ noted the plus-size market could be worth $17 billion considering the fact that 66 percent of North American adults are overweight. The number of plus-size Americans is expected to increase to 74 percent by 2019.

Lane Bryant CEO Linda Heasley says the crowding marketplace is ultimately a good thing for plus-sized fashion consumers, noting it forces all players to step up. “I think sometimes, in the industry, we’re a little slow to give this customer the latest trends and […] that’s important for her,” Heasley said. “She shouldn’t have to wait two years to get something, or even a year. Let’s see if we can all go a little faster for her.”

Full-figured fashion goes mainstream

Indeed many of the designs that paraded the runway— the last two evenings of FFFWeek were dedicated to designer showcases — defied the stereotypes of what full-figured women “can” and “should” wear.  The brand Swimsuits for All, for instance, showed sexy little bikinis and one-pieces featuring cut-outs, plunging necklines, and digital prints that fashionistas of any size would rock.

DeVoe hopes this recent growth in retail options moves retailers beyond creating segregated plus lines or designating plus sections. “I’m looking for an opportunity to go into any boutique or any large retail store and see my size right next to my smaller counterpart. I wanna shop with my sisters.”

Nana Ekua Brew-Hammond is the author of the novel Powder Necklace and founder of the blog People Who Write. Follow her on Twitter @nanaekua.