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Crystal Parsons doesn’t try on clothes when she shops. She hasn’t worn a dress in 20 years. But one day this spring, she found herself in the unavoidable position of having to try on dresses because she needs a wedding gown. “I’ve had nightmares that I’m going to get stuck in a very expensive dress,” Parsons says in the fitting room at Kleinfeld bridal salon in New York. She’s filming an episode of TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress: Big Bliss, which documents plus-size women in the once-demoralizing hunt for the perfect wedding gown. “I tend to think negatively about myself,” she says. “My weight has always been my problem.”
While the average clothing size of women in the U.S. is 14, most high-end bridal designers have long refused to cater to clients beyond size 16. Yet with the economy pressuring the industry to find new revenue streams, a growing number of designers are now trying to fill a gaping hole in the country’s $2.1 billion wedding dress market. “These are underserved consumers who have money to spend,” says Catherine Moellering, executive vice-president of retail trend consultant Tobe. “There’s an immense opportunity here to develop brand loyalty because these are marginalized consumers.”
Kleinfeld, the wedding dress mecca, has already quadrupled its plus-size selection since first appearing on Big Bliss two seasons ago. Now, more than 10 percent of gowns sold at the boutique—where the average wedding dress runs about $4,500—are size 12 or larger. J. Crew (JCG), whose wedding dresses cost as much as $3,000, will unveil plus-size bridal gowns (up to size 20) in its fall 2011 collection. The phenomenon has even reached the rarefied realm of high fashion. Over the past year designer Reem Acra has doubled her made-to-order wedding dress business by going where few couturiers had before—size 16 and beyond. “Today I got an order of 18 [custom] wedding dresses,” Acra says. “They were all size 16.” Her made-to-order dresses begin at $30,000.
A key part of the big bride pioneers’ success is that they remain outliers. Randy Fenoli, the fashion director at Kleinfeld and a self-proclaimed champion of plus-size brides, routinely has difficulty trying to get designers to go full figure—in many instances for reasons pertaining to vanity. “Some designers are like, ‘I don’t think my dresses are going to look good on a size 30 girl.’ ” That refrain sounds familiar to Vogue’s European Editor-at-Large Hamish Bowles. “I certainly think there are designers who might not see that as their ideal,” he says.
Then there are practical concerns. Because larger women carry varying amounts of weight in different areas—the bust, the waist, the hips—it’s hard to standardize sizes above 14. Acra concedes that upping her dress sizes to 32 required “a lot of effort to figure out the styles and the fit.” But Acra, who hired a consultant to help with the process, maintains that designing a plus-size gown isn’t much different from creating an ordinary one. It’s a realization others have had, too. “I think a lot of designers pragmatically understand that this is a very significant market,” says Bowles. “And I think you’d be surprised at the level of high-end designers who cater to plus-size women, as they should.”
Elise Rosenblum, a bridal industry veteran whose résumé includes Saks (SKS), Kleinfeld, and Acra, agrees. “This isn’t about designers saying, ‘I don’t want to make a dress in a size 20,’ ” she says. “They’ll do anything. You just have to be willing to pay for it.” The retailer, however, “really has to make a commitment. Then [designers] have to literally do an entire collection”—which some view as a financial risk. When Rosenblum began managing New York’s Pronovias bridal boutique in 2009, she was greeted with resistance from her bosses. When she finally persuaded them to begin stocking plus-size samples, the store began “to see that we were starting to sell as many 18s as we were 12s.”
Rosenblum is thrilled Acra has begun doing the same. “Finally, finally, finally—that was my biggest cry when I was there. It was a horrible shopping experience, especially for a girl who was a size 16 or 18.” Yukia Walker—age 33, size 20—went through that horror when she was shopping for her dress four years ago. With a $3,000 budget, Walker couldn’t find an upscale gown in her size anywhere. “I was ready to fly to several locations,” she says. “I ended up with this gown that I couldn’t stand.”
The frustration eventually inspired Walker to open her own bridal salon dedicated to the healthy buxom set. Curvaceous Couture, which she opened in the basement of her Columbia (Md.) home in 2009, specializes in gowns ranging from size 12 to 32 and priced from $1,000 to $25,000. As word spread, Walker began seeing clients from New York, Virginia, South Carolina, and the Caribbean. “If people are so fed up that they’re willing to come to someone’s basement, it’s a testament to how difficult this industry is and how embarrassing this situation is,” Walker says. Curvaceous Couture has since upgraded to a 5,000-square-foot showroom that serves 15 to 20 brides-to-be on a typical day, with a 92 percent sale rate on first-time visits. Walker is scouting for a second location.
The skinny establishment is trying to adjust. Madison Avenue bridal salon Amsale, subject of the WE reality series Amsale Girls, a rival to Say Yes to the Dress, says it makes gowns for women of any size. But of the 100-plus samples in the store, none are plus size. Instead, “if the girl doesn’t fit the sample, we have different devices to hold together a dress that doesn’t zip all the way up,” says Amsale Chief Executive Neil Harris. He and the label’s designer, Amsale Aberra, maintain that these “devices” do not threaten sales to plus-size clients. “I’m not aware of plus-size brides finding it particularly difficult here,” Aberra says.
Amsale, however, isn’t the only outfit that gets a bit touchy when it’s newest customers are mentioned. Upscale wedding boutique Priscilla of Boston, which carries dresses up to size 20, “respectfully declined” to comment. Repeated calls to fashion house Badgley Mischka went unanswered. J. Crew would not speak on the record, and Vera Wang, the wedding empress who makes plus-size gowns for David’s Bridal but not her main line, was mum. Still, the main selling point for brides, no matter their size, hasn’t changed. Rosenblum, who sees brides from all over the world, says each has the same demand every time: “Make me look thin!”