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Main » 2011 » May » 30 » In Germany, big sizes mean big business
3:17 PM
In Germany, big sizes mean big business

One of two Germans is overweight, experts say. Not surprisingly, many fashion-houses, textile manufactures and general retailers have discovered large women as an interesting clientele, because big sizes mean big business, too.

Most department stores nowadays offer a "big and beautiful" corner, every major town or city features at least one local retailer that specialises in fashion for baroque beauties. Last but not least, mail order companies cater for big ladies.

Nevertheless, the fuller woman still often feels neglected by fate and fashion alike. "All the clothes I see are made for girls, there's nothing for real women", grumbles Anna Bauer, a chunky shopkeeper in her mid-forties.

Browse the Internet and you'll find nothing but complaints in forums like "Germany's fat site", where big women lament the lack of more becoming clothes.

Irma Mahnel dresses up the larger woman.

Indeed, it takes some shopping around before you find fashion for the more rounded figure. But a rich variety is revealed to those that persevere with their search. This ranges from discount clothing to designer fashion (Marina Rinaldi, Sallie Sahne, Irma Mahnel), including basics such as jeans and T-shirts, business clothing, sports wear and casual gear - and is by no means dowdy or provincial.

"We gear towards the 35-to-45-year-old woman with two or more kids, women who grew up with rock music", explains Wolfgang Krogmann, managing director of Ulla Popken. The company is one of Europe's leading big size retailers, with US$175 million in annual sales derived from over 200 shops and a mail-order business.

But not all chains find larger-sized clothes central to their business. "It's the young woman in her twenties who wants to follow fashion that we have mind," claims Yvonne Theis, product manager of the Swedish textile trader H&M. She also has to admit: that H&M's "Big and Beautiful" line is a small collection and not available everywhere in Germany. Only some 150 out of H&M's 230 stores in the country carry larger sizes.

Increasing size variation has tided retailers over tough times

Even with trade slumping, as it has been doing for more than a year now, middle-market retailers specialising in women's wear for US sizes 16 to 34 (or German sizes 46 to 60) were able to increase their sales significantly, experts say, and expectations are high.

"It's a growing market", predicts Peter Sartorius from the Women's Outer Garment Association. "Market potentials haven't been fully tapped yet", agrees Siegfried Jacob, assistant general manager of the National Textile Retailers Association.

Still, with the textile business traditionally being a secretive industry, solid figures are rare. Neither the number of big-sizes retailers is available, nor are total market revenues.

It is not only lifestyle and diet patterns in the world's third largest economy that contribute to the experts' market assessment. Demographic factors are significant as well. As economists have noted, very soon every second German will be over 50. And as every women past child-bearing age knows, nature decrees that post-menopausal women grow by two sizes on average. What was once a 10 is likely to become a 14, and so on.

Already more than a quarter of Germany's women take a US-sized 20 - a hard fact, according to Ulla Ertelt, a marketing specialist in Frankfurt.

"Women who take a big size are grateful customers" says Monika von Wrede, spokeswomen of the Steilmann Company. Steilmann appeals to those baroque beauties who won't find clothes as easily as the dainty elfins that most fashion designers have in mind.

Steilmann, one of Germany largest textile manufactures, not only offers its own large-size label "Gigi" but also produces collections for major retailers. "Grateful? Indeed," adds Friedrich Suhr, a marketing consultant, "provided you understand and cater for their needs."

Basically, what these women need is pampering. In a society where being slim is considered beautiful it's their self-esteem that needs to be strengthened first of all. And this is what retailers have to bear in mind, Suhr argues.

Retailers have to develop a list of extra services, starting with the location and the design of the shop (it has to be spacious with bigger dressing booths than usual) and continuing to include many services almost defunct in retailing, such as alterations done in store, fashion shows, snacks to keep clients in good humour and regular updated mailings.

If all these are included, customers may travel up to 200 km in order to shop at a store. What's more, they spend about a third more than normal sized women per purchase.

Quality and cut still at a premium in large-size stores

The business hinges on the quality of the clothes themselves and their cuts, and that's the trickiest part. Simple enlargements - experts call it gradation - of smaller sizes won't work, because of the very significant variations in physique.

Not all larger-sized women are evenly so when compared with their slimmer contemporaries with some developing big busts but retaining relatively small hips, while others grow heavy around the hips but have small busts.

Furthermore, sleeves need to be cut differently and darts placed in different positions. All in all, materials need to be sturdier, since they are put under a lot more strain, and they have to stretch easily.

"Instead of a linen one would prefer a cotton elasthan mix", Andrea Berndt, spokeswoman of the "Happy Size Company" explains. The Internet-based retailer employs a "big sizes specialist", who develops special cuts for their clientele in order to adopt new seasonal trends. "We make sure that our clothes fit a woman sized 16/18 as well as a size 32", Berndt says.

Contrary to the assumption that big woman are best dressed in baggy clothes, large size expert Dorothee Mahnel believes that "there is no need for big, tall or overweight women to hide their bodies."

Mahnel sells classy, big-size fashion to upper middle class women, designed and produced mostly in southern Germany. Mahnel runs two shops where she counts business women and opera singers amongst her customers. Depending on their figure these women should either accentuate necklines, legs or even the waist, Mahnel argues. Waisted jackets, see-through blouses and low necklines are no rarities in her shops, and even dramatic floral patterns and big stripes are available.

Most important, however, are the fabrics: silk, cashmere, wool and jersey, mostly from Italian manufacturers, constitute the basis of the elegant Mahnel-woman.

Even the prejudice that big clothes can't be fashionable is refuted by manufacturers like Ulla Popken, Happy Size and H& M. They all pride themselves on the variations of cargo pants they currently offer, particularly as cargo pants are this season's hit. Instead of two or more voluminous pockets on each leg, the giant cargos feature only one fairly unobtrusive hint of a pocket per leg.

But that doesn't satisfy Christiane Sültemeier. "In terms of fashion they always lag behind", the 26-year-old student complains, particularly about the choices that manufacturers offer. "There is nothing hip or trendy for young people like me. For us it's still big size, big problem."

Whenever Christiane, who takes a US size 30, craves something out of the ordinary, she either prints her own T-shirts or sews her own clothes. Thanks to the quarterly "Burda plus" magazine she is at least able to find some interesting patterns.

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