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Plus-size ladies' wish lists for shopping zen

Curvy women air their fashion gripes asking for more style and variety

Ellen Warren

September 16, 2011

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What do women want? That's a question for the ages. Let a roomful of psychologists figure it out.

But I do know what plus-size women want. Because I asked them.

They want the variety and quality of clothes that are available to "normal-size" (their words) women.

They want pretty underwear, not "industrial strength" (their words again) armature with all the sex appeal of a loaf of Wonder bread.

They don't want to have to go on a "scavenger hunt" in stores and online to put together a single cute outfit and they don't want to pay an extravagant penalty price for plus-size fashions. Or to have to shop at stores for cross-dressers to find stylish patterned tights that fit.

To stores that mix maternity clothes with the plus sizes, well shame on you! And while you're at it, could you move the plus-size department far away from the petites?

I learned this and so much more on the recent evening I spent talking to shoppers at Vive la Femme (vivelafemme.com), a plus-size boutique at 2048 N. Damen Ave.

When I asked about shopping woes, "How much time do you have?" replied Nikea Young, 30, a Chicago plus-size model and blogger (examiner.com).

Yes, fashions for plus sizes have improved from the days when the only options were blobby muumuu dresses to hide under. In fact, a lot of plus-size clothes have moved in the opposite direction, showing loads of cleavage and are "over-sexualized," says Young. "I like to keep the 'cousins' covered. I just want some regular clothes that are cute that I can wear to Bible study and not feel like I'm going to hell."

On the issue of clothing complaints, Amber McCulloch had a ready answer: "Bras in particular!" McCulloch, 32, who works in public relations and blogs at http://www.stylepluscurves.com, complains that most bras in her size "look like I should be kneading bread with 13 children."

The Chicagoan was thrilled to buy two matching lacy sets from Isabella Fine Lingerie, the venerable Lincoln Park store at 840 W. Armitage Ave. And, "Forever 21 saved my life when I discovered that there was a plus section at the store on State Street (26 S. State St.). I go there three times a week. I'm excited about fashion again because with trendier clothes you feel that you're more mainstream."

"The fashion industry thinks plus size is a size 6," griped Young. In fact, the average American woman weighs close to 170 pounds and wears a size 14, and more than half of us are categorized as overweight. Americans are getting heavier, not leaner. You would think that retailers would wake up to the sales potential — especially in a miserable sales economy. That said, there are bright spots for curvy women like Deb Elston, 53, a Chicago cellphone security worker who heeded boutique owner Stephanie Sack's mantra, "Just try it!"

Now she was at the cash register buying her first pair of jeans since 1986. "I just felt fat and uncomfortable in jeans," Elston said. But Sack cajoled her into giving them another shot after a quarter-century of denim abstinence. As she modeled her new purchase (Miracle Body, $125), she spread her arms wide and declared, "I feel smashing!"

shopellen@tribune.com

Problem? Solution!

Boutique owner Stephanie Sack's list of plus-size women's clothing complaints and her solutions:

Problem: Can't find pants/jeans that fit; women usually buy them too big.

Solution: "Shop relentlessly" and pay no attention to size or brand; just try and try and try. (If they buckle at the back of the knee, they're too big.)

Problem: "I don't like my … so I don't wear … "

Solution: "If women are shopping with excessive rules, get over it. Don't get in your own way!"

Problem: "I don't wear color because black makes me look thinner."

Solution: Color is flattering; you'll get compliments. You're not kidding anyone by wearing black, which "frankly can be very aging."

Curvy shoppers recommend:

Stores: Ashley Stewart, Avenue, Fashion Bug, Forever 21, Lane Bryant, Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom, Torrid

Websites: alight.com; annascholz.com; cherished-woman.com; daphne1.com; donnaricco.com; ebay.com; fashiontofigure.com; kiyonna.com; lafayette148.com; monifc.com; svobodastyle.com; sydneyscloset.com; ullapopken.com