A Woman's Best Friends

A new store for plus-size women's clothing has greatly improved the selection available to this market segment

It's easy to miss the new store for plus-size women's clothing that opened recently in the Migdalei Tel Aviv shopping mall. But not because the shop is hidden in a distant corner of the mall; it is one of the first stores one sees when entering. Rather, it's because the storefront provides no hint of what it offers: not in the sign that says "Marilyn" in large letters, next to a picture, sketched in a few curved lines, of a purple dress hung on a black hanger, and not in the emaciated white mannequins of the type common in most boutique windows.

The store's owners, Dikla and Micha Fuchs, 31 and 32, admitted that the choice of mannequins stemmed from the lack of any alternative.

Daniel Bar-On

"We couldn't find fuller mannequins anywhere," Dikla said. "We were told they are available in Germany, but then we learned we'd have to order a huge amount, 1,000, to get the order cleared. The only ones around are those designers use."

They are aware of the problems this causes in attracting the attention of their desired customers, but according to Micha, buyers in any case come to the store on purpose, "not by accident or by the way."

In their husbands' wake

This may also explain the boutique's simple, matter-of-fact design. A huge photo of New York City's Times Square covers the front, and the names of the city's most famous streets are hung over shelves throughout the store. The absence of the tempting, eye-popping signs of luxury that usually characterize fashion boutiques also hints that the store's purpose is to serve the needs of women who are largely ignored by the fashion industry rather than to fulfill the aesthetic whims of women who already have full closets.

"The store is named after Marilyn Monroe," Dikla said, adding that for some reason, no one understands the idea behind the name. "And none of the customers believes me when I tell them that she wore a size 14."

It is easy to see why women today find it hard to believe that the ideal of feminine beauty half a century ago was a woman brimming with health, and thus included a broader range of shapes than it does today. Nowadays, women fall into one of two categories: the extremely skinny and all the rest, who in the best case make it into the relatively new label of full-figured and curvaceous.

The idea of opening the boutique stemmed from Micha's experience with Tall Man, a store he launched in Israel five years ago. Originally aimed at tall, thin men, the range of clothing broadened over time to provide solutions for men who wore large sizes.

In an unusual twist, the present boutique's focus on plus-size women came in response to demand from Tall Man customers' wives. "Many men visited the store accompanied by women who asked, 'And what about us?' 'When will you offer clothes in large sizes for us as well?'" Dikla said. "And we understood the difficulty Israeli women have in finding brand-name clothing, jeans in particular, in large sizes."

A quick glance at the clothes on offer immediately makes it clear that although the store is named for the star known for her beauty and her figure (which would be considered fuller than average today ), it does not take its inspiration from the Hollywood splendor found in her closet. Alongside a large selection of jeans, most of the clothes are for daily use: Tommy Hilfiger capri pants in khaki, camel or black, and tailored black pants by Dockers with a thick elastic band in the back meant to prevent them from sliding down over folds of fat in the waist and hips. By adding a blue-and-white-striped, button-down Ralph Lauren shirt, pleated in front, it is possible to create a more formal look.

Calvin Klein T-shirts of thin cotton, some in prints and some embroidered with beads, and classic Lauren polo shirts are no different from the clothing one finds in chains offering regular sizes, except perhaps for their slightly higher quality. Klein's dresses are standouts, among them a short dress decorated with Ikat (in which dye is applied prior to the threads being woven to create the final fabric pattern or design ) in shades of pink, orange, brown and white.

Grandma in tight jeans

What the brands in the store have in common is their American origin. All are internationally recognized. A few, like Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger or Ralph Lauren, are at the luxury end of the fashion map, with many subsidiary lines alongside their main collections. Some, like Levi's, Lee and Sean John (the colorful fashion brand of hip-hop artist Sean Diddy Combs ), offer expensive street wear.

Aside from their common origin, these subsidiary labels bear the appeal of popular luxury. They are not challenging in terms of design, and they satisfy the needs of those who seek fashionable clothes of good quality.

"When it comes to patterns, these are models taken from the designers' regular lines or labels," Micha said. "Only the sizes are different."

Pulling out a black-and-white Klein catalog with designs for the spring 2011 collection, he explained, "The samples marked in orange are the ones that can also be ordered in large sizes." The range of sizes in the boutique runs from 40 to 56, and will reach 60 before winter.

Micha pointed out a long, airy, viscose and elastin dress by Klein on display in the store window. The fabric is a purple, white and orange print; the shoulders are braided and decorated with rings of thin fibers looped around the front. Two other items on hangers in the window would make particularly impressive day wear if combined: a flowered silk tank top with a relaxed fit by Tommy Hilfiger and a pencil skirt of dark denim by Ralph Lauren.

In all, the store's collection is nonthreatening in its design language. "We are rather limited by the existing designs," Dikla said. "And out of what is available, we must choose what seems to us to be suitable for Israeli women."

What have they learned about the clothing habits of their customers? First of all, Dikla said, Israeli women who wear plus sizes are more conservative than their American counterparts.

She took out a turquoise cotton dress by Apple Bottoms, a brand owned in partnership with the Afro-American rapper Nelly. "This line has been very successful in the U.S.," she said. "But in Israel, many women are afraid to wear this dress because of the exposed back, which may reveal fat folds or heavy arms."

In general, she said, women over 50 prefer sleeves that cover their shoulders and upper arms. "It's confusing, because on one hand, we try to break with the conventions of what is deemed correct or suitable for larger women, and on the other hand, we have to be attentive to the needs of our customers."

The most difficult thing to convince them to try on, she said, is jeans. "But the minute they try on Lees or Levis, most are convinced."

According to Micha, customers fall into two categories. Young women prefer tight clothing. Older women prefer loose styles that do not hug the body.

And what about the dominance of black, which is thought to have a slimming effect? Micha said that many women enter the store asking solely for black, but after they agree to try on clothing, they see that the styles make them look good, and then they agree to try pastel or bold colors as well.

Dikla said without hesitation that most customers aspire to dress younger. "My grandmother, who is 78, was here last week and bought tight jeans. They look great on her. I also let her try on my style, which are fuller, but she didn't want them. She wanted only Levi's tight jeans."