July 11, 2013 at 9:14 AM ET
Swimsuit shopping is generally a headache for most women, and for those with curvier bodies needing larger sizes, it can be a downright nightmare – even when you're an international model.
“I don’t know why it’s so hard for a size 12 to buy a swimsuit or a bikini, but it really was traumatizing every time I’d go into a shop to try things on," said Robyn Lawley, a 24-year-old Australian model who this week launched a swimwear line, Madison Plus Select, designed for larger women. "I’d leave being embarrassed by the whole process.”
Swimsuits for curvier women – both one-piece suits and bikinis alike – are creating waves felt beyond the beach and pool deck this year. Until recently, larger women had limited swimwear options that were attractive or comfortable.
That’s how it was for Lawley, who swims daily and designed her own swimsuits because she says she couldn’t find anything that fit or flattered.
“Most of the bathing suits I did have were almost see-through because I had worn them so much,” she said. “I virtually had nothing. What was out there cut into my hips, or didn’t have enough triangle parts to cover my boobs. I was really shocked how limited it was.”
A growing trend
Suits for larger women are garnering more attention recently. In addition to Lawley’s line, blogger Gabi Gregg designed a line of plus-sized bikinis so popular they have been selling out, proving larger-suited swimwear is filling a major gap in the clothing market.
Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for NPD Group, a consumer market research company, said plus-size swimwear is an “exceptionally big trend” and a continual growing market that saw a 22 percent jump in industry sales from 2012 over 2011. While this year’s figures are down, sales are still much higher than what they were two years ago.
Cohen said major brands and retailers are now looking at niche markets that they had cast aside previously during the recession. They’re also realizing that demand will only increase as Americans continue to get bigger, not only because of the nation’s obesity but because of evolution in general. People are much taller than they were decades ago and, as the nation gets grayer, they're bearing bigger girths.
“Swimwear also has became very much a part of the everyday apparel business,” Cohen said. “There were a lot of women wearing swimwear in place of intimate apparel or in place of active sportswear that didn't carry their larger size.”
The "average" woman wears a size 14, which means more than 50 percent of the population is considered plus-size, said Jeanne Grasso, marketing Manager for AlwaysForMe.com, an online apparel store for larger women.
Several years ago, customers were limited in their swimsuit selection because few designers created styles for the plus-size customer, but swimsuit choices are much more abundant now, she said.
“Inspired designers and gorgeous plus-size models are helping to draw more attention to this void in the apparel market and bring more trendy, curve-flattering swimsuits to the forefront," she said.
Women also are finding more choices available to them now because of the Internet, said TODAY style editor Bobbie Thomas.
“That opens up so many more opportunities on both ends because now you have smaller brands that can go directly to consumers and offer products in that niche without the overhead of a big box store,” she said. “Also, you’ve got consumers that can Google exactly what they’re looking for and link up to those boutique places, which gives you more options.”
A complicated part of this market is trying to figure out who falls into it, Thomas said. Lawley may be a size 12 and considered “plus-size” to the fashion industry, but “I don’t think the majority of women I see who wear a 12 should be considered full-figure,” she said.
Some women believe that market begins at size 18 or 20, while others argue it should start at 16.
“It’s a tough thing and there isn’t a council that will ever agree or decide on that,” she said. “Based on your height and your frame and even your age, there are too many variables to really put this all into boxes that have neat little numbers and labels.”
Going for bold
Still, today's larger women are more bold about embracing their curves and wanting their clothing choices to reflect their personalities, Grasso said.
“Several years ago, the focus of plus-size swimwear was to ‘minimize,’" she said. “Today and tomorrow's swimwear collections will be about ‘maximizing’ – maximum style, maximum sexy appeal, maximum confidence.”
That’s certainly how Lawley sees her swimwear line.
“Fashion should be attainable for everyone. I don’t think just because you’re a size 24 or a size 6 that you should have any more right to fashion than anyone else,” she said. “I think it’s unfair for a lot of retailers to not stock core fashion in larger sizes. There are girls who are my age and they want to look cool and trendy. They don’t want to be wearing baggy T-shirts and things like that.”
Lawley said reaction to her apparel has been amazing.
“Everyone is super excited. My friends are e-mailing me, saying ‘I can’t wait for your swimsuit. Finally a swimsuit in my size,’” she said. “A whole bunch of women wanted this, and they finally can get it. It’s been an overwhelming, positive reaction.”
Currently, her sizes only range from 8 to 18, but Lawley plans to go up – and down – in sizes next season, depending on demand.
“I don’t want to segregate markets that are just grouped 'plus-size', or grouped 'straight size,'” she said. “I kind of want it for every size woman. That’s the ultimate goal.”