Pharos-Tribune

December 22, 2013

Plus-size and proud

Bridal shop carves out market among under-served 'curvy girls'

by Sarah Einselen Pharos-Tribune
Pharos-Tribune

---- — ROCHESTER — Katie Gregory stood on a “princess platform” examining her wedding dress in a full-length mirror at Miss Pamela’s Bridal Salon.

She’d driven from South Bend to pick up the dress Dec. 13, four months after her first visit to the bridal shop. As she checked the fit of the gown she’ll be wearing down the aisle May 17, she praised the salon’s focus on girls like her who wear dresses size 18 and up — commonly called “plus sizes.”

“I’ve heard horror stories from a lot of big girls,” said Gregory, 27. Friends of hers had visited bridal shops nearer home and were put off by workers’ attitudes or the lack of dresses available in their size, she said.

“They go to try on dresses and they don’t have anything in their size and it’s all clipped and doesn’t look right,” Gregory said.

That wasn’t the case at Miss Pamela’s, she added. There, she felt comfortable, and tried on five plus-size dresses, eventually choosing the third.

“I really liked the atmosphere,” Gregory said.

Miss Pamela’s, owned by Pamela Inwood of Rochester, last month moved into a new location at 723 Main St. in Rochester. Inwood keeps more than 200 dresses hanging in the stock room, she said, in order to have dresses on hand in every size from 18 to 36.

The least expensive dress there is $395. Most fall in the $800 to $1,600 range, she said.

Nearing her store’s fourth anniversary as a plus-size salon, Inwood said she originally opened Miss Pamela’s as a resale bridal shop in 2008.

“My resale idea wasn’t working,” Inwood said. Many of the 500 to 600 dresses she had at the resale store’s closing in October 2009 were sizes 8 to 12, she said. About 350 of those went to Brides Against Breast Cancer, a Florida-based charity contributing to programs for cancer patients, their families and caregivers.

Those sizes didn’t match the women she was meeting as they entered her shop, Inwood said. Close to 65 percent were looking for plus-size gowns. So after what Inwood called a “real quick flip,” the shop reopened Jan. 1, 2010, to cater exclusively to those women.

It’s a growing market, she added. Fashion writers widely report that the average American woman wears a size 14, which in bridal and evening wear is a size 18. That’s where the traditional plus-size category begins. And market researchers at NPD Group Inc. reported in 2012 that two-thirds of plus-size women said shopping for plus-size clothing was more stressful than shopping for regular clothing.

More than half of those women said it was hard to find plus-size clothing with the same level of quality as other clothes, the NPD Group reported.

“In order to be successful in this category, retailers and brands need to create a comfortable shopping environment tailored to a variety of shapes and sizes,” NPD Group’s chief industry analyst, Marshal Cohen, said in a release accompanying the report. “There are so many consumers who wear at least one item that is plus size, and yet the market is dramatically under-served.”

Inwood said some 40 percent of her customers, maybe more, come from outside Indiana, many of them from the Chicago area or from Cleveland and Detroit. Most are seeking a bridal gown, but a fair number — 132 out of the 496 who’d visited since January — want a bridesmaid’s dress or something for their appearance as mother of the bride.

“They come in with a deer-in-the-headlights look,” Inwood said. “They’re afraid of how they’re going to be treated.”

On average, her customers wear a size 24 in wedding dresses. They’re so used to people looking down on them, she explained, that “they see judgment everywhere they go.” Some of the women she works with have broken down crying in the dressing room as they got ready to try on dresses.

But by the time they leave, she said, her staff has tried to help them feel more comfortable.

“They’re women who are getting married,” Inwood said. “No judgment. No judgment at all.”

And if the ratings on WeddingWire.com are any indication, it’s working. Every one of the 48 reviews gave the shop five out of five stars in all five categories polled.

Now settled in about 4,000 square feet of retail space in downtown Rochester, Inwood’s goal is to turn Miss Pamela’s into the best plus-size bridal salon in the country, she said.

Sarah Einselen is news editor at the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at sarah.einselen@pharostribune.com or 574-732-5151. Twitter: @PharosSME