Karen Solomon, Special to SF Gate
If you have ever wondered why they skimped on the fabric in a garment marked “extra large,” or laughed uproariously at the sadistic misnomer of “one size fits all,” then you understand the paradox of feeling like a normal, sexy, stylish, fashionable City girl and yet, for some reason, being as unfit for off-the-rack clothing as a three-armed, two-headed mutant. According to the US National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases of the National Institutes of Health, more than half of all US adults are characterized as overweight, with half of those qualifying as “obese” (a distinction based on a higher percentage of body fat). Should we expect half the population to wear potato sacks while the other half shops Saks?
This is not the forum for arguing about the latest theories on diet, exercise, and weight loss. But in this town where people talk about food and eating the way politics are discussed in D.C., or celebrities dominate the conversation in Hollywood, it’s no wonder that a few of us hover somewhat north of the “perfect” size six. The Bay Area shopper is an educated, demanding lot, especially when it comes to clothing, and for the stunningly stylish well-fed set, gorgeous, quality garments of all stripes are also a priority. Luckily for us, the city offers indulgences of another flavor — a wide menu of clothing options for the forgotten, less media-visible half.
Far be it from me to promote the value of a nationwide chain when there are so many local, independent purveyors to support. But, this location of this large-size giant caters to Emeryville’s stylish urban (read “African American”) clientele. As a result, they carry a great selection of youthful styles, and garments that mothers of chubby women told us we could never wear, like thong underwear and skimpy halter tops, up to size 28. Off-the-shoulder peasant blouses, low-rise jeans, chunky jewelry and belts that fit are all in stock and in your size. For the professional women, blazers, blouses, pinstriped suits and separates are other must-haves to round out the 9-5 wardrobe and beyond. Anything that one would see at the mall in all those cookie-cutter shops for women 18-35 is here for the more ample cookie. A few practical luxury items, such as leather and suede coats, also dot the shelves depending on the season.
Like most widely merchandised clothing, the quality varies. Most fibers are acrylic, rayon, or some sort of manmade polymer, so don’t expect the luxury of a “breathable” fiber. The store offers a huge lingerie section, but I’ve found most of it below par. Not a single pair of low-rise, all cotton panties could be found. And though one would think that bras for large women would be designed for rigorous use, I found them flimsy, unsupportive, and looking as if they’d fall apart the first time you forgot not to put them in the dryer.
Though the quality may be standard, and the styles designed only to last until next season, at least everything is priced right. Most tops and pants are an affordable $40 new, with many sale items to choose from.
Christina Diaz, proprietor of this small, well-stocked Mission boutique, sold clothes out of her house for six months before opening up this shop just six months ago. This lifelong Mission resident saw the need to provide women with “clothes that are flattering and shapely, as opposed to boxes and tent dresses.” For the petite woman of size (who, in Diaz’s shop isn’t the traditional double-digit, but rather a description such as “Cute” [size 12], “Pretty” [size 14], “Lovely” [size 16], and so on), finding clothes can be even more challenging. Dangerous Curves is sensitive to women of petite stature, so blouses and tops don’t hang to your knees, and flattering capri pants and knee-length skirts and dresses abound.
The merchandise that really shines is that which is vibrant and colorful, including multi-colored, long-sleeved, formfitting tops, show-stealing scarves and capes, and long dresses for casual and formal occasions, none of which are afraid to show a little (or a lot) of cleavage. Pants and skirts aren’t nearly as exciting, rather, they’re from the basic school of dark and elasticized foundation pieces. The store offers a small selection of well-priced sexy lingerie, including bustiers and pinot sets, and a well-chosen selection of workout wear — supportive sports bras and stretch, cellulite smoothing capri pants.
Prices are all over the map. A simple top is a steal at $15 and up, while fine linen suits may garner a couple hundred dollars or more. Off-season merchandise is priced to move (on my last visit, bathing suits and sundresses were over 60% off).
Diaz also believes in catering to the whole woman, not just what’s on her back. She often holds workshops at her store that are free and open to the public on topics such as travel, employment issues, and personal color analysis.
Stock up on your basics and everyday wear elsewhere, as this shop is a crowded collection of breathtaking clothes from around the world — that just happen to fit and flatter the fuller figure, size 12-26. Shoppers literally have to move around a library of clothing racks on wheels to see the store’s entire inventory, but they will be well-rewarded for their efforts. Nestled into the folds are lush Asian-print shawls and Chinese silk jackets, Indian-style dresses, fine imported silk blouses, handmade alpaca sweaters from Peru, wool, linen separates, and the like. Expect to pay more for the quality and the beauty, but, by comparison, everything is very reasonable, usually in the $60-$120 range.
Bras, panties, and lingerie are also very reasonably priced and in good selection. Some were as low as $15, with most around $35.
Like Dangerous Curve’s Diaz, store owner Carolyn Honig wanted to open up a clothing store where she could shop in the neighborhood she lived. She jokes that an alternative name for the shop is “Things I Like,” because everything on the shelf is hand chosen from large-size and average-size manufacturers in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, or San Francisco. “I want to provide good clothes to good people,” she says, but admits that her abundant stock is almost too much for some shoppers. With an apologetic smile, she notes that so many choices sprout from her enthusiasm for fine clothes that fit.
And this enthusiasm is contagious. Though the shop is small, four genuinely helpful people are on staff on a weekday afternoon to ensure that the store runs smoothly, and to make certain that every customer gets the personal attention they deserve. Best of all, they’re knowledgeable about the product, and they won’t just flatter customers to make the sale.
Harper Greer is a stunning shop with excellent service producing very high-quality garments for the older or more conservative endowed woman. They are their own manufacturer, thus, they sell direct through their storefront location South of Market and via mail order. If service is a high priority, the shopper will not be disappointed. Store personnel know frequent shoppers by name and act as their personal stylist. And, unlike any other shop in its category, new items bought from the store are eligible for complimentary basic alterations (such as a simple tucks, hems, or sleeve-shortenings).
Harper Greer clothes are cut very generously both in width and in height, and they’re well-suited to professional women who demand comfort. No curves or tight fits show through — rather, the look is draped simple lines that hide and flatter. Clothes are well-constructed of either Tercel blends or from fine Thai silk, very coarse linen, or sturdy cotton.
Make no mistake, there’s not a thread of clubgear to be found. Chances are if you’re under 40, you’d take your mom shopping here, but it’s unlikely you’d find anything for yourself.
Beautiful high-end silk blazers are suitably priced at $139, while many tailored pants, good looking with the elasticized waist only in the back, sell for about the same. Blouses, long straight skirts, trousers, and mid-formal jackets are sold as separates. Only a few sweaters and some accent scarves deviate form the Harper Greer label.
While not exclusively a label for large women, Cut Loose has an outlet store at Valencia that carries a sizable amount of clothes from 1x-3x. As the brand name indicates, their line consists of simple T-shirts, comfy pants, and stylish tops and skirts in free-flowing rayon and, on occasion, cotton. Best of all, because this is an outlet store, the patient shopper can pick up some real bargains. If you get on their mailing list, you’ll be reminded of their monthly sales on new inventory.
For the same sort of basics such as leggings, T-shirts, simple dresses, and livable cotton sweaters, Cotton Basics in Noe Valley, Berkeley, and Oakland has a small rack of 1x-3x of the sort of all-cotton clothing you’ll wear everyday. The quality is incredible and worth the extra expense, as their soft, quality cotton clothing never fades, pills, or shrinks.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from basic cotton, sizzling lingerie and fetish gear in large sizes can be found in abundance at the Foxy Lady Boutique. This is the place to shop for all your latex, leather, and fishnet stocking needs, as well as rhinestone brassieres, corsets, and spangly sequined gowns for the Queen in all of us.
This, like the other local shops catering to the large and lovely, is a far cry from the vertical stripes and muu-muus of the past. Size 12+ shoppers have an unprecedented amount of choices to suit their casual and professional wardrobe. And in the world of everyday fashion, that’s what’s really big.
3266 21st Street
124 Clement Street
1218 Valencia Street
1301 Castro Street
Foxy Lady Boutique
2644 Mission Street