NEW YORK -- Little by little, fashion magazines have been breaking a long-standing taboo by picturing models in sizes that actually resemble most American women. A new magazine called Grace is going even further, honing in exclusively on the most underserved group of readers: Women who wear sizes 12 and up.
It seems like a great business plan, but previous efforts to reach this market have run into trouble. Last fall Mode magazine closed after five years when its parent company, Freedom Communications, couldn't find a buyer for the title.
This time around, the editors of Grace -- many of whom came from Mode -- think things will be different. They've got new financial backers and a different editorial formula that goes well beyond beauty and fashion, a limited scope that many blame for Mode's downfall.
''Last time, readers were telling us, where's my food, where's my sex, where's my travel,'' says Grace editor Ceslie Armstrong, who was the executive editor at Mode. ''Mode stuck to beauty and fashion, but now we're much more into lifestyle.''
Put another way, Mode came to be seen as a magazine for big women who had trouble finding clothes that fit them. Hoping to avoid that pitfall, Grace is being positioned as an all-purpose women's title with entertainment news, horoscopes, fitness advice and other typical magazine fare, but with models who happen to look more like typical American women, more than half of whom wear size 12 and up.
What's more, Grace has a far larger base of potential advertisers than Mode did when it launched in 1997. Several leading fashion houses have launched new lines of large sizes in recent years, and sales of ''plus'' size clothing at retailers like Chico's are growing rapidly.
So far, advertisers like what they see. The first issue of Grace goes on sale May 14 and is chock full of advertising, including a spread from Marina Rinaldi, an upscale designer of large-size women's clothing that's part of the venerable fashion house Max Mara.
''There's a real need for a magazine that speaks to that customer,'' Kristine Westerby, advertising director for Marina Rinaldi, said. ''We felt it was interesting because it didn't just address fashion concerns. ... There are so many other facets to a woman's life besides getting dressed every day.''
The fashion world has long held up the waifishly thin model as an ideal of feminine beauty, but cracks have begun to appear in this long-standing axiom. Vogue, a powerful arbiter of fashion trends, caused a stir with its April ''Shape'' issue, which offered advice on ''What to wear when you're tall, short, thin, curvy, athletic, pregnant.''
Other forces in the fashion world are also very gingerly reaching out to plus-size women. The May issue of Glamour carried swimsuit photos of Mia Tyler, the full-figured sister of model and actress Liv Tyler.
Perhaps the most dramatic challenge yet to fashion orthodoxy came in an article that Kate Betts, a former editor of Harper's Bazaar, wrote in The New York Times recently headlined ''The Tyranny of Skinny.'' Betts apologized to Renee Zellweger for pulling her photo off the cover after Zellweger gained weight.
But if fashion magazines have been slow to catch on, clothing designers certainly haven't. Liz Claiborne has had a plus-size line for 10 years called Elisabeth and is launching another one, Woman, this spring. Other major designers including Donna Karan, Tommy Hilfiger and BCBG have all come out with lines of large-size women's clothing in the past two years.
Sales of larger sizes are holding their own despite an overall drop in the women's clothing market last year. NPD Fashionworld, a leading tracker of clothing sales, found that unit sales of plus-size clothing rose 0.3 percent in 2001 despite a 4.3 percent decline in all other types of women's clothing.
Still, Grace's editors have their work cut out for them. For one thing they need to strike the right tone with their articles and make sure that their readers don't feel like they're a marginal part of the clothing market that has special needs.
''People need to be sensitive to the way they term things,'' said Westerby, the advertising director of Marina Rinaldi. ''Since the majority of American women fall into that demographic, it shouldn't be treated like a handicap.''
Tom Julian, a fashion trend analyst for Fallon Worldwide, an advertising agency, says Grace has a chance at success -- if it executes on its mission well. ''We know that the plus size market is viable, but they need to make the connection with retailers and readers,'' Julian said. ''This audience needs to be addressed.''
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