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Plus-size prom dresses get ahead of the curves

A 51-inch waist plus 58-inch hips used to equal "staying home" for prom.

Which is why Phyllis Brasch Librach left a journalism career to found Sydney's Closet in 2003. Her Web site and suburban St. Louis store carry special-occasion dresses size 14 to 44 -- to give curvy girls, like her own daughter, a no-more-tears shopping experience for prom.

"These plus-size teens have more choices than ever for everyday wear," Librach said, including chain stores such as Torrid and Avenue. "But the last frontier for fashion-conscious shoppers remains finding plus-size dresses for special occasions. You can go out and find a black beaded jacket with a skirt and top that looks like a grandma would wear it. But plus-size teens just want the same styles that their friends are going to wear."

By one measure, one in five teens is plus-size. And 62 percent of women, which includes some high school seniors, wear size 14 or larger. On the red carpet, stars such as Jennifer Hudson and America Ferrera have shown how to "size up glamor," the motto of Sydney's Closet.

Other prom-dress retailers and designers have done likewise.

Last year, prom shoppers snapped up sizes 20 through 24 from designer DeBora Rachelle and asked for larger ones. So this year she increased her size chart to size 32 in some designs.

Some girls last year also told Rachelle that they added fabric to her sheath dresses because they couldn't find sheath styles in larger sizes anywhere.

"I actually did not think the gowns that they were choosing to add side panels to were flattering for their size," said Rachelle, whose designs are carried at promdressshop.com. So she designed a couple of sheath plus-size dresses with organza overlays that flow over the first layer.

"Our plus sizes are almost all sold out and we still have a few weeks before the proms start," she said.

This season, prom-dress powerhouse Faviana debuted stretch-fabric dresses in plus sizes that sold well to retailers across the country, said Omid Moradi, sales and marketing manager for the family-owned company.

In many other styles, Faviana also designs wider-cut sizes, from 14W to 24W, for which it frequently takes special orders from stores.

"A 14W is a size that's actually between a 20 and a 22," Moradi said. "Generally, the plus-size younger girls are bigger in the waist area. (The W sizes) give a little more room to make the dress fit nicer."

Chain stores such as David's Bridal carry some prom styles up to size 24.

But the Internet remains the salvation of many plus-size teens.

Sites such as Sydney's Closet, which has experienced double-digit growth each year, and apparel site Silhouettes.com, cater specifically to the plus-size customer, who doesn't have to request special assistance and share three-way mirrors with size 2s when she shops online.

"We find plus-size prom dresses over size 28 often sell out fast -- and first," Librach said.

Bridal parties also have found solutions at her site. Librach can arrange to have dresses cut not just for the size 26 bridesmaid but also the size 4 one.

Overall, her average customer is size 24. "But I personally sold a 42 last night," she said, adding that many of her dresses come with matching shawls because customers often are self-conscious about their arms.

Success demands more than sensitivity to size issues. A former investigative reporter, Librach doggedly searches for dresses with "the cool factor." To ensure that she can deliver them, Sydney's Closet, named not for Librach's daughter but for her father, just launched its own private label in sizes 14 to 34. One of those dresses, the "Sea Goddess," was featured in CosmoGirl! Prom and Teen Prom as well as on the "Today" show.

"We get calls now from girls wearing sizes smaller than 12, asking if we have (a certain) dress in their size," Librach said. "That's when we know we've effectively set the fashion curve."

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