Spurred by demand from young women not served by designers' slim stylings, a new cutting-edge fashion trend centered in Los Angeles and rolling out across the country is targeting a heavier market

Big is beautiful, right?

Maybe so, maybe not, depending on whom you ask. But it can certainly be profitable.

Just ask Delta Burke, the abundantly endowed former Miss Florida turned actress who has launched a line of apparel for large-size women.

Or talk to Camryn Manheim, the TV actress who became the ubiquitous spokeswoman for Lane Bryant, the nationwide chain that sells large-size clothes to women.

Retailers for some years now have realized that as the American population expands around the waistline, there's a growing demand for bigger clothing. And while apparel manufactures have been catering to the big woman, they've almost totally left out the fashion-conscious big teenage girl who wants to have garb as outrageous and cool as her slimmer friends.

These teens don't want to be seen in baggy polyester pants or dresses that look as if they were manufactured by a tentmaker.

The cutting-edge teen who idolizes rock groups like Limp Bizkit and pierces her nose and belly button wants flashy purple vinyl pants, vampirish black dresses and T-shirts that say, "Emily Isn't Crazy."

The fashion industry is beginning to take notice of what could become a profitable niche and L.A. is once again the place where a trend is being set.

Hot Topic Inc., a City of Industry-based chain of counterculture clothing stores, is launching a new division that caters only to large-size teen girls who want cool clothes to wear to head-banging concerts, rave parties or just plain hang out with the over-the-edge crowd.

Called Torrid, the chain's first store is scheduled to open April 19 at the Brea Mall in Orange County. A second store is set to open next month at San Diego's Mission Valley Center. Four more stores are slated to open later across the country in Denver, Omaha, Boston and Annapolis, Md.

If successful, the new stores would further boost L.A.'s growing clout in the fashion world as it emerges as one of its top design centers.

"I'm not sure why no one has done this before," said Lorraine Getz, a designer for Kik Wear Industries, a Los Angeles company that manufactures hip clothing for teens and is doing a line of large-size apparel for Hot Topic. "I definitely think other specialty chains will start taking a look at it and also the junior catalog business, which already has started to venture into this area."

Large-size cool

Hot Topic, which is one of the fastest growing counterculture clothing retailers in the United States, saw its same-store sales grow 16.7 percent in 2000 vs. 1999 on a formula of constantly being on the cutting edge of trends.

The idea for larger sizes came from Hot Topic's teen customers, who for years have crowded into the existing chain's compact stores to buy dog-collar chokers, sparkly red platform shoes, neon-blue nylon wigs, vinyl skirts, black corsets, rock-oriented T-shirts and very baggy blue jeans.

"We were just overwhelmed by requests for larger sizes," said Hot Topic President and Chief Executive Betsy McLaughlin.

McLaughlin referred to a recent e-mail she received from a young woman in Wilmington, N.C.: "Honestly, I can't dress the way I want. I want more than just some black pants and big jeans," wrote Kaytee. "I want something girly yet fierce. All of the cool shirts don't come in my size. Come on!"

So two years ago, the company began test-marketing bigger sizes.

"For the past 12 months, all 280 of our stores have stocked large-size fashions, and we added large-size styles to our Web page," said the 40-year-old McLaughlin, who herself is a size 16. "The response has just been terrific. But the company didn't have space for an extensive selection of large-size merchandise in its 1,500-square-foot stores. We soon ran into space problems...and we didn't know if this particular customer wanted their own separate store."

From Hot Topic's extensive database of large-size customers who had either e-mailed the company or filled out customer report cards, the chain asked teens in the size 14-to-26 category if they would feel comfortable in their own store. The response was a definite yes, if the store looked as hip as Hot Topic's other stores, which have a rather deconstructed urban look to them.

"It's a great store concept keeping with the demographic changes," said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association. "The census figures came out recently showing that more children are overweight."

Domestic designers

Hot Topic has worked with a number of domestic vendors such as Paris Blues, Z. Cavaricci, Serious, and Kik Girl to develop clothing that fits the large-size juniors.

Torrid's selection will feature "street wear" (casual slacks and novelty T-shirts), "club wear" (your basic black vinyl pants and skirts), "rockabilly wear" (retro-inspired clothing and accessories), "Renaissance wear" (gothic and prom girl dresses), as well as lingerie and accessories.

While most Hot Topic customers range in age from 12 to 22, Torrid's customer base will include females between ages 15 to 30.

The company was founded in 1989 by Orv Madden, who had the MTV and goth crowd in mind when he started the firm with just a few stores. It soon expanded.

Betsy McLaughlin, who previously had been with Miller's Outpost, joined in 1993 when the chain only had 15 stores. Last year, Madden stepped down as president and chief executive, passing the baton to McLaughlin, who every morning calls Hot Topic stores across the country as she drives from her Manhattan Beach home to her City of Industry office.

Madden, however, is still working part time, leading the team that is rolling out the Torrid chain of stores.

Hot Topic's success it reached $257 million in sales last year is catering to underground teen cultures who seem bent on offending their parents with dyed purple hair, studded dog-collar necklaces and outrageous tattoos.

Sales associates are key to keeping on top of cutting-edge trends. With an average age of 18, its sales clerks are paid to go to rock concerts and file reports on what emerging fashion trends they observed.

Many members of the sales force are as unconventional looking as Hot Topic's customers. Many wear pierced nose rings and have dyed black hair that is coaxed to stand on end.

"I don't think someone working at The Gap would be comfortable working here," confided sales associate Ron Marking, whose ears are studded with several rings and outrageous buttons line his black T-shirt. "Here we can be ourselves."

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