“The Voluptuous Experience”

A few months ago, shortly before the debut of Grace, this author read an article in Style magazine (the trade publication of the Canadian fashion industry) with the unexpected title, “Very Voluptuous.” The article was about a new Canadian plus-size retailer that was vaguely following the Torrid approach. The Style article did not provide a location for Voluptuous, so it took a little hunting to turn up the store’s address at a suburban Toronto shopping mall.

Once there, it was easy to locate the “Voluptuous” store from the stares that passers-by were giving a mannequin in the shop window. It wasn’t just because this was a full-figured mannequin (about a size 14W), but because the mannequin was quite nude. I happened to overhear a middle-aged (and decidedly plus-sized) lady tell her companion, in Polish, “To jest straszne!” (i.e., “That’s frightful!”). I fixed her with the iciest of looks, and she quickly scurried off.

Walking into the store was like walking into springtime. The walls were painted a cheery canary yellow, and the clothes were all whites, or light pastels, or vibrant reds. The atmosphere was warm and friendly.

Despite her busy schedule, owner Angela Samuels was kind enough to grant an interview. A former model with Toronto’s Plus Figure Models agency (the same agency that gave birth to the careers of Liis, Tracie Stern, and Ashleigh Foster, among others), Angela is now a dedicated retailer who appears to have a single mission in life: to make plus-size women look really good.

Here is the transcript of our conversation.

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HSG: First, the name. “Voluptuous.” Why did you choose this word for the name of your store?

A: Because I wanted something that said “positive,” and something that said “sexy.” And I figured, okay, there’s a word for small, which is “petite.” And it sounds proper. It sounds nice. And I thought, there has got to be some other word for “full-figured,” “big.” There’s got to be some other word. And I searched, and we came up with “voluptuous.” It said all the things we wanted to say; furthermore, it implied that we are sexy. And that was important to me. And that became the name.

HSG: You’re bucking a trend by bringing that into plus-size fashion.

A: It’s a fight. It’s a fight.

HSG: What would you say the average age of your customer is? Do you have a target demographic?

A: Yeah. We’re between 18 and 34.

HSG: And would you say that women of that age are freer about their body image, have fewer inhibitions, than women of an older generation?

A: Full-figured women in general are very self-conscious. And a lot of them don’t have very positive self-perceptions about themselves. Even though that is our customer base, our staff are trained to deal with some of the issues that they come to the store with.

HSG: And what are some of those issues?

A: “My tummy’s too big, my thighs are too big, my hips are too big, I just look ugly!” [Laughs] As soon as they come into the store, those are the first words that come out of their mouths.

HSG: And when they put on something that’s sexy, do you find that it helps to boost their self-esteem?

A: Very much so—after we get to the part that says, “Yes, you do deserve to wear this, you do deserve to wear this type of clothing. Yes, you do deserve to be sexy.” Then that comes.

HSG: Hmmm. It sounds as if, for your staff, you need counsellors as much as you need salespeople.

A: [Laughs] My salespeople are counsellors!

HSG: They are?

A: Yes. The average person will spend a half-hour to an hour their first time in the store. And sometimes they won’t buy something their first time, but just have that interaction of getting them to feel that they’re someone, and sexy, and women.

HSG: What has the response from the public been like? Have you encountered any negative comments?

A: We’ve had a lot of slim ladies come by and say, “Ew, they can’t wear that.”

HSG: They’ve actually said that?

A: Yeah, and then they get offended because the styles that I have, they can’t find anywhere [for themselves]. Then they may say, “I don’t think bigger women should wear that stuff.” And I say, “Well, I don’t think you should be wearing some of the stuff that you wear!”

HSG: I notice that you don’t have a lot of advertising in your store yet. Just a few stores down from you, at the Reitmans outlet, you can’t help but notice the huge poster of Barbara Brickner which is standing right in the entranceway. Is this something that you plan to do more of, in the future?

A: Well, we are expanding right now. We’re just finishing up at the Dufferin Mall and we’re going to be opening a store in the Fairview Mall next. We’ve done a lot of radio advertising.

HSG: Everyone in the plus world is very excited about the forthcoming debut of Grace magazine. Do you think that you might put ads in Grace, or is that still a little bit out of your reach?

A: They’ve already contacted me. We’ve already spoke to them, because a lot of the editors are from MODE, and they’ve moved over there, so they’ve already said, “Okay Angela, we’ll work something in.”

HSG: What would you say the biggest difference is between your fashions, and the apparel that one might find in the Encore line of Reitmans, or at Addition-Elle? Would it be the sexiness, or—

A: Yes. We cross the limits. I would say that I push the limits in this store. The clothes fit tighter, and they’re not big, and everything’s cut to shape. A lot of the stuff, I personally go and fit them for all the manufacturers that I deal with, and work out all the problems, work out the kinks. You remember what the [Style.ca] article said about hipsters? We can’t really wear hipsters, but if you modify them a bit, drop it in the waist, we can wear it, and we look trendy, just like everyone else. There is not a woman on the earth, and I stand here and say this today, who does not want to look sexy.

HSG: Of course, the challenge is to persuade people that “sexy” and “thin” are not synonymous.

A: Exactly, exactly.

HSG: It sounds like you have two ideas in mind here. On the one hand, you’re capitalizing on an untouched market, but you also have this social goal in mind—making women feel better about themselves. Is the one as important as the other?

A: Well, the idea for the company came from my belief that I needed to do something to make women feel better. And I thought, okay, instead of dealing with all the garbage that we have to face as plus-size women, meaning how people feel about us, what they say about us, why not change all that? And one way to do so is by providing clothing that makes you feel good about yourself, makes you look great. Makes you no different from anybody else. We deal with a lot of young girls, and you know, peer pressure is one of the nastiest things that you have to deal with as a teenager. And a lot of mothers come in here and say, “Oh Angela, thank you so much, because now my teenager can go to movies, she can go out, she can go on a date, and she doesn't have to feel different from anyone else. I can buy a prom dress that looks like what her friends are wearing.”

HSG: You stock prom dresses?

A: Yes, we have that coming in. It’s just the idea of having, say, the trendy washed jeans that are out now, just like her other slimmer friends have. Now she can wear those too and have her friends ask her, “Where did you get that from? That’s cool. That’s nice.” That is the biggest boost a teenager can get.

HSG: So you try to find the same fashions that the thin girls are wearing—just modified somewhat, if necessary—and make them available to your customers.

A: Exactly. I try not to miss the all the shows, and see what’s there in New York. (I haven’t gone to Milan yet.) And then I just search out the manufacturers…

HSG: The central question that keeps being raised on the Judgment of Paris Web site is, why do you think the media continues to resist plus-size beauty?

A: The media plays on what the masses want. And if the masses are conditioned to say that skinny is beautiful, the media will follow along. And I basically think that’s what the problem is. We don’t have enough images out there of plus-size women. You had one magazine, MODE, that was starting the trend, but there wasn’t more like it. Grace is just one. There’s only so much that one can do—

HSG: —in the face of the racks upon racks of magazines with size-0 models.

A: It’s going to take a couple of retailers like myself…Lane Bryant has just crossed a big barrier. They just did a lingerie fashion show, and that’s a huge market there in itself.

HSG: Torrid gets a lot of attention from its Web site. Do you plan to have a Web presence in the future?

A: Well, because my clothes right now…you have to come in and try them on. You need to take in the whole Voluptuous experience.

HSG: You can’t do on-line counselling, right?

A: No! You’ve got to come in and you’ve got to experience it. Because it’s a risk for women who are not what they call the “average size”…

HSG: What made you choose this location for your store?

A: Actually, we went to all the malls, and they told me no, this wouldn’t work. At least this mall listened to me. So I had to go and get the demographics, and I had to do surveys, and I had to do a whole lot of things to say, “Hey, look at what your customer looks like. Look who shops here.” And they couldn’t ignore that. And they said, “Okay Angela, we’re going to try you.” And thus came the small store.

HSG: And it is a small store. It’s a pretty store, but it’s small.

A: We knew it was too small when we opened it, but they just wouldn’t believe us. Now, by our numbers, they’re saying, “Okay Angela.” And now that’s what’s making the other major malls look at us and say, “Hey!”

HSG: Here’s a sensitive issue. As a black woman yourself, do you feel that there is any difference between how black customers feel about themselves versus how white customers feel? Because there is a perception that in the black community, there is more freedom about body shape than there is for Caucasian women.

A: No, we have the same issues, the same stigma. Once you’re above what they call the average size, you feel intimidated, you feel like you’re not good enough, and you’re not sexy.

HSG: Okay. [Looks at notes, adopts best “fashion reporter” voice.] So what’s hot for plus right now?

A: [Laughs] What is hot for plus now. I would say the washed jeans, and I’m breaking everybody into colour. As you noticed, I’m not bringing in any black. I say, black is a safe colour, but it doesn’t necessarily make you look “thinner.”

HSG: So that’s a myth. You’re bucking another trend and saying that black doesn’t make women look thin.

A: No it doesn’t! Black makes you look old. It always makes you look like you’re going to a funeral, and it adds no colour to you, it adds nothing. Put on pinks, and blues, and reds, you start seeing the colour of your cheeks, you start seeing the highlights and colour in your hair, and you get distractions, and you get shapes starting to form.

HSG: When I was in the store earlier, I noticed that a boyfriend had brought his girlfriend into the store. Does that happen often?

A: That’s why we have the “man chair.”

HSG: So that’s what that big green thing is! For them to sit down—

A: —right in front of the mirror. Because there are no mirrors in the change-room, and no locks on the door. You have got to come out, and if you don’t want to come out, we’re coming in to get you out!

HSG: (Laughs)

A: And we invite boyfriends, mothers, friends, to come and sit down and watch.

HSG: Are they an encouraging audience?

A: They’re honest. I train my staff to be honest. Because trust me, if you don’t say it, they’ll walk out there and someone’s gonna say it to them.

* * *

Faced with a size-negative world, Angela Samuels woke up one morning and decided to do something to change it. We should all be inspired by her example. And Canadian readers are warmly encouraged to try “the Voluptuous experience” for themselves. You can find more information about the retailer at the company Web site, www.voluptuousclothing.com

(This interview was originally posted on The Judgment of Paris Forum, June 16, 2002.)

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