| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


Old fashioned glamour on the Bloor West runway

It's refreshing to encounter a Rubenesque mannequin: a size fourteen to be precise, from Wm. Pragar, a leading manufacturer of shop display products sold at Adelaide and Richmond.

The store owner, however -- who's quick to divulge that she's personally a size eighteen or twenty -- considers the dress form to be closer to a size ten, taking it upon herself to pad the hips and bust so it'd be "a little more curvier" in order to fill out a body-skimming black chiffon gown by Tadashi, a designer favourite of celebrities like Queen Latifah.

As the founder of plus-size web boutique Lola & Gigi, Laura Caravaggio is changing the way we think about clothing and weight. Targeting women between 25 to 45 years old, she focuses on labels serving the style-savvy niche of fuller figures with different body types by using particular fabrics and cuts that flatter these larger shapes.

Just ten years ago the Bloor West Village resident was developing corporate marketing communication strategies for Bell Canada (and was even involved with the early development of Sympatico) "But the passion just wasn't there," she says. "I really didn't really care about this stuff that I was suppose to be selling.'"

Fashion had been a life-long love instilled at a very early age by her Italian mother, who raised her to appreciate quality, fit and style. At the time, she was a size fourteen, and was frustrated by her and her girlfriends being unable to find clothing in mainstream clothing shops. She was in the top end of regular retail, but not quite plus-size enough.

That frustration then inspired Caravaggio to take a leap as an entrepreneur and establish her size 12+ boutique in the fall of 2007. Even though Caravaggio initially lacked fashion know-how (she admits that understanding the fashion buyers calendar was a learning curve), her previous online experience encouraged her to focus on developing a strong web storefront presence that wasn't much different from her by-appointment-only Etobicoke showroom (which was only established in the spring of 2008).

A quick look around her showroom reveals a 1970s-inspired luxe fabric wrap dress by British designer Anna Scholz, and a practical flirty skirt in bamboo by Vancouver's Diane Kennedy. It's quality yet affordable ready-to-wear: cocktail dresses are between $200-500 and regular or premium denim is between $150-300. An advantage to running a web boutique is the opportunity to not only bulk order seasonal pieces, but also focus on season-less, small order inventory that might be found on online community-driven marketplaces like Etsy.

The site's retro flare is a deliberate harkening back to an era dominated by the sexy yet classy fuller figure of style icons like Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida, a subtle message that sits well with her confident clientele. According to Caravaggio, they're done with the shapeless plus-size Pennington's silhouette of subdued shades and loose shapes. They want distinct pieces cutting a slime-line look and are not afraid to show off their curves.

"I just had this idea of a store you could go to where everything would fit you," Caravaggio recalls of the driving force behind Lola & Gigi. "There would be no going in thinking, 'oh, that's not going to fit' or 'that's too small'."

Caravaggio even scoffs at the plus-size label. "I just say size twelve to twenty-four. Other stores don't feel the need to say, 'I do minus clothing'." The 'minus' elicits a laugh. "I never personally identified myself as a 'plus-size woman', and I don't think my customers do either."

That Rueben mannequin is bold symbol of independent retailers like Lola & Gigi serving a particular underserved fashion niche. When a department store makes clear the value it places on the typical size of a model versus the typical size of a customer, it uses a sample size pinned and tucked on a window display model. But the lumps and bumps of a customer's size, however -- say, size twelve and upwards -- usually hangs forgotten on a clothing rack. 

This isn't necessarily intentional. The fashion industry values the sample size because it easily goes from the designer studio to the runways, magazine editorials and storefronts. While the mass market recognizes the demand for fuller figure collections -- the average North American woman hovers between a size twelve and fourteen -- it's still considered commercially expensive to design, grade and manufacture due to smaller order quantities.

Toss in the fashion industry's preoccupation with an extremely thin fashion body type, and you have a relatively good understanding as to why the sales of plus-size clothing only accounts for 20-25% of the overall clothing market.

In Toronto, Caravaggio isn't the only independent retailer focusing upon the size 12+ market. Eglinton West owners Cindy Davington and Rina Rovinelli of Maximum Women placed second in season two of CBC's Dragons Den reality program and cater towards older women. There's also Voluptuous, a Toronto-based chain of plus-size club wear with locations in Scarborough Town Centre, Dufferin Mall and York Mills.

What sets Caravaggio apart is her emphasis on the web, not to mention a discerning eye for British, American and Canadian labels that are sometimes also carried in Bloomingdale's or Harrod's. Even though the recession forced her to cut back on the labels she carried, it did inspire her to organize special shopping events in Ottawa and Calgary, often hosted in a hotel suite, to help sustain the boutique's growth as well as drum up media coverage. (One event in particular at Toronto's Sutton Place included a fashion show earlier this year hosted by City Line's Lyn Spence, and selling $7000 worth of her spring inventory within an hour.

"Resort wear" may be on the horizon and her media profile continues to grow (she was a top 20 finalist for W Network's Expert Search, and is open to doing more TV "as I'm a bit of a ham," she confides).

Ultimately, Caravaggio wants to continue developing a closer relationship with her clientele by including wardrobe and styling consultancy. "I see lots of curvy bodies and lots of different shapes and sizes. After two years, my eye is retrained," she muses. "For me, [curves] look normal and I see beauty in every ass shape."

Rea McNamara is a Toronto-based writer. You can follow her @reeraw on Twitter.

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts

Related Content