Nancye Radmin, Pioneer of Plus-Size Fashion, Is Dead at 82


Nancye Radmin, a pioneer of plus-size fashion who for two decades ran an upscale chain of stores, the Forgotten Woman, that served a group of women who had otherwise been overlooked by high fashion, died on Dec. 8 at her home in Lakeland, Fla. She was 82.

The death was confirmed by her son Brett Radmin.

For most of her life, Ms. Radmin hovered around a size 8 and preferred wearing fine fabrics like cashmere and jacquard. But by her second pregnancy, in 1976, she had gained 80 pounds and was a size 16. When she went shopping at her favorite stores in Manhattan for some new clothes, she was shocked to find that there were only polyester pants and boxy sweaters in her size.

“Fat,” she told Newsweek in 1991, “was the F word of fashion.”

“Absolutely nothing stylish was available,” she added. “I just knew I wasn’t the only fat woman in New York.”

With $10,000 she borrowed from her husband, Ms. Radmin looked to start her own business — a boutique stocked with the kind of upscale clothes she wanted to wear.

In 1977 she opened the Forgotten Woman at 888 Lexington Avenue on the fashionable Upper East Side. The store’s name was a reference to her clientele, women who wore larger sizes than most fashion designers manufactured — and, perhaps, to a culture that overlooked them, too.

Prices were high: A Persian lamb fake-fur coat by Searle was $595, and an iridescent rose silk Kip Kirkendall gown was $1,850.

By 1991 she had 25 shops around the country, with annual sales of $40 million.

“People forget that the older and larger woman usually leads a dressy social life,” she told The New York Times in 1983. “She’s the mother of the bride, she goes to formal dinners with her successful husband, and she can carry off beads and bright colors that might swamp a small woman.”

Plus-size clothing generally starts at size 14, and today the average U.S. women’s dress size is between 14 and 16. The women’s plus-size apparel market was valued at $9.8 billion in 2019, according to the market research firm Statista.

But in the late 1970s, the concept of plus-size fashion was an anomaly. Still, Ms. Radmin’s store spoke directly to the nascent idea of body acceptance, a product of the women’s liberation movement of that decade.

“If you look at the history of fashion for larger women, it was either invisible or ghettoized or unbelievably frumpy,” Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, an associate professor of history at the New School in New York, said in a phone interview. “The Forgotten Women as a store for attractive high-end plus-size clothing was a radically inclusive concept at the time from the perspective of fat women deserving to think of themselves as feminine, fashionable people who would be deserving of going on a splurgy shopping trip.”

Ms. Radmin approached Seventh Avenue manufacturers, many of whom referred to her as “crazy Nancye,” to have some of her favorite clothes made for plus sizes.

She also urged designers to create more plus-size clothing. Some, like Oscar de la Renta, took a bit of convincing, but even he created evening dresses for her stores, as did Geoffrey Beene, Bob Mackie and Pauline Trigère.

The Forgotten Women boutiques had a “Sugar Daddy Bar” for the female shoppers’ male companions to amuse themselves, stocked with Korbel champagne, tea sandwiches and miniature muffins. Celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Roseanne Barr, Nell Carter and Tyne Daly shopped there. Stores were strategically opened on shopping streets like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills to show customers that they were just as entitled to spend money as their thin counterparts.

“We wanted to make the customer feel important, not embarrassed,” said Dane O’Neal, who worked in merchandising for the chain.

Nancye Jo Bullard was born on Aug. 4, 1938, in Nashville to Joe and Jane (Johnson) Bullard. She grew up on her father’s farm in Cochran, Ga., where he harvested peanuts and cotton. Her mother was a registered nurse.

Even as a child, Nancye was entrepreneurial, selling peanuts on the street corner to earn extra money.

She attended Middle Georgia College (now Middle Georgia State University), but left before graduating to travel. She then worked as a secretary and moved to New York City in the late 1960s.

In 1967 she met Mack Radmin, a widower 23 years her senior who was in the kosher meat business. She converted to Judaism for him (she had been raised Southern Baptist), and they married in 1968.

Ms. Radmin often called the first years of her marriage her “Barbie doll days,” because she weighed 110 pounds, wore a size 4 and spent a lot of time shopping and dining out in Manhattan.

Mr. Radmin died in 1996. In addition to her son Brett, she is survived by another son, William Kyle Radmin; two sisters, Michelle Moody and Cheryle Janelli; and four grandchildren.

In 1989, Ms. Radmin sold a portion of the Forgotten Woman chain to venture capitalists. In 1998, the Forgotten Woman filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The remaining nine stores were closed by the end of that year.

By then, larger department stores had caught on to the plus-size market and begun selling clothing in more sizes.

Ms. Radmin didn’t think much of them. “I don’t have competition,” she told People magazine in 1988. “I only have imitators.”