By MICHAEL BARBARO
Twenty-five years ago, America's department stores — long obsessed with that Seventh Avenue archetype, the tall, thin, leggy lady — discovered her shorter sibling, the petite woman. They gave her a special clothing size, her own department and, over time, access to top designers like Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Calvin Klein.
Small was suddenly sexy. Or at least sexier.
But the love affair with little women appears to be over. Three of the country's most influential fashion emporiums — Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's — have quietly eliminated or drastically scaled back their petite departments in the past several months, infuriating many longtime customers.
Given that manufacturers produce clothing in only a handful of standard sizes — among them, juniors, misses and plus size — the abandonment of petite sizes at the highest levels of American retailing represents a sea change in fashion, forcing some designers to either stop making special sizes for smaller women or re-evaluate how much to invest in the business.
Executives at the three department stores said the decision was based on the poor sales of petite sizes, which are traditionally designed for a woman 5-foot-4 or smaller, with pant lengths and jacket proportions cut accordingly. Petite women, they said, would rather wear the more youthful, skin-baring and tighter-fitting clothing in the contemporary departments, even if it does not fit them as well. And, they point out, there is always tailoring.
But despite what executives say, overall sales of petite clothing sizes have grown in the past several years, reaching $10 billion. So petite women suspect another culprit: high-end department stores that they say view the petite consumer as older, unfashionable and undesirable.
"It's not like American women suddenly got tall," said the designer Dana Buchman, who has supplied petite-size tweed jackets and chiffon skirts to Saks and Neiman Marcus for years. "I think it's a mistake."
And so do many short women. Feeling overlooked and undervalued, they have written the stores angry letters and groused, often loudly, to salespeople. "It's horrible, just horrible," said Laurel Bernstein, 60, a 5-foot-1 Manhattan resident who stormed out of Saks's flagship store in March after learning that the company had stopped carrying petite sizes. A lifelong Saks shopper, she has not returned since.
The emotional response from petite consumers has proved so strong that Saks is reconsidering its decision. "It appears that we have frustrated some customers," said Ron Frasch, the chief merchant at Saks. "We are trying to figure out how many we have frustrated."
The shock has been particularly acute because the changes are happening simultaneously at three of the nation's most important destinations for fashion.
As if in lockstep over the past year, Saks ceased selling petite sizes, Bloomingdale's cut the space it devotes to petites by nearly half in some stores, and Neiman Marcus reduced the number of stores with petite departments by nearly half. Neiman Marcus now carries petite sizes in just eight of its 36 stores; as of the fall, it will stock them in just two.
The shrinking sales floor space for petite sizes — which has not been duplicated in the plus-size department — has already claimed several casualties on Seventh Avenue. The clothing label Ellen Tracy, a mainstay of the petite department at Saks, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale's, said it had stopped producing petite sizes altogether because its biggest retail clients were not buying enough merchandise.
"We would love to stay in the petite business" said Ellen Tracy's president, Howard Rosenberger. "We didn't have a choice."
For those designers, like Eileen Fisher, who continue to produce petite sizes for department stores, there is a growing unease about the business. "There are not enough vendors anymore," said Mariclare Van Bergen, vice president of sales at Eileen Fisher, which supplies petite clothing to Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale's. "So how do we keep the energy in the petite world?"
Petite sizes did not reach large numbers of consumers until the early 1980's, when a handful of major apparel labels like Liz Claiborne and Adrienne Vittadini, having discovered that millions of smaller women did not fit into their regular clothing lines, agreed to produce petite sizes.
The new sizes were not simply smaller, they had different proportions. On a woman's blazer, for example, designers reduced the distance between arm holes and the waist. Labels on the new clothesbore a "P" to distinguish them.
A petite craze was soon born, with Jones New York, Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein creating special lines and department stores establishing a separate section for smaller sizes. Rather than tracking down petite sizes on different floors, women could shop all of them in one place, relying on one salesperson for help.
Specialty clothing retailers like Talbots and Banana Republic then created separate stores for petite women. Last year, sales of petites rose 11 percent, according to the market research firm NPD Group. But at department stores alone, sales of petite clothing fell 5 percent.
Still, stores like Nordstrom, Macy's and Sears have not cut back on petites, and report brisk sales. So what went wrong at Saks, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale's?
For the record, their shoppers did not enjoy growth spurts that catapulted them out of petite sizes. The average American woman, who was about 5-foot-3 in 1980, was 0.3 inches taller as of 2002, according to the government.
What did change is that petite departments gained a reputation for traditional — some would say frumpy — career-oriented clothing. Chic looks, clothing executives said, never made the leap from regular sizes to petite. So the very word petite became synonymous with many women who shopped there — working women over the age 50.
"It's a segment of the population that these stores don't care to maintain," said Andrew V. Jassin, the managing director of the Jassin-O'Rourke Group, a fashion consulting firm, "It's a snobbish appeal. The retailers want to keep the contemporary women — and she does not want to be called petite."
In the battle for space on the sales floor, executives said, the petite collections from Dana Buchman, Anne Klein and Ellen Tracy, which produce slim profits, are losing out to contemporary clothing brands like Theory, Laundry and Tahari, which draw more dollars.
Mr. Frasch of Saks said that smaller shoppers preferred to buy those younger, sexier brands and pay for alterations. "It's not a perfect situation, but it appears to service what they want better."
Ann Stordahl, executive vice president for women's apparel at Neiman Marcus, said that designers were making clothing smaller than a decade ago and that Neiman Marcus orders extra size zeros and twos, knowing they will appeal to petite women. Even without petite sizes, she said, "there are many offerings for the smaller size customer."
Bloomingdale's declined an interview request. In a statement, Frank Doroff, Bloomingdale's senior executive vice president of ready-to-wear clothing, said the size of the petite section "is commensurate with the demand" at every store.
But for women of a certain height, a certain age (45 and older) and a certain rung on the economic ladder (that is, wealthy), no amount of size two skirts or dresses will replace the original, spacious petite departments at Neiman's, Saks or Bloomingdale's.
Because for her, the petite department was not about indulgence or convenience, but about parity. It meant that even at 4-foot-11, she could wear the same sheer cascading vest from Eileen Fisher as a woman who was 5-foot-7 — with no tailoring required.
It meant that designers really did care about the little people.
Inside Bloomingdale's last week, Manhattan resident Judy Strauss, who is 65 and 5-foot-2, tried on two short-sleeved shirts from the designer Sigrid Olsen. Neither was available in a petite size, so she tried on a small and an extra-small.
"The saleswoman and I joked that maybe I should go to the girl's department," she recalled. "I really don't know where I should go."
Referring to the department stores, Ms. Van Bergen of Eileen Fisher said that "you have this consumer who can no longer shop here, no longer shop there." The petite woman, she said, "is feeling a little bit lost right now."