Plus-size is a bone of contention for many in the fashion industry. Away from the runways, however, it is emerging as an area of the market worthy of strong investment.

Skinny models dominate the runways all over the world, which in many ways make sense; fundamentally, it costs less in terms of materials to make an outfit for a size-zero model than for a plus-size one.

For a young, up-and-coming designer on a small budget, this is an important point that has far more to do with finances than aesthetics.

This is not to say that plus-size models are ignored on the runways.

Jean-Paul Gaultier sent a size 20 model down the runway in a black corset during his spring/summer 2007 show at Paris Fashion Week, while Mark Fast's spring/summer 2010 show at London Fashion Week featured three size 12-14 models - something that infamously saw two members of Fast's team quit just three days before the event.

However, there is, and always has been, a significant bias towards skinny models, to the point where any designer wishing to use curvier models is accused of staging a publicity stunt.

Investment worthy
Meanwhile, away from the runways, plus-size is emerging as an area of the market worthy of strong investment.

On the high streets, the plus-size sector has outstripped the standard fashion industry in terms of sales growth over the past five years, a trend that looks set to continue.

Due to a combination of factors, such as increasing numbers of plus-size fashion conscious consumers and more trend-led and directional plus-size clothing, plus-size has become far more normalised and socially accepted on the high street than it was a few years ago, bringing demand with it.

From 2003-2008, the UK's plus-size women's wear market grew by 26%, or from nearly GBP800m to a total of nearly GBP3.9bn.

With many high street chains introducing plus-size collections, and indeed supermarkets releasing their own clothing lines that feature large sizes, the availability of fashionable plus-size clothing has mushroomed.

The same applies to men - according to the Health Study for England, over a third of UK males are expected to be wearing plus-sizes by 2013.

Plus-size offshoots
In order to deal with the increasing demand, many brands have established offshoots that cater exclusively for the plus-size market.

In America, trendy stores Hot Topic and Forever21 have both launched plus-size versions of themselves, called Torrid and Faith21 respectively, which have dozens of retail locations across the US.

Online retail also offers exciting opportunities for plus-size retail.

Advances in virtual changing rooms allow consumers to check not only the size but the fit - often an item designed for a size 8-12 will become completely unsuitable when simply scaled up to plus-size - which will further empower plus-size consumers to make informed decisions when it comes to spending.

The presence of plus-size retailers online is also on the rise; Redcats operates the world's first online mall exclusively for plus-size brands, and has been followed by the likes of a1onlinemall.com which offer all manner of plus-size apparel stores, all accessible from one main site.

Retail key
The key to retail in this market is to understand the needs of the consumer - the misconception may be that plus-size people are somehow less informed or interested in fashion when in fact this is not the case at all.

While trend directions are often difficult to translate to plus-sizes in the same way as they are for smaller ones, it is possible to re-interpret a particular look to suit a larger size, which is an idea that many brands are beginning to embrace, albeit cautiously.

Engaging in dialogue with customers can provide a wealth of information here; understanding the needs and concerns of plus-size customers can focus design and bring new ideas to the table about how to further stimulate growth in this sector.

Many people within this market feel ignored and neglected by fashion brands, and so any brands that support them are met with a great deal of loyalty from the plus-size community.

As sedentary Western lifestyles become the norm across the world - average sizes in emerging economic powerhouses such as China are steadily increasing - the plus-size market is set to continue growing on a global scale.

To embrace it now and cater for a burgeoning consumer sector is to get one step ahead of the competition.

Mudpie is a leading trend forecasting agency and publisher of printed, online and bespoke apparel, colour, graphic and design services. To discover more about Mudpie, their Trendbooks and their online subscription service, Mpdclick, visit www.mudpie.co.uk