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How customers saved this plus-size retailer

When The Limited announced in 2012 that it was shuttering its plus-size line ELOQUII, one headline read “Limited shutters plus-size brand you didn’t know it had.”

For The Limited – which is owned by private equity firm Sun Capital – the move was part of a push to divest non-core brands. But for customers, it was devastating. Posts popped up around the Internet expressing sadness, anger and disappointment that another fashionable plus-size brand had gone away.

“To see the majority stakeholder of my wardrobe close was, it was extremely disappointing,” said Kelly Goldston, a long-time ELOQUII customer who now runs the brand’s marketing. “I felt like I was having something taken away from me that was very personal… Even from the practical sense I thought, ‘I have an event coming up in a few weeks and I don’t know where I’m going to buy a dress.’”

Goldston has experienced the same frustration as most plus-size women, she says. “Shopping had been commoditized… I was just looking for something that would work, something that would fit.”

ELOQUII executives heard the outcry from customers like Goldston. A group of them banded together to re-launch the brand with the help of an investor – former Gilt executive John Auerbach. The team bought the ELOQUII brand – including proprietary things like fit models - from The Limited for undisclosed terms.

Actress Melissa McCarthy wearing ELOQUII on Ellen.

From there, ELOQUII was re-born. The brand aims to do so-called “fast fashion,” similar to retailers like Zara, where new styles come in every week and the focus is on trend. ELOQUII’s official re-launch happened in February and their clothes have been showing up on everyone from Melissa McCarthy to Rebel Wilson.

Affectionately called ELOQUII 2.0 in house, things look good for the retailer so far. At least 35% of ELOQUII’s customers have shopped there more than once, and they’re buying an average of 3 pieces per purchase.

Executives believe a large part of their success will come from listening to their customers. Creative director Jodi Arnold calls shoppers every week – usually people who’ve made returns – to ask what they think of the product and site and what ELOQUII might do better.

“What was so great is no one had ever asked her opinion. No one had ever cared about what she had to say,” said Arnold.

One discovery? Customers don’t want style to stop at size 24. They want 26s and 28s as well (plus size is defined as 14+). So ELOQUII decided to start making those sizes; they’ll be available this December. Another? ELOQUII shoppers love trendy items even more so than their “straight” size peers; crop tops are a best seller.

Arnold is so thorough in her conversations with customers that it’s how she found her Marketing Director Kelly Goldston, mentioned earlier in this piece.

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“[Arnold] asked me a lot of questions about what I liked and didn’t like about the brand, “ said Goldston. “Then she was profiling me a little bit as a customer… I said I lead customer acquisition marketing for an Amazon (AMZN) e-commerce subsidiary and from there it became a little bit of a different conversation.”

Part of what Goldston has done at ELOQUII is focus the company on social media – a must in plus size, since women often derive inspiration from blogs and not the (often stick-thin) models in the pages of Vogue. Shoppers can post photos of themselves wearing the brand’s clothes on Instagram with the tag #XOQ, and the photos will route to ELOQUII’s site. If you want to buy a midi skirt, for example, the product will appear on a model, but the page will also show photos of the skirt on real people, via Instagram.

Customers shopping for the Asymetrical Zip Stripe Dress on ELOQUII's web site see it featured not just on a model, but 4 instagram users who tagged #XOQ in their posts.

“As a prospective customer you think, ‘Well, now I know how that dress looks on three different body types instead of just one,’” said Goldston. She believes that feature has helped to minimize returns.

But this story is about more than just bodies and trends. It’s about money.

The women’s retail industry was valued at more than $116 billion last year, according to NPD.  Just a fraction of that – $17.5 billion – comes from plus size. That may be surprising, considering the average American woman wears a size 14 – which is considered plus-size. So why do plus-size sales lag so far behind the overall market? To judge by the blogosphere, there just aren’t as many options for plus size women.

Sure, there are plus-size retailers – Lane Bryant (ASNA) and Torrid plus there are plus-size divisions at brands Michael Kors (KORS) to Forever 21. But ELOQUII doesn’t see them as competition – saying they don’t focus on trendy, work appropriate clothes that flatter.

“I think sometimes someone will take a size 4 item, add some more fabric to it and say now it’s a size 14,” said Goldston. “And it just doesn’t work like that.”

Arnold adds, “Most people set out to do a plus-size brand - they think ok let’s design plus-size clothes. So for us we want to start form the premise of just fashion… We don’t really even think about body type until we get to the fitting.”

As for what’s next – ELOQUII says they’re looking for the customer to tell them. They analyze search terms to see what women want that they don’t already offer (things like shoes and lingerie). As far as a brick and mortar store - Not happening in the next few years. But Arnold hasn’t ruled it out: “I think at some point she [the plus size shopper] deserves it. She deserves a really nice shopping experience, not a rack stuffed with clothes.”

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