Stephanie Sack is big, stylish, and single-minded. "I just want clothes," she says. "Clothes fat chicks can wear. I can't wear dental floss around my titties and call it fashion."
Sack knows from personal experience that for women size 12 and up, finding fashionable clothes that fit--really fit--usually means either another monotonous trip to Lane Bryant or three hours combing the racks at a department store. Her Bucktown plus-size boutique Vive la Femme (open seven days a week at 2115 N. Damen) offers an alternative, and while her customer base is still developing, she's drawing some very loyal shoppers.
On a recent Saturday afternoon women wandered among the racks like dazed pilgrims in the Holy Land. "I just want something to cover my gut," one of them told Sack. It's a common refrain here, but not a tolerated one.
"We don't cover anything at this store, my darling. We accentuate," Sack said firmly. "Will you wear leopard?"
"Well, I don't have any," the shopper replied, but in ten minutes she was gaping at herself in the mirror. In the size-18 leopard-print top, with its deep neckline and flared, fluttery sleeves, she looked regal. But there was more.
"Hold on. I'm going to bust out a little present for you from the back," Sack said. She came back with a pair of boot-cut jeans, faded through the thighs and embroidered down the legs with brown and gold swirls. They wrapped the young woman's curves in smooth dark denim, showing off her butt and thighs and belly.
"See?" said Sack. "You got a little leopard in your life. Don't you feel better?"
"Oh, I do," said the customer.
Sack has no formal fashion experience--"I can't draw for crap," she says. Before opening the store eight months ago, she was the display ad manager at NewCity. But she knows her wares intimately. Her own Saturday ensemble--a clingy black skirt and V neck trimmed with fake fur--was made up of pieces she was considering carrying in the store.
She firmly believes that "by the time you're five-ten and a size 20, you need to get in a real good mood about it. I refuse--I refuse--as a consumer and as a businessperson to have my style dictated by people who don't know what the hell they're doing. Clothes should be a pleasure. So why wear what you don't want to wear?"
She pulled out a burgundy velvet top with a plunging neckline. "This is what I call a ta-ta shirt, because you need to have a couple of ta-tas and you need a good push-up bra. A lot of girls come in and they'll pull at it--" she plucked the fabric at the sides of the bustline. "And I'm like, what, if you cover it up it goes away? No, come on. A lot of girls think that if they cover their eyes no one can see them. But the fact is, if your ass is the size of a Mack truck, it might as well be a really hot, curvaceous, va-va-voom Mack truck."
Two slender women came in, and Sack called to them from across the store, "This is a big chicks' store, ladies." "Ohh!" they said, disappointed. "But your stuff is so cute in the window!" "Of course it is," Sack said. "Big chicks like cute stuff too!"
One of her prettiest pieces is a knee-length dress with a lace overlay, dance-hall-girl red and cut on the bias. It's from Anna Scholz, the London plus-size designer whose adventurous, exquisitely made line inspired Sack to open the store when she saw it in the now defunct magazine Mode. "I knew that if nothing else, I could promote those clothes," she says. "I don't want to sound twee, but I just got them." Vive la Femme's other signature line is SizeAppeal, a juniors collection with lots of silky, sheer fabrics and empire waists.
Nothing in the store could be worn to, say, a job interview. "These clothes are to go out in, to show off in," Sack says. "If you don't feel like going out the minute you get out of the dressing room, it's a no go."
Judging by the mood in the dressing room, there were going to be some very happy women out on the town this particular Saturday evening. "Are we liberating the skirt?" Sack asked the short woman examining her hips in the mirror. She was wearing a long, fitted black corduroy piece with a stylish little flare at the bottom, and yes, she'd decided to buy it. She giggled and said, "I feel a little funky!"
Sack was pleased, but not surprised
"Hell yeah!" she said. "Hell yeah! See how easy that was?"