04/25/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
The "e" at the end of Nancye Radmin's first name is silent. It's the only thing about her that is. Big, sassy and flamboyant, with a Georgia accent that's as sweet as a praline but a determination that's all tough cookie, Radmin 11 years ago opened The Forgotten Woman, a Manhattan clothing boutique catering to people like herself—that is, women with bulging waistlines and checkbooks to match. Almost immediately she also began badgering designers to start making fashionable, finely-crafted clothes her full-figured customers could fit into. "They had all these myths that fat ladies don't buy expensive clothes," Radmin, 49, recalls disdainfully. "Well, they do. And a lot of 'em."
Radmin is the living proof. Today the market for elegant large-sized clothes, which she launched almost single-handedly, is a $10 billion-a-year industry, and The Forgotten Woman is its star. With the opening of another plush peach-and-cream colored TFW in Cleveland last month, there are now 20 stores, and they're expected to do $40 million in sales this year. Radmin is the uncontested ambassador-at-large for the size-14-and-up crowd, nearly half the women in the U.S.
"Her clothes don't make you feel old just because you're big," says Roz Ryan, a star of TV's Amen sitcom and a TFW fan along with a group of heavy hitters that has included Oprah
Winfrey, Jennifer Holliday, Julia Child and Roseanne Barr. "She has great styles, and you don't mind paying stiff prices for high quality."
One look at the 5'6" Radmin, an impressive size 16, shows just how chic big can be. She sweeps into her Manhattan store in Rockefeller Center wearing a taupe suede skirt and matching top. She sails past the jewelry, scarf and lingerie cases and heads for the racks. There she riffles through her wares, diplomatically sized from 1 to 6 instead of 14 to 24. She passes by a black bemirrored Monica Morris dress ($385), a Persian lamb fake-fur coat by Searle ($595) and an iridescent rose silk Kip Kirkendall gown ($1,850), and finally locates a rhinestone-studded suede duster ($930) that matches her outfit. An hour later, when a customer admires the duster, Radmin sells it to the woman off her own back.
"Large-sized women are too narrow-minded about what they wear," says Radmin. Nonetheless she decrees a few no-no's: belts on women with square-shaped figures, tight-fitting tops on those with V-shaped bodies, and chemises or tent shapes for those with pear-like forms. Except for solid neons ("You could look like a moving billboard"), she thinks big women should wear the colors they look best in. And shoulder pads, she believes, are a must for everyone—they make clothes hang better.
Radmin's fondness for flash goes back to the leaner days of her youth when, as a svelte size 8, she dressed sexily despite the frowns of conservative neighbors in her hometown of Cochran, Ga. "I wore eye shadow and two-piece bathing suits and was called a whore," she remembers. The oldest of three daughters of Joe Bullard, a wealthy farmer, and his wife, Jane, Nancye attended the hometown Middle Georgia College, then worked as a secretary in various cities, and in 1967 took a job as an executive secretary to a trade show producer in New York. Soon she met Mack Radmin, a rich meat wholesaler and widower 23 years her senior, whom she married in 1968.
Nancye, who still weighed only 110 lbs. and wore a size 4, calls the early years of marriage the "Barbie doll days" because she spent most of her afternoons shopping with "the girls" and evenings on the town with Mack. Then, during her second pregnancy in 1976, she gained 80 lbs. and swelled up to a size 16. Accustomed to wearing Anne Kleins and Holly Harps, Radmin, for the first time in her contented life, could find nothing to wear except "polyester pull-on pants and cardboard sweaters." Outraged and humiliated, she asked Mack for $10,000 to open her first store, on Manhattan's pricey Upper East Side. She called it The Forgotten Woman because, after her postpartum shopping frustrations, "that's what I felt like."
Today, Radmin's Long Island City warehouse, which ships to all her stores, operates around the clock seven days a week. She commutes (in a chauffeur-driven Jaguar Vanden Plas) to her office there from the large house in New Jersey she shares with Mack, now Forgotten Woman's financial adviser, and their sons, Brett, 18, and William, 11. The family also owns two grand homes on Long Island and one in Florida, but Nancye doesn't have much chance to get to those. Between TFW affairs and her newest venture, a line of designs for Vogue Patterns, she puts in six or seven 14-hour days every week. In the ultimate compliment to her success, several new large-woman boutiques around the country have recently opened, but Radmin isn't concerned about those. "I don't have competition," the grande dame of large sizes says confidently. "I only have imitators."
—By Bonnie Johnson, with Lee Powell in New York