05/26/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
In many ways Betsy McLaughlin was a model student at Estancia High School in Costa Mesa, Calif. She earned straight A's, sang in the chorus and competed on the speech team. "School," she says, "was easy for me." Getting dressed for school, however, "was such an ordeal" because, as a size 14, McLaughlin was limited to little more than overalls and loose-fitting shirts. "There was no place for me to shop," she says.
Today that frustration has given way to a fashion revolution. In April 2001 McLaughlin launched Torrid, the first line of stores aimed exclusively at getting teens sizes 12 to 26 into the same trendy looks—from cargo miniskirts to ruffled camisoles—as their slimmer peers. Apparently even girls who don't have Britney Spears
's abs love wearing belly-baring tops: In just two years Torrid—a branch of the $443 million Hot Topic Inc. clothing empire, of which McLaughlin, 42, is CEO—has expanded from six to 33 stores, with plans for another 19. Offering other labels (Dickies, Hello Kitty) along with the Torrid brand, "it has filled a niche in the market," says Marshal Cohen, an analyst for NPD Fashion World, which tracks the retail market, "that no one had ever thought to go after."
Which explains the emotional reaction Torrid sparked after opening its doors. "Some people thought we had staged customers," McLaughlin says, "because when they went into a store, they saw a mom or daughter screaming with joy or crying." Plus-size model Mia Tyler is among the converted. Once resigned to surfing the Internet for "the rock stuff" she wore growing up, the 24-year-old daughter of Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler is now a die-hard Torrid fan. "I'm like, 'I'll model for you for free clothes!' " she says. "There's just nowhere else in the world to get this stuff."
Even when selling less unusual items, McLaughlin has displayed a golden touch. The older of two daughters raised mostly in Costa Mesa by Karin, 78, a homemaker, and Bob, 74, a salesman, McLaughlin took her first retail job in 1978 while attending the University of California at Irvine. As a menswear sales clerk at a local department store, her father says, "she'd get one guy in and sell to him, and then he'd come back with his whole football team!"
In 1982, after graduating with an economics degree, McLaughlin started working her way up through the retail business ranks, landing at Hot Topic in 1993. Seven years later she was named CEO and soon after decided to test the idea of hip fashions for large teens by stocking Hot Topic shelves with a pair of size 15 vinyl pants. "Customers started writing in, saying, 'I see you have this one item; why can't you have more?' " says McLaughlin, who translated that demand into Torrid. "We realized this customer didn't have anywhere to go."
These days it's McLaughlin who's heading in a different direction. She was once reluctant to leave business matters behind at the company's City of Industry, Calif., headquarters—in 2001, for example, "we were at a wedding, toasting the bride," her father says, "and there's Betsy in the corner with her BlackBerry reading e-mails." McLaughlin is now trying to create "a balanced life" that includes more time cooking at home for friends ("I love the entire process of planning and preparing a meal," she says) and tending to the garden at her two-bedroom Manhattan Beach, Calif., bungalow.
Her most ambitious goal, however, involves her health. In July McLaughlin, who is single, started a low-carb diet that has helped her shed 80 lbs. (She has 50 more to go.) "It doesn't matter what size or weight I am," she says. "I just want to feel good every day." Lately that's meant coming into work at 9:30 a.m. (instead of 90 minutes earlier) so she can—on the advice of her sister Anne, 41, a scientist and avid runner—get in an early-morning jog. "She told me, 'Just g° a block,' " McLaughlin says. ' "Don't worry—you'll work your way up.' " No doubt she will.
Amy Baumgartner in City of Industry