This week the curvy ladies of Melbourne lost an important contributor to our Plus-size Industry, and I lost a friend.
About 12 years ago I discovered Big In Black. I was looking for a dress for a wedding and a friend of mine recommended I check it out. As I pulled up outside I could see from the garments hanging in the window that there was at least something in my size. The Betty Boop image on the window was quirky and curvy, but until I opened the door I wasn’t convinced I was in the right place. I was immediately greeted by a booming voice – “Hi, I haven’t seen you before, want a cuppa?” And so began my association, and friendship with the most lovable, loud and vivacious woman I’ve ever known. That day I did find the outfit I wanted. I left happy, and I left knowing that this was somewhere I would visit again.
Flash forward to 2009 when I opened my first business Real Women Have Curves. When I was formulating my ideas for how to structure the business, Victoria was one of the first people I contacted. She was so supportive and encouraging and she added significant value to my business over the years.
Victoria opened Big In Black in 2000, she was plus-size and one of the most confident women I knew. Her knowledge of what the customer wants was vast. Victoria’s husband Clotaire was a regular in the store, his wide smile and warm manner coupled with his great knowledge of garments added value to the store. In fact, Clotaire is a brilliant dressmaker and the store offers custom made garments. Big In Black is renowned for being able to cater to all sizes, and I’ve been in-store and witnessed first hand a bridal party consisting of women ranging in size from 12-36 all being fitted for dresses that flattered and worked. The beaming smile on the Bride’s face, and the look of relief on the Bridesmaid’s face as what may have seemed like an insurmountable feat – turned into something quite perfect. This is unique and not something any other store can offer. There are many stories like this that I’ve seen and heard over the years and there is no doubt that Big In Black has an incredible following of loyal customers to be proud of. In fact the wall behind the counter is covered in photos of beaming brides, mother of the Bride/Groom and women in beautiful after-five wear all thanking Victoria and her team for their help in making them feel beautiful on their special day.
Victoria & her husband Clotaire
On entering the store, you could be forgiven for being confused – the space is jam packed with thousands of garments ranging in size from 8-34 and interspersed between these treasures are some odd offerings such as golly wogs and witches, bejewelled shoes and accessories. The one constant is that Big In Black – overseen by the vivacious Victoria – remained a treasure-trove (or wonderland as she says on her website) for the woman with the fuller-figure. The staff too are amazing, Heather who has been a loyal member for many years and Kelly who make up the great customer service that you can expect from BIB. Last year I actually worked for a month on Saturdays at Big In Black to get some insider understanding on the retail aspect of how things work. I really enjoyed my time there and learnt a lot from Victoria and Kelly.
Over the past 7 years of working with styling customers I have NEVER taken a customer to the store and not found THE perfect outfit. Big In Black has been my go-to store for after-five, special occasion and bridal outfits.
Victoria has shared a million stories with me over the years, having started out in 2000 well and truly prior to the social media revolution, she worked hard to get the word out about her business. She had a great story about a well known women’s magazine who approached her for a story and visited the store to interview Victoria and take some photos. Victoria, (as am I) was pedantic about not being associated with anything weight related when it came to dealing with customers – so she wanted to be sure that the magazine understood this – she even went so far as to insist that the magazine send her a “proof for approval” prior to publication. The magazine did this – and then when the double-page article was published Victoria picked up the magazine to find that they had printed exactly what they’d provided her with in the proof – BUT they had inserted an ad for weight loss products in the border of the article. I would NOT liked to have been there when Victoria had that conversation with the magazine – Victoria wasn’t one to mince words – and I admired her greatly for that. She was a woman who saw it and said it as it was. A woman after my own heart.
Over the years we formed a great relationship, and when in 2011 my dad passed away she was one of the first to contact me when she heard the news. Not a year later her own beloved father passed, he’d battled cancer but unfortunately passed due to a heart attack. Together we chatted about how this felt and understood each others grief. In 2012 when my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was sitting with my mum at her first chemo session, terrified and attempting to be a good support when we suddenly heard a commotion at the door of the chemo ward. In walked Victoria, bold as always, with her mother Margaret. They were coming to visit the chemo nurses and thank them for the great care they had taken of Victoria’s father during his earlier treatment. Victoria spotted us and came over immediately. Her energy and fun manner immediately shifted our mood as she sent us all into fits of laughter with her antics. It was a terrible time for them, and for us, but as always she led the way with her amazing approach to life.
Not long after Victoria received the news that she had a battle of her own on her hands. She too was diagnosed with breast cancer. I couldn’t believe it, and I believed if anyone could beat it, she could. She fought an incredible battle, I remember for a woman so bold and outward she was also private, letting a select circle of people share her journey. During that journey I watched Victoria, her husband Clotaire, her two beautiful sons, her mum and friends love and support her – always with her outwardly hilarious sense of humour (one that sticks in my mind is Victoria and her friend Jean dressing up in Pokémon costumes during the chemo treatment phase entertaining the other patients) and ultimately when she had the all-clear – Victoria worked tirelessly raising funds to support the hospital that treated her and donating important equipment to help save more lives.
Through it all, I thought she’d won the battle. I was wrong.
About 3 months ago she went very quiet. I had frequent contact with her, but it became via Facebook Messenger rather than phone conversations or face-to-face. I had no idea that things were not good. She kept this very quiet. Just 4 weeks ago I heard she was in hospital again and tried to arrange a time to visit. She said she was “taking bookings” and I laughed, not realising how serious things were and said “of course you are – you’re so bloody popular”. That was the last I heard from her until I got the awful news early Monday morning.
I am gutted to the core. The outpouring of grief from friends & family has been massive, not unexpectedly for such an incredible woman. Victoria’s contribution to the plus-size Industry, the curvy customer, and to me personally and professionally is immeasurable. I want to say THANK YOU Victoria for being you and for having such an amazing impact on my life. I’ll miss you.
Big In Black is open for business as usual except for this Friday 6th May for the celebration of her life.
Please continue to support this incredible store.
Love your shape!