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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Ignored for years by the pet fashion industry and left to dwell in the shadows of tiny dogs in tutus and tiaras, large dogs are finally loping onto the high couture catwalk.
What are they wearing? The chunky prints and large patterned fabrics that would overwhelm smaller dogs, as well as camouflage fleece hoodies, jean jackets and, yes, even ostrich feathers.
Bigger, bulkier dogs are growing more popular, especially in trend-setting New York City, where the Labrador and bulldog gained ground on the list of favorite canines last year, according to the American Kennel Club.
Muscled out of the top spot was the Yorkshire terrier and pushed back even farther was the miniature poodle, small dogs that have long strutted in Ralph Lauren and Roberto Cavalli designs and labels from Barneys, Henri Bendel and other high-end stores.
For big dogs, the naked truth has been that plus-size canine couture was almost nowhere to be found.
Now, the Fashion Institute of Technology, which offers a professional certificate program in pet product design and marketing, is stocking classrooms with dog dressmaker forms from tiny to huge, said Joan Volpe, managing coordinator of the school whose graduates include Calvin Klein, Norma Kamali and Michael Kors.
As bigger dogs grew in popularity, the industry responded.
"Every dog today needs boots. Every dog needs a raincoat. Every dog needs a sweater," she said.
Pet fashion is the nexus of "Ruff!" and cuff, and nowhere is that better illustrated than in New York City in February, when the world famous Westminster Dog Show and equally renowned Fashion Week occur simultaneously.
More than 78 million dogs live as pets in the United States, up from 53 million two decades ago, according to American Pet Products.
Lavishing love on their furriest family member, 15 percent of pet owners have been buying duds for their dogs in recent years, and canine apparel sales remained steady even through the recent economic downturn, the APP's latest survey showed.
For plus-sized pooches and designers who cater to them, PawVogue.com is a website devoted to canine couture that urges online visitors to share names of designers for large dogs.
"Every human is not a size 6, and every dog is not 5 lbs (2 kg)," said the website.
Consider French Fry and Tater Tot, two Wheaten terriers weighing 48 pounds (22 kg) and 28 pounds (13 kg) whose owner, Sandy Thompson of Buford, Georgia, wants her "babies" to wear couture.
Her dogs have 40 outfits from canine designers as far away as Spain.
"Even big dogs like to look pretty," said Thompson.
French Fry and Tater Tot appear at pet fashion shows to benefit women's shelters and animal rescue centers.
At a charity event next month, Tater Tot will be wearing a plum silk gown with a broach and ostrich feathers and later appear in a frock of rainbow-hued fabric imported from India with ribbons and petticoats. French Fry's vests will coordinate with Tater Tot's gowns.
Thompson declined to reveal what she paid for the pieces by designer Linda Higgins of Chattanooga, Tennessee, but estimated they would sell online for $1,000 per dress and $700 per vest.
Smaller price tags for big dog fashions are offered by www.PJNYdogwear.com, launched by FIT student designer Karen Varley, who donates 10 percent of her proceeds to animal shelters like the one where she found her pitbull mix, Polly Jean.
The dog sits still as Varley, unable to find a canine mannequin big enough, drapes her with pinned fabric pieces to create new fashions such as a faux fleece-lined jean jacket, her most popular item, which sells for $43.
"I just felt there was an emptiness in my life," said Varley, 44, a flight attendant who decided against having children. "Polly Jean has brought so much happiness. Gosh, I can't even put into words how wonderful she has made my life."
Editing by Doina Chiacu