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Blah Clothes Put Women on Fashion Strike

Gene J. Puskar

Andrea Colby is on strike against the world of fashion.

The 37-year-old publicist has never been a big style risk taker, but even mainstream names like Jones New York and AnnTaylor-- brands that she had been once loyal to -- are becoming too staid for her.

"Their stuff is pretty run of the mill with nothing really striking me -- too conservative," said the Albany, N.Y., resident. For a couple of years, she's been avoiding what she sees as too many suited, matchy-match looks.

Across the nation, women over age 35 are increasingly rebelling against the suits and head-to-toe dressing of traditional department store labels like Liz Claiborne, Jones New York and the old-guard mall stores like Talbots and AnnTaylor. That's put sales of traditional women's fashions in a rut that has deepened over the past year, and companies have announced reduced profit outlooks, missed sales targets and dramatic restructuring.

Liz Claiborne is now focusing on fewer but more powerful brands like Juicy Couture, maker of the much-copied sweatsuits with "Juicy" printed across the rear. Apparel maker VF is chasing after the customer who will spend $200 on a pair of jeans with its acquisition of Seven for All Mankind.

Talbotsis redoing its fashions into styles new president and CEO Trudy Sullivan even calls "sexy." And AnnTaylor Stores, struggling with sluggish business, is set to open a new store concept next fall, aimed at the modern baby boomer.

At Lord & Taylor, which is now owned by NRDC Equity Partners, a dramatic cleanup has already taken place. Traditional sportswear now accounts for only 40 percent of its total business, down from 90 percent in 2000, and it's dropping fast, according to Jane Elfers, president and CEO. It's been replaced in part by a new "modern" department, which features hot styles that are forgiving -- cropped jackets with shorter sleeves, jumpers paired with leggings and A-line dresses.

With 65 percent of the $106 billion women's apparel business catering to the 35-to-54 age group, analysts say the industry needs to be concerned.

Making Mom Happy

"If (they) don't get mom excited, she is not buying anything else in the store," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group.

It seems, however, that women's apparel sellers just can't get it right.

Over the past 12 months, several new concepts catering to boomers have shut down. Gapshuttered Forth & Towne, while children's clothing retailer Gymboreeshut down Janeville, which sold casual clothing to boomers.

Analysts blame the sluggishness on a number of factors -- shoppers' penchant for trendier items that can be mixed with other labels and increased competition from hot new brands like Juicy Couture and chains such as Spanish cheap chic retailer Zara and Los Angeles-based Forever21. These chains are doing a good job of attracting moms and daughters with designer knockoffs, refreshed frequently.

Analysts and company executives also blame the fashion funk on higher energy costs and a slumping housing market. The economy is squeezing shoppers like Colby, who are more vulnerable than the true designer shopper, according to Cohen.

Colby says she won't spend any more than $100 for a suit; most of the time, she buys it on sale. What little she buys to spice up her professional outfits, she's getting at Kohl's, particularly the Daisy Fuentes line and its teen department. On a recent work day, she wore a green sweater with snakeskin trim, paired with a traditional style black pants.

"There's no question we're in the middle of a very difficult environment at retail, with declining traffic and consumer concern impacting business across the industry," William McComb, president and CEO of Liz Claiborne, told investors last month when the company reduced its annual profit outlook.

Turnaround Will Take Time

Analysts don't see any signs of a turnaround in the women's apparel sector in time for the holiday season.

"I do think the entire market is suffering. It seems to have metastasized"... from specialty store chains to wholesale companies, said Lazard Capital Markets analyst Todd Slater.

Among the mall-based store chains, Talbots now expects a loss in the second half due to weak sales. Sullivan told investors last month the sales funk has been due in part to Talbots' failure to change with customers' tastes.

So far this fiscal year, Chico's FAS, has suffered a 5.1 percent drop in same-store sales, or sales at stores opened at least a year, while AnnTaylor has averaged a 3.0 percent decline. Apparel maker Kellwood, whose repertoire includes Sag Harbor, lowered its 2007 earnings outlook in September.

Liz Claiborne blamed its reduced profit outlook on the weak performance of several brands. The company announced in July that it planned to focus on Kate Spade, Juicy Couture, Lucky Brand Jeans and Mexx and will license, sell or shut down 16 other brands, not including the flagship Liz Claiborne line, which is being retooled.

Much of the intense soul searching about boomers has come from retailers themselves, which are pushing manufacturers to change.

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Bloomingdale's is rolling out a new department called "Quotations," which caters to shoppers in their 40s. The shops, which feature swing coats and wide-leg jeans, are in 21 stores but are expected to be rolled out to a total of 27 by year-end.

Under Elfers direction, Lord & Taylor created the modern department which replaced traditional clothing brands like Liz Claiborne, J.H. Collectibles and Chaus, with brands such as Kors by Michael Kors and Kenneth Cole that offer contemporary styles. But Lord & Taylor is also beefing up its own store brands by signing up designers to create the fashions. Cynthia Steffe, for example, is designing the Context brand; her influence will be seen next year.

The new strategy reflects the new mindset of women over age 35, who don't want to feel like they're aging, say the retailers.

"People are feeling younger," Elfers said. "They're feeling a lot better about themselves."

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