The General Malaise in Women's Fashion Apparel

Maybe it’s the MBA talking, but I am always interested in the business side of fashion, so an article in today’s WWD about the state of women’s fashion really caught my attention. I have seen so many changes in the fashion industry since we launched Second City Style nearly 8 years ago. At the time we launched fashion was totally attainable. Now the economy has changed and so have our purchasing habits. Yet, it’s apparent that the sagging women’s apparel business is ready for a change.
WWD goes on to attribute shoes and bags for keeping the industry afloat for several years now. We don’t see that changing anytime soon, since they are not only the most noticeable, but most attainable. I can justify spending $3,000 on a bag I can carry daily. I can’t wear a $3,000 dress every day though. Well I could but I would be looked at rather strangely I’m sure.
Yet, when it comes to apparel there seems to be too much that is too the same. Women’s wear sales have been dragging since well before the recession and the CFDA agrees that there appears to be no easy answer to fixing the problem. Even though retailers are claiming improved profits, it’s not apparel, but rather shoes, bags and accessories that are saving their bottom lines. That’s why it would seem retailers are always looking for the next “it” designer. Even designers admit women are increasingly finding it tough to find clothing they want to wear, since they now are looking for clothes that can as easily go from work through dinner.
“Fine apparel is particularly challenging right now,” Neiman Marcus president and chief executive officer Karen Katz told WWD last week, just after the luxury chain reported a 35 percent profit gain in the last quarter. “For us, this was really the first quarter where we experienced a change. It’s not a price issue.  There are lifestyle changes. Customers have been very discerning. They want something very unique, very fashionable, something lasting for her wardrobe.”
Designer labels that read a bit more casual are doing well, Katz  added. However, “We have to rethink how we edit the designer collections.”
The bulk of the business — designer apparel, classic and traditional sportswear, suits and tailored looks, outerwear, basics, misses’ and juniors — has been in the doldrums for some time, although contemporary sportswear, dresses, knitwear, skinny jeans and colored denim experienced good gains. So there is little question that women’s apparel overall lost ground, or had minimal growth in the past year. According to The NPD Group market research firm, women’s apparel in the U.S. rose just 2.9 percent to $80.16 billion last year, a figure that includes inflation, which distorts real growth, and is low compared with mid-to-high-single-digit gains retailers posted for their entire businesses.
For several seasons, Nordstrom Inc. has been unhappy with its women’s apparel business. Moderate chains are also challenged, like J.C. Penney Co. Inc., (which is constantly reinventing itself these days trying to figure out a winning formula), Gap Inc., which has been trying in vein to turn itself around and find a new identity. Sears Holdings Corp. remains prosaic and requires a fashion overhaul. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. sells, well…Wal-Mart clothes. Talbots Inc., which was just sold to private equity firm Sycamore Partners, thereby escaping a potential bankruptcy, needs to find a contemporary look to reclaim its mature clients that defected to Chico’s (that’s scary) and elsewhere. Amongst the younger set, Urban Outfitters Inc. and the nation’s slew of youth chains seem to be cannibalizing each other and are rather gross.
Retailers, consultants and designers concur the apparel industry is plagued by too much inventory, insufficient innovation, sameness and a failure to keep up with the changing lifestyles of women. No truer words were ever spoken!  Most apparel, lacks value, quality that lasts, and versatility, meaning looks that are equally suitable for work or dinner afterward, or as wearable for weekday or weekend occasions.
Fashion experts also said money once spent by consumers on ready-to-wear and sportswear is shifting to accessories and shoes, two categories increasingly associated with fashion, status and innovation. Dresses, too, for the last four years have been on a run because they’re simpler and easier to put on than suits or sportswear outfits, and it’s a look that can be easily enhanced with cardigans, status handbags and shoes.
Allen Questrom, the former chairman and ceo of Penney’s, Federated Department Stores Inc. and Barneys New York, said, “I don’t see much out there that’s new and different. There’s a lot of stuff. If something is new and different, people will buy it. When the iPod came out, nobody asked about the price. They lined up to buy it.” This is a sentiment echoed by many of us. The bottom line has killed creativity. Well that and celebrity lines. It all looks the same.
“I think the preoccupation by many manufacturers and designers to cost-engineer to make up for big price increases in raw materials and labor has resulted in a reduction in innovation and creative product development,” observed Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategy at Kurt Salmon Associates. Sucking costs out of apparel production, more often the case in moderate merchandise rather than high-end apparel, leads to less detail, like fewer buttons, and less interest from consumers, Aronson said.
The fact is no matter how much money a woman has, she is now shopping all price-points. I am amazed at the number of Birkin bags I see at Joe Fresh on the Upper East Side. High-low dressing is no longer for aspirational 20-somethings. So no matter the price, if there is a must-have, hot designer with innovative ideas…they will do well. We are interested to see what the next wave in fashion will bring. We just wonder when it will happen. In the meantime, I’ll see you at the sample sales picking over the extra inventory that isn’t selling.
Read “Women’s Fashion Sales Face Challenges” here (need a subscription to WWD)
– Lauren Dimet Waters
Source: WWD
Image Layout: Second City Style

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