By  on May 14, 2008

With the worsening U.S. economy putting a strain on people's wallets, for the first time in seven years consumers are placing more importance on which apparel brands they're wearing — and they're expressing more willingness to try some new ones.

Twice as many adults — and twice as many women — are finding more significance in sporting certain brands, logos and symbols than they did a year ago, according to the Brand Keys 2008 Fashion Brand Loyalty Index. One in 10 women, and 8 percent of adults overall, make up this new wave, stemming a tide that last year saw about three-quarters of the country's consumers claim that wearing specific brand names was becoming less important to them.

"This is an acknowledgement that people are looking for differences between brands," said Robert Passikoff, president of marketing consultant Brand Keys. "It doesn't necessarily mean they're finding it." Nonetheless, Passikoff projected, "This should be a good thing for the fashion brands."

Almost two dozen of the 60 favorite brands mentioned by 26,000 consumers are new to this year's list — an unusually big portion — signaling shoppers' openness to donning something different. They include Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Donna Karan, Nordstrom, Calvin Klein, Polo, J. Crew, Levi's, L.L. Bean and Dockers, with half of those names preferred by more than one demographic group participating in the March survey taken by Brand Keys.

Ralph Lauren, a perennial favorite in the loyalty index, was the leading choice among women and was ranked second overall, following apparel licensed by a person's favorite athletic team.

Whether a luxury label or an American classic, people said it's a garment's quality — including materials, construction and durability — that most often attracts them to the brands they'd like to wear. Not surprisingly, most shoppers also said their affinity for a given label is influenced by the value they perceive in a specific item, Passikoff noted, "more so this year because of the economy." When asked about the power of status for its own sake, he said it is dimming, given people's priority on quality and value.

At Saks Fifth Avenue, Suzanne Johnson, group senior vice president and general manager of the Fifth Avenue flagship, said brands that have been selling well this spring include Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Carolina Herrera, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana, Akris and Agnona. Dresses and pieces flashing bright colors and floral prints are in demand."We've got our antennae up like crazy to see what customers are saying and how they are shopping," Johnson said. "They want something that will last and they want something they can wear now. They don't want to wait three months to put it on," she continued. "They're not cutting back, but they want to wear something special. Brands that are more basic are having a struggle."

In the past six months, apparel is a product people have been saying they're spending less on or dropping from their shopping lists, as rising costs of necessities like housing, gasoline and food eat up their discretionary income. Consumers cited apparel again in early April as one of three kinds of purchases they were most likely to cut back on in the near term, according to an NPD Group poll of 2,000 adults. Dining out and home entertainment were the other areas in which the group expected to clip spending.

In the 12 months ended March 31, consumer spending on women's apparel decreased 3.8 percent to $100.5 billion from $104.3 billion in the prior-year period. Five of the 10 best selling national and designer women's brands in the year ended this March, according to NPD, also were named by participants in the Brand Keys survey as being among their favorites to wear: Polo Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Levi's, Nike and Tommy Hilfiger.

At the high end, fashion names including Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Chanel were most significant for women and Baby Boomers to own, representing more than three-quarters of their choices. These labels got only half as many mentions among men, Gen-Xers and Millennials, who showed a strong taste for American classics, such as Nike, Levi's, J. Crew, Dockers, Tommy Hilfiger, Banana Republic and L.L. Bean.

"The consumer is responding well to uncomplicated fashion — classic American, cool product," observed Fred Gehring, chief executive officer of Tommy Hilfiger Group. That inclination and the Hilfiger brand's familiarity to shoppers, he said, is reflected in the group's healthy comparable-store sales growth. Hilfiger's comps this year through April 18 were up in the low double-digits at about 400 Macy's stores around the country and in three full-price Tommy Hilfiger shops, and were up 5 percent in the company's 125 outlet stores, according to the ceo.With the Hilfiger business "a fraction of what it could be in the U.S.," in Gehring's view, the company is planning to "step up" its communications with the public this fall in product-focused, cooperative ads with Macy's, in an image-based global ad campaign, and via its new viral marketing platform, the newly launched online music channel

Increases in disposable income for the affluent among the Baby Boomers, considered the country's wealthiest generation ever, is probably adding to the allure of designer names like Lauren, Karan and Chanel, Passikoff said, while the sense of "comfort" and "warmth" people are finding in some of America's heritage brands is heightening their appeal. The Ralph Lauren brand may be benefiting from both dynamics. "Ralph Lauren has 40 years of branding behind it and the brand is very familiar," said David Lauren, senior vice president of advertising, marketing and communications at Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. He maintained the clarity of what the Ralph Lauren name is intended to stand for, including "quality, elegance and good taste, is a critical part of keeping the brand strong."

These days, fashion shoppers are being drawn to brands that are "approachable and have identifiable attributes," observed Tom Julian, president of the newly formed brand consultant Tom Julian Group. For example, he cited "fresh Americana attitude with updated must-have pieces — a Diane von Furstenberg dress, a Tory Burch tunic, a Michael Kors coat, Marc Jacobs accessories."

Recalling conversations he's had with consumers, Julian added, "There is a real heavy [not black] cloud hanging over many women when it comes to the spend column. We are in a shifting political year, and any household is very aware of the required pinching from the monthly budget, compared with 2007."

Consumers' Newest Favorites To Wear
(Brands cited by group in 2008)
NordstromWomen, Baby Boomers
J. CrewWomen, men, Millennials, Gen X-ers
Levi’sMen, Millennials
L.L. BeanMen
Polo/Ralph LaurenGen X-ers
Calvin KleinGen X-ers
GucciBaby Boomers
Louis VuittonBaby Boomers
Donna KaranBaby Boomers
*Source: Brand Keys 2008 Fashion Brand Loyalty Index, based on March survey of 26,000 adults.

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