NEW YORK — The back-to-basics movement is gathering momentum among fashion shoppers.A quest for value, accelerated by the aging of the U.S. population and resulting shift in people’s priorities, is diminishing the importance many consumers place on fashion and athletic brands and logos in the clothes they wear. Instead, America’s adults, particularly women, are placing a significantly higher priority on the attributes of the merchandise itself than on the labels those garments bear.That’s the finding of a first-quarter survey of 7,500 women and men, equally divided, done by Manhattan-based marketing agency Brand Keys, which disclosed its resulting First Annual Fashion Index exclusively to WWD. And it’s a snapshot that was reinforced by interviews with a handful of fashion marketing experts.“It’s getting harder for brands to differentiate,” said Robert K. Passikoff, founder and president of Brand Keys, whose clients include American Express, Apple Computers, Coca-Cola, Kohler, the National Basketball Association, Sears and Toyota. “Many brands are slowly becoming a well-known commodity, as distinct from their previous roles, either as signifiers of a product’s quality or of status.” One reason, he noted, is the global economy’s role in making American fashion brands available worldwide. “If it were always an easy matter to link a brand to a lifestyle,” Passikoff added, “then Gap wouldn’t be in the trouble it’s currently in.”Among the options available to brand marketers, sources advised, are to offer more exclusive product features and to create a desired image that is not easily replicated. While acknowledging those traits are likely to skew a brand’s appeal to a particular niche, they noted they also can help insure survival, whether those niches are narrow or broader. Asked to cite some brands that are doing those things well, Passikoff gave high marks to Polo and Nike, while Dan Stanek, an executive vice president at Columbus, Ohio-based management consultant Retail Forward, replied, “It’s tough to mimic a Tommy Bahama.”In fact, only two of the 43 fashion and athletic brands considered in the study — Nike and Giorgio Armani — were designated as “much more important” or “more important” than “a few years ago,” by both the women and men surveyed, and all three of the age groups polled. Among those 7,500 people, Nike and Armani placed second and third, respectively, drawing a 25 percent and 22 percent response as being either much more important or more important, and they followed the top-ranked selection of “favorite sports team,” which pulled a 46 percent share overall, or 36 percent of the women sampled and 55 percent of the men. Four more names were chosen as increasingly important by two of the three age segments: Calvin Klein, Perry Ellis and Versace (selected by the 21 to 34 year olds and 45 to 59 year olds surveyed) and DKNY (designated by the 21 to 34 year olds and 45 to 59 year olds). The three age groups canvassed each contained a total of 2,500 men and women.The remaining brands asked about were Abercrombie & Fitch, Adidas, Bill Blass, Brooks Bros., Burberry, Champion, Chanel, Christian Dior, Donna Karan Collection, Ellesse, Fendi, Ferragamo, Fila, Gap, Geoffrey Beene, Gucci, Hermès, Hugo Boss, Lacoste, Levi’s, London Fog, Louis Vuitton, Major League Baseball, Nautica, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, Paul Stewart, Polo, Prada, Puma, Ralph Lauren, Reebok, Tommy Hilfiger, and Yves Saint Laurent. Thirty-five of the brands asked about were those cited by the Brand Keys panel, prior to the first-quarter survey, when they were asked to identify fashion brands they’ve purchased. “We like everything to be consumer-driven,” Passikoff explained.In Passikoff’s view, “Apparel is an industry which, by and large, has ignored the consumer’s values. It has looked at the values of the [retail] buyer and distribution network,” he maintained. “This is reminiscent of a late Seventies, production-based model, with the consumer a consideration at the [network’s] tail end.”“With the aging of the U.S. population, a growing number of consumers have more self-confidence,” observed Carl Steidtmann, chief economist at Deloitte Consulting, when told of the marketing study’s results. “They know what they like and they are not as reliant on brand images as they once were.”The oldest group of respondents — 45 to 59 — was, in fact, the least likely to indicate fashion brands are more important to them now than they were in the past. For example, Adidas got that segment’s strongest response of specific brands asked about, drawing 22 percent of the sector, followed by Armani, with 17 percent. But those numbers were far short of the 33 percent and 34 percent shares received by Nike, respectively, from the 21 to 34 year olds and 35 to 44 year olds. The second-most popular names among those two groups were Fendi, which was identified as having become more important by 32 percent of the younger contingent, and Reebok, by 31 percent of the 35 to 44 year olds.Further, Steidtmann noted, “Consumers are going toward basic goods more than brands. We’ve seen an improvement in the quality that apparel makers are offering for the value, so the brand has become much less a mark of distinction. It’s consumer driven, rather than brand driven. This is something all brands are having to cope with. It’s one of the reasons the luxury brands have struggled recently.”For the time being, Retail Forward’s Stanek observed, “The middle-ground consumer is migrating more often to lower-end brands than luxury labels. People’s pride in wearing prestige brands is not as strong as their ability to tell their peers they got a good deal.”Another dynamic driving this phenomenon, according to Stanek, is the fashion industry’s ongoing consolidation, which has produced a greater number of increasingly efficient apparel manufacturers and vertically integrated retailers. Those players, in turn, are getting better at providing quality apparel, under fashion brands and with a few years ago; 31 percent rated their influence about the same, and only 8 percent said the consideration was much more important or more important to them than it was in the late Nineties.The men canvassed, by comparison, put more importance than women on the brands and logos attached to their fashion and athletic wear, with 53 percent stating they are currently much less important or less important than they were previously; 35 percent rating them about the same, and 12 percent describing the symbols as much more important or more important. That meant the women surveyed were nearly twice as likely than men to say fashion and athletic brands in their apparel were less important than more important, versus a few years ago. One reason for the difference in responses given by men and women, Steidtmann noted, is that “women shop more than men.” Brands have not lost all of their allure, however, according to the Brand Keys fashion index and figures furnished by NPDFashionworld and STS Market Research’s AccuPanel.When asked to identify thebrands or logos that had become much more important or more important to wear compared with a few years ago, a double-digit share of the 7,500 men and women polled by Brand Keys identified 20 of the 43 brand choices, plus a symbol of their favorite sports team. The result according to the three age groups surveyed was similar, with 22 labels garnering a double-digit response, as did their favorite sports team.In 2001, according to NPDFashionworld, 31 percent, or $27.7 billion, of the $89.4 billion consumers allocated to women’s apparel was for items bearing national brands, and 3 percent, or $3.8 billion, for those with designer labels. In households with annual income of $100,000 or more, 30 percent, or $5.9 billion of the $19.7 billion spent on women’s wear overall was expended on national brands, while 7 percent, or $1.3 billion was spent on designer goods.Despite the ongoing popularity of some brands, consumers’

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