NEW YORK — As designers gather at tonight’s CFDA Awards at Lincoln Center, the women’s fashion business is at a crossroads and creativity has never been needed more.
The flagging women’s apparel business is primed for a jolt.
It’s accepted fact that shoes and bags have lit up the industry for several years now, and that’s not expected to change anytime soon. Too much stuff with too little imagination has women’s apparel pretty much adrift in a sea of sameness. Women’s wear sales have been dragging since well before the recession. Of equal concern is that there appears to be no easy answer to fixing the problem.
Even as retailers appear to be crawling back with improved profits and sales and growing cash reserves, women’s apparel has not been leading the way. Instead, accessories such as shoes and handbags are now the star performers — and are likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. And if the malaise in women’s apparel remains prolonged, it will have a huge impact on what and how much stores buy, the space they devote to apparel and the ability of new designers to break through into the spotlight.
“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.”
“Certain areas of women’s apparel, contemporary, sexy and flirty are doing extremely well. Certain areas with classic brands aren’t doing as well,” Saks Fifth Avenue chairman and ceo Stephen I. Sadove said in an interview. “Overall, the women’s business is healthy, but it’s being driven more by fashion — where it’s more contemporary. Some brands are more suited. More formal may not be the way people are dressing. That is a change in taste.”
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.
“It’s really important to realize that today, women have one wardrobe. Years ago, they would have a wardrobe for work and a wardrobe for weekend clothes,” said Gary Muto, president of Loft.
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. Statistically, there’s 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.
In 2011, dresses rose 17 percent to $10.9 billion, though suits were down 17.9 percent to $1.02 billion; jackets slipped 0.1 percent to about $1.7 billion; pants dropped 0.6 percent to $2.97 billion; jeans declined almost 3.3 percent to $7.79 billion, and coats fell 3.4 percent to $2.07 billion. Women’s accessories did better, rising 3 percent to $34.92 billion and sweaters rose 5.6 percent to $11.05 billion. Women’s footwear was up just 0.5 percent to $25.04 billion.
“The volume areas for business in women’s apparel are failing in relationship to other areas,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD Group. “Women have dramatically changed how they perceive the importance of sportswear. They’re buying across a much wider range of products. The fashion industry has been out-fashioned by every single other industry where consumers spend money. There’s more fashion in food than apparel.”
For several seasons, Nordstrom Inc. has been unhappy with its women’s apparel business. Pete Nordstrom, president of merchandising, said this spring some “pockets” in women’s performed better than others and cited the modern and casual sides and “good growth” in activewear and lingerie, which in many cases are getting increased space on Nordstrom’s selling floors. He also said by the next conference call the company will have hired a new general merchandise manager in women’s to succeed Loretta Soffe, who quietly left in January, reflecting the difficulties.
Moderate chains are also challenged, like J.C. Penney Co. Inc., which is reinventing and has been plagued by basics that don’t sell. Gap Inc., which has been enduring multiyear turnaround efforts, showed some life this spring by capitalizing on the bright color trend but needs to find a new identity. Sears Holdings Corp. remains prosaic and requires a fashion overhaul. The Bon-Ton Stores Inc. is trying to find the right balance between updated and traditional. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. perennially has problems selling anything but basics in apparel. The 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 FAS and elsewhere. Amongst the younger set, Urban Outfitters Inc. and the nation’s slew of youth chains seem to be cannibalizing each other.
@fearofgod and @maxfieldla have teamed up on a pop-up installation. The store, located in the gallery space across from Maxfield’s Melrose Ave location, is the site of the brand’s House of God pop-up in which Fear of God founder @jerrylorenzo has created a church-inspired installation. A dozen vintage church pews sit in front of an LED screen playing 90s gospel singers in an effort to re-create an environment akin to a Southern Baptist Church, Lorenzo explained. Read more about the pop-up on WWD.com #wwdfashion (📷: Jennifer Johnson)
Known for his sleek, sophisticated American glamour, Norman Norell is the subject of an upcoming exhibition at @fitnyc. “Norell: Dean of American Fashion,” which runs from February 9 through April 14, will feature approximately 100 ensembles and accessories. His best work is exemplified by the designer’s glittering “mermaid” gowns frosted with thousands of hand-sewn sequins – like the one pictured. (📷: William Helburn) #wwdfashion
For pre-fall 2018, @balmain didn’t let go of the glitz. A crystal embroidered baseball jacket priced at around $40,000 hangs in the “couture” section of the brand’s first men’s pre-collection. Sporting the words “Balmain Army” across the back, the item took around two months to make. “When it was completed, it was like Christmas, it was like, ‘It’s done, it’s exactly what I wanted,’” said Balmain’s creative director @olivier_rousteing during a tour of the collection in a Paris showroom on Monday. #wwdfashion
Eighty degree temperatures and outdoor installations at the annual Art Basel Miami Beach called for bright, elevated beachwear. See more street style pictures on WWD.com. #theyarewearing #ABMB (📷: @lifeinreverie)
Following September’s emotional tribute to her brother Gianni, Donatella Versace wanted to bring the spring show’s deep sense of intimacy to her @versace_official pre-fall collection. Donatella found inspiration in Versace Palazzo in Milan and from Gianni’s opulent apartment. Archival patterns and new motifs were splashed on silk shirtdresses and fitted jersey frocks. See the rest of the photos on WWD.com. #wwdfashion
Demna Gvasalia continues to shake up the Paris fashion calendar — and experiment with new runway timetables for his @vetements_official brand. WWD has learned that Vetements plans to stage its next coed show for the fall 2018 season on January 19 during Men’s Fashion Week in the French capital. Details about the timing and venue have not been confirmed — stay tuned on WWD.com to catch the latest. #wwdnews (📷: @giovanni_giannoni_photo)
@zacposen's go-to holiday gift? Cookies! "I'll usually bake cookies and send them as a gift," said the designer, who recently released his cookbook "Cooking With Zac: Recipes from Rustic to Refined." Get the recipe for his Brown Butter-Chocolate Chip Cookies via link in bio 🍪🍪🍪 #wwdeye #cookingwithzac
For @monsemaison’s pre-fall 2018 collection, Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim honed in on the brand’s many signatures — men’s wear, which was tweaked and feminized through deconstruction, proportion play and lots of bare shoulders. See the rest of the photos on WWD.com #wwdfashion (📷: George Chinese)
On Friday night, @yohjiyamamotoofficial received the Design for Asia Lifetime Achievement Award in Hong Kong. The 75-year-old designer has been celebrated for many years and is best known for his dark and avant-garde tailoring. “In my long career, in design, architecture, [I’ve been to] so many parties, this is the very first time that I have such a warm feeling, I really appreciate this,” Yamamoto said. #wwdfashion (📷: @dominiquemaitre)