By  on June 4, 2012

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.

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