Byline: Janet Ozzard With contributions from Sophy Fearnley-Whittingstall, Chicago, and Holly Haber, Dallas
NEW YORK — Classic power dressing has lost some of its charge.
The way today’s executive women dress is as varied as the workplace. With the growth of flex time, home offices and dress-down Fridays, women executives are finding that their wardrobes, and the way they shop, are changing.
Retailers are responding to this by either creating an environment for these customers, or adding to existing services. While many stores have had personal shopping facilities for several
years, those departments are growing and being fine-tuned to appeal to women who don’t have the time to consider shopping a leisure activity, or who are overwhelmed by options.
In some cases, women are buying apparel that doesn’t fit the traditional definition of career.
“Computers, dress-down Fridays, the [economic] growth in the southern part of the country, all these things are contributing to a more casual workplace,” said Sally Frame Kasaks, president of Ann Taylor, a chain long known for catering to working women. “There still remains a professional/executive/office individual who tends to be more suit-driven, more concerned about wearing pants to the office.
“On the other hand, there is emerging the woman who chooses to work at home. Maybe she lost her job through corporate downsizing, doesn’t want to fight the system anymore or wants to spend more time with her family. For whatever reason, she still has a need for appropriate clothing.”
She said the definition of “appropriate” is changing to a more casual look, such as loose pants with a blouse and vest, or a sarong skirt, top and jacket with flat shoes. Kasaks said her stores try to cover all areas, featuring career wear, separates and casual looks simultaneously. Often these groups coordinate, and there are some pieces — sweaters, leggings and items — that cross over to all three categories.
“These women are really time-deficient, so we work very hard to make our groups tight,” she said.
Shoppers’ lack of time also drives several personal shopping services.
At Saks Fifth Avenue here, vice president Susan Olden oversees the chain’s personal shopping services, Fifth Avenue Club and One-on-One. While One-on-One is a one-day shopping service available on demand, Fifth Avenue Club is an ongoing service that provides personal shoppers who “edit the store” for customers. A client with an appointment will find her assigned dressing room complete with makeup, fragrance, legwear, shoes, accessories and even gift ideas, as well as a selection of coordinated looks. Each room has a telephone, and fittings are free.
“It’s a calm, quiet environment where this woman gets one person’s undivided attention,” said Olden.
There are currently 40 Fifth Avenue Clubs.
“Originally, the shopping service had been a ladies-who-lunch kind of thing,” she said. “You didn’t even have to market to those women. They just came in every day. With executive women, there are certain needs there. If you only have one hour, we will do you in one hour. If you need things delivered to your office, we will deliver them to your office. In one case, a woman who had traveled to Texas suddenly had to go to Denver for a business meeting. We kept the store open late for her and got her all fitted out.”
Although Olden said her Fifth Avenue Club customers tend to buy designers such as Bill Blass, Chanel and Armani, she added that there’s no prerequisite for joining.
“We would never refuse anyone,” she said. “It’s really for the customer who wants the entire store pulled for them.”
Other key resources for Club customers include Donna Karan and Saks’ private label lines, particularly the cashmere items.
Olden is currently adding a new division, which will be exclusively bridge, to the One-on-One service.
Carl Barbato, store manager for Bergdorf Goodman’s flagship here, said, “We recently started training sales associates to work with executive women, and we’ve started to get feedback on that. We’re also developing our sixth floor, targeted to the career bridge customer. Prices will start at about $400 for a suit.”
The floor is slated to be completed in December.
Barbato said Bergdorf’s, to woo executives, is coordinating with New York businesses to offer a consultation or makeover.
“Often, those incentives are tied in to how the company wants the employees to look,” he said. “For instance, we worked with a real estate company here. The salespeople needed to have a certain level of sophistication because they are showing very high-priced real estate; but these people can’t afford Montana or Armani, so we help them put themselves together.”
Bergdorf’s is also encouraging women to hold business meetings in the store or to have store representatives come to their offices and do presentations “as part of the entertainment,” said Barbato.
The new sixth-floor setup will include accessories, handbags, hosiery and footwear. “We have to make it convenient for [the executive], and help her maximize her time,” he said.
Interviews with career women showed there’s a wide variety of looks for work apparel.
Ann Miles, a vice president in global finance at Citibank here, said the dress code varies from department to department and depends on a woman’s position in the company.
“Some people who have high visibility and a high position can get away with almost anything,” she said. “I saw one senior exec the other day wearing a gorgeous pantsuit and very high heels. I could never get away with that.”
Her most recent purchases were at Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York’s downtown store.
“Last October, I met a friend of a friend who worked at Barneys,” Miles said. “She acted like a personal shopper. I told her what I wanted and she guided me. I ended up buying a Barneys private label suit, a long gray flannel skirt and a jacket for about $400. I wore those pieces all winter.”
She said after her experience at Barneys, she would definitely be interested in a one-day personal shopper.
“But that doesn’t mean I don’t look for a bargain,” she said. “I just bought a beautiful Anne Klein II suit at Saks on sale for about $200.”
While her department has “an implicit, not explicit,” dress code that discourages women from wearing pants, Miles said she’s noticed that in general Citibank has become more relaxed in the last year.
“Women are more inclined to wear pants, or separates,” she said. “You don’t see as many suits.”
Elaine Sheppe, an attorney at Hosie, Wes, McLaughlin & Sacks in San Francisco, does most of her career shopping in Saks, Nordstrom, Neiman Marcus and I. Magnin.
“I buy a lot of bridge stuff, and you can get that just about anywhere,” said Sheppe. “My favorite designers are Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein II. I also have some Dana Buchman.
“My office absolutely has an implicit dress code. I don’t think they would look too highly upon you wearing pants,” she said, “but skirt lengths are not an issue — I wear mine as short as I want to.
“Nordstrom does a good job of catering to working women. They even have a service that delivers pantyhose to your office every month,” she said.
Sheppe’s biggest complaint is that women’s clothing is not only expensive, but not as well-tailored or detailed as men’s clothing. “If you pay $700 for a suit, you should at least get buttonholes on the cuffs. Even at those prices, the clothes still feel mass-produced,” she said. “I also think more attention needs to be paid to fashion in career clothes. Donna Karan did it in the beginning, but she’s gone more downtown lately.”
Not all executive women want separates and blouses. With its multitude of design industries such as advertising and fashion, New York has a significant population of women with more offbeat tastes.
Jackie Leak, an art director at the advertising agency D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, has more leeway than most in her executive dressing. She prefers European designer lines such as AgnÄs B. and Jean Paul Gaultier, or Japanese designers such as Matsuda, Comme des Garcons and Issey Miyake. She shops in those designers’ stores, or at Charivari or Barneys.
“I don’t seem to be a department store person,” she said. “The designers that I like can be way out, but you can modify what they offer.”
Department stores in other cities are also adding to their executive services.
In Dallas, Neiman Marcus has launched a marketing onslaught to lure executive women as regular customers. The effort is intensifying this fall with in-store boutiques in 10 stores, a 48-page catalog, wardrobing seminars, career programs and an eight-page ad spread in the October issue of Vogue.
“We’ve never had an all-encompassing effort for this customer with the merchandise in apparel, accessories and shoes, a direct-mail piece and advertising,” said Janet Gurwitch, executive vice president of women’s merchandising at Neiman’s. “It will probably be a $25 million business just for the fall selling period against very little last year, so we think that’s a tremendous plus.”
The effort started last spring when Neiman’s devoted floor space in all 27 stores to career sportswear and ready-to-wear, and identified the merchandise with signs reading “NM Workshop.” Private label goods accounted for 60 percent of the merchandise last spring, but brands sold better, so Neiman’s label dropped to about 40 percent of the mix for fall.
The first NM Workshop boutiques opened in June in the bridge sportswear department and the Galleria dress and suit area, both at Prestonwood Town Center in Dallas. By the end of this month, similar boutiques will open in the sportswear and ready-to-wear departments in nine more stores: Atlanta, Chicago’s Michigan Avenue unit, Houston, San Francisco, Washington, Troy, Mich., Boston, and Newport Beach and Palo Alto, Calif.
All employ career wardrobe consultants who are expected to start holding seminars on executive dressing this fall. As with Bergdorf’s, Neiman’s is inviting professional women’s groups to hold meetings in the stores, setting aside a half-hour for a wardrobe slide show and informal modeling.
Bestsellers so far have been jackets and skirts by Dana Buchman and Gruppo Americano, with a 9 to 12 percent sell-through on fall goods, Gurwitch noted.
Other Workshop lines include Episode, Tahari, Item, Christian Dior Suits, Herbert Grossman, Rickie Freeman for T.J. Suits, Noviello Bloom, Bicci, Anne Klein II and Frances and Rita, as well as private label sportswear, ready-to-wear and cashmere knitwear.
Pricing straddles the better-to-bridge level, with jackets selling for $200 to $380, blouses averaging $130, bottoms at about $145 to $200, suits ranging from $300 to $460 and dresses from $280 to $400.
A small group of coordinating accessories is displayed in the boutiques. Resources include scarves by Echo and Anne Klein, belts by Ellen Tracy, DKNY and De Vecchi, handbags by Frenchy of California, Brizzolari, Karale, Americana by Sharif and Kenneth Cole, jewelry by Carolee, Ann Cichon, Anne Klein and Ron Rizzo and private label leather goods, among others.
The chain’s laboratory for the career business has been the Prestonwood store, its smallest Dallas unit. It has staged eight “power breakfasts” — 7:30 a.m. presentations by business or community leaders followed by two hours of private shopping before the store’s normal 10 a.m. opening. About 75 people have attended each breakfast, and about 30 percent of them took advantage of the early shopping.
Gurwitch expects other stores will follow Prestonwood’s lead and present similar programs. She plans to address a group of female law partners here this fall.
For 10 years, the State Street, Chicago, flagship of Carson Pirie Scott has been running Corporate Level, a special program and store-within-the store targeting the female executive.
For a $25 annual fee, members get a 15 percent discount on all full-price merchandise year-round, a personal wardrobe consultant, priority alterations and advance notice of special events and sales, said Sherri Darocha, manager of special events and promotions.
The program currently has about 900 members.
“Anyone who regards herself as a working executive woman can be a member. Where you are now does not necessarily reflect where you want to be,” Darocha said.
The store also runs regular special events and fashion shows for its executive customers, such as a seminar on balancing work and the home, Darocha said.
Carson’s is better known as a moderate-to-better department store, and Corporate Level “exposes us to an audience that may not be our traditional customer,” Darocha noted. “It gives them the advantages of a specialty store.”
At State Street, the Corporate Level boutique, which carries bridge lines such as Anne Klein II, Albert Nipon and Ellen Tracy, is separated from the other apparel areas on the lower level of the store. Six other stores in the 59-store Carson’s chain also carry bridge lines, said Mary Haffey, buyer for Corporate Level and bridge.
The strongest executive resources are Bice, Dana Buchman, Richard Dayhoff and Due Per Due, said Haffey. She noted that softer, less structured silhouettes have taken over from power suits, with versatility and comfort the top requirements now.
For the embryonic executive, Carson’s also goes out into the field and gives dressing-for-success talks at Chicago-area high schools and colleges.