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Has Misses’ Gone Missing?

A rose by any other name may still be a rose, but is it a wilted wallflower when it comes to misses’ clothing?<BR><BR>This apparel category, usually catering to the 30-plus customer with a more generous fit, is in the midst of upheaval as the...

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A rose by any other name may still be a rose, but is it a wilted wallflower when it comes to misses’ clothing?

This apparel category, usually catering to the 30-plus customer with a more generous fit, is in the midst of upheaval as the “missy” name has fallen out of favor against the sexier “contemporary” label, sending fashion firms to the thesaurus in an effort to redub and redefine their mission statements.

For the past two decades, it’s been clear when a clothing line fit into the misses’ arena, since there weren’t many category options. But with the advent of the booming contemporary area, an increasing number of California misses’ lines are trying to straddle the different markets in hopes of reaching a younger consumer or appealing to the youthful ways of the Baby Boomer.

Now, they bandy names around such as “updated” or “better” to reflect more forward design cues. Some have even dropped the misses’ moniker altogether in an effort to disassociate themselves from the stodgier reference.

“It’s become the no-name category,” said Ilse Metchek, executive director of the California Fashion Association. “Manufacturers are aware of that customer and realize Baby Boomers are a big market. But they don’t want to be known as ‘dumb-dumb missy’ lines.” 

Dan Mollise, president of South El Monte-based Cynthia Max — an “updated better” line, concurred. “It’s a misnomer. Baby Boomers are going kicking and screaming into middle age, and being branded like your parents has a bad connotation.”

The change should come as no surprise, since one of the biggest success stories in retail in recent years has been Chico’s FAS Inc., known for its easy-fitting yet stylish clothing that appeals to the mainstream. For the third quarter ended Nov. 30, net income for the Fort Myers, Fla.-based chain rose to $37 million, or 41 cents a share, from $27 million, or 30 cents a share last year. The company’s secret? It simply describes its target customer rather than the category.

“Our customer is aged 35 to 55, educated and well-traveled,” said a Chico’s spokeswoman.

Also aiming at the vast wallet of Boomers and lying low about descriptions is Gap Inc., which announced a new retail concept set to bow in the second half of the year. Details are under wraps, except that the new chain will cater to the 35-plus female.

That’s the typical target for Barbara Lesser Fibers in Los Angeles, on its third classification since its inception in the early Nineties. The casual sportswear line went from misses’ to updated misses’ to its most recent — contemporary misses’ — in the last six months.

“People looked at me sideways when I did that…but the customer has changed and is a lot younger, so instead of moving into a missy category that can sound dowdy, we prefer to say we focus on trends with a missy fit,” said Lesser, who is the designer of the $10 million line.

Her business went from “throw-on carpool” denim dresses and garment-dyed thermal cotton tops attached to rayon bottoms to a more item-driven collection in the late Nineties. It now comprises silk brocade and tweed coats and jackets in vivid colors, buttery jersey T-shirts, tie-dyed tunics and denim pants. The new direction, she noted, is more in step with the consumer.

What the misses’ description really stands for today is size and not much else, according to industry observers.

“‘Missy’ is a generic term and to be more specific, vendors are choosing labels that denote customer profiles that buyers may target,” said Lynne Sperling, co-owner of retail consulting firm Sperling & Hileman Group LLC.

Sperling noted some retailers have lessened their commitment to the category as they’ve pursued younger-looking lines, prompting the scramble among vendors. In the past two years, Macy’s West has dropped misses’ lines, including Karen Kane, for more forward vendors to fill out its Impulse section.

As a result, some lines focus their distribution on specialty accounts. The Nancy Bolen for City Girl line, which features denim with embroidery, appliqués and beading, as well as silk dressing, opts to service its loyal customers in nearly 1,000 boutiques, where it can be experimental with its designs. 

Cynthia Max, which designs sportswear in casual fabrics such as rayon, Tencel and stretch cotton, and trend items such as shrunken jackets accented with jeweled buttons and brooches, courts 700 specialty stores and generates about $10 million in sales. “We prefer specialty stores because they’re less promotional and better service the customers,” company president Mollise said.

Also challenging to vendors is how retailers describe their product categories. Whereas Nordstrom delineates vendors by lifestyle, including Savvy for contemporary and Narrative and Point of View for misses’, other merchants still cling to traditional categories, such as misses’ or juniors’, leaving some vendors who blur the lines homeless in the process.

“Brands are choosing to migrate with the customer, but the retailers aren’t allowing it since they’re still set in their department types,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of the NPD Group.

It’s a barrier for companies who are looking to reposition themselves in the marketplace.

Designer Carole Little, known for her traditional misses’ approach in the Nineties, launched her “updated” line called LinQ last year, featuring lacy camisoles, pleated A-line skirts with European prints and fitted V-neck tops, but is still knocking hard on department store doors.

“The stores want to give newness to the customer, but when pencil comes to paper, they revert back to safety — which is going with merchandise they’re more comfortable with,” said Leonard Rabinowitz, an owner of Los Angeles-based Studio CL, which oversees LinQ.

Von Maur, the 22-unit department store chain based in Davenport, Iowa, is one retailer that began embracing the change in the last two years when it launched a contemporary department that actually carried updated misses’ clothing. Now the retailer divides its misses’ offerings into traditional and updated areas, which include Nine West, Cynthia Max and Tommy Bahama.

“It’s still all bought by the same buyer, but I think our vendors appreciate the change,” said Joanna Upton, divisional merchandise manager of Von Maur. “Our customers really don’t care. They simply buy what they like.”

Karen Kane Inc. partner Lonnie Kane echoes the sentiment. His 25-year-old line, which is said to ship between $65 million and $76 million annually, has billed itself as “better misses’” sportswear — crocheted ponchos with fur trim, pleated plaid miniskirts and shirred V-neck tops with matching draped skirts — for the past 12 years to reflect the changes in the company’s design direction. It sells at Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and Macy’s East.

“The [category] name doesn’t mean a damn thing to the customer,” insisted Kane. “She just says, ‘Show me the fashion.’’’

For their part, some misses’ vendors hope for the term’s eventual eradication.

“There’s a stigma to the name and I’d like to see it go away,” said Mark Singer, president of TMI Holdings Inc., maker of the Softwear line of washable separates sold at Nordstrom, Dillard’s and Marshall Field’s. “Misses’ doesn’t complement our image of today.”

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