By  on September 12, 2006

Young'uns, be warned. You're not the only game in town.

Last week, 48-year-old Sharon Stone replaced 20-year-olds Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen as the face of Badgley Mischka; Madonna, 48, is touting tracksuits for H&M; Mia Farrow, 61, stars in Gap ads; Jane Fonda, 69, and Diane Keaton, 60, are spokeswomen for L'Oréal, and the officially designated "supermodels," no longer spring chickens, are starring in more ads this fall than one cares to count.

Even actress Blythe Danner is stealing some of the spotlight from daughter Gwyneth Paltrow.

The recent obsession with sophisticated women in their 40s and beyond now makes some wonder if fashion's perennial obsession with youth is starting to lose steam, and recent developments are even leading some to believe that there is a backlash against the young. While adolescence continues to be the de rigueur state on the fashion runways this week, the idea that one can never be too young or too rich in fashion is starting to look a little, well, old, at least where age is concerned.

"It was only a matter of time before people woke up and realized how dumb it was to make young people so culturally central," said Simon Doonan, creative director of Barneys New York. "Young people are not as interesting as people who are older, and guess who is buying the clothes? The high-fashion designers needed to face the reality who is really coughing up for the clothes, and the median age is older."

Michael Kors indicated that the fashion ideal often doesn't jibe with real women. "Fashion people in general — designers, retailers, editors, everyone —have that fantasy that the customer is 25, remarkably rich, a size 2 and 5 foot 10 inches, but the simple truth is, financially, you will have more customers who are over 40," the designer said. "Today, it's important to realize there is an adult customer who is still youthful. That's the change, and it's finding that balance of knowing that especially affluent women who are 40-plus are hip and plugged in, but don't want to look like kids. Sixty is the new 40, and a 40-year-old today is not what a 40-year-old woman looked like 10 years ago."The Baby Boomers, aged 40 to 60, are hitting a trend cycle. According to a recent report by Chicago-based Information Resources Inc., they make up 78 million people. They are also known for having some of the highest discretionary income in the country, and are clearly a group that fashion houses can't afford to turn up their noses at.

NPD Group charts Boomers as 45- to 64-year-olds, which the research house estimates account for 25 percent of the $100 billion total women's apparel sales. By comparison, the 21-to-34 age bracket represents 16 percent of the market, while the 35- to 44-year-olds represent 12 percent of market. And the Boomer share of market is growing fast.

That perhaps explains the recent rush by youth-skewing companies to open with retail concepts that are tailored to a more classic customer. American Eagle Outfitters is targeting the post-college crowd, 25- to 40-year-olds, with its Martin+Osa retail concept; Gap Inc. has created the Forth+Towne apparel retail concept for women over 35, and even J. Crew's new Madewell targets a more classic taste level.

Anna Sui noted, "There are so many people who still love fashion and who weren't finding what they deemed as age appropriate. The Baby Boom generation is reaching that age. They are the ones in power. If you look at all the executives, people behind the companies, they are that generation."

Several houses that tried to skew younger have seen their business nosedive. St. John, for instance, alienated its loyal, mature customer base after updating its design and tinkering with the fit, and is now reinstating some of its core values. Saks Fifth Avenue recently admitted to a strategic mistake when it tried to boost its designer and contemporary businesses, turning away the core customer, who is about 48. It, too, has introduced several initiatives to bring its customer back. Last month, it reinstated private label business, which was dropped about a year ago, with the launch of Saks Fifth Avenue Signature collection in August, which will be followed this fall by Saks Fifth Avenue Classic and Saks Fifth Avenue Sport collections. In November, it will also relaunch the petites department, which, much to the dismay of many customers, it had dismantled last January. In the bridge area, Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman both experienced significant slumps in sales after skewing younger, but have reinstated their original formulas and are beginning to attract their core customer again."In our opinion, the Baby Boomer cohort has been very youth-focused up until now," said Geoff Meredith, founder and president of strategic planning and marketing consultancy Lifestage Matrix, San Francisco. "They were striving for their youth, wanting to look good and emulating younger people. This year, the first Boomer is turning 60. From now on, we predict that increasingly they are going to abandon this quest for youth. They will stop trying to desperately go younger, and that's finally being picked up by astute advertisers."

Meredith said he sees a new pattern emerging: a decline of cosmetic surgery in the upper end of the Baby Boomer age bracket, and a trend of individuals going back to sporting gray hair.

"In 10 years, half of the Boomers will be over 60, and by that point, all kinds of youth emulating will be gone for the vast majority," Meredith added.

George Sharp, vice president of design at Ellen Tracy, said, "It's not about aspiring to be old, but embracing being older. Blythe Danner and Julie Christie are timeless. Madonna is pretty much 50. Nobody wants to look older, but they don't want to look like their daughters either. They want to look appropriate, fashionable, more modern and relevant."

Phillip Miller, interim chief executive officer at St. John, added, "You want to give them the clothes that are beautiful and make them feel confident. Most Baby Boomers, certainly the women we cater to, are sophisticated and don't try to chase the youthfulness that is not part of their real life."

Barbara Atkin, fashion director, Holt Renfrew, credited Miuccia Prada for setting the tone that allowed fashion — especially that of the hyped-out, high-strung, runway variety — to be a more inclusive field. "She said, ‘I am sick of the pretty little girl, and even the ladylike,'" Atkin noted. "‘It's time to be real, strong and confident. It's more about dealing with the real world.'"

Many blame the proliferation of weekly tabloids and their overdose on Hollywood's young celebrity circuit for triggering the youth backlash.

"There is a certain way youth was depicted recently and it got to the point that no one could identify with it anymore," said Derek Lam. "Not everybody is going to Starbucks for a coffee on their way to their audition. You see these pictures of Mary-Kate Olsen or Kate Moss, and they always seem to wander to the next audition or go-see."David Wolfe, creative director of the Doneger Group, in citing a movement away from youth worship, pointed an accusing finger at one particular culprit — the seemingly omnipresent Paris Hilton. Hilton's vacuous, bad-girl act has created the equivalent of a generational shock wave that has possibly driven more women from the notion that youth is all. "She has a lot to do with it," Wolfe said. "If a 15- or 16-year-old looked like Audrey Hepburn, it would be a different story."

These days, Wolfe tells customers to consider the youth market as a fashion niche, and less of an indicator of trends to come. "For years, the way to reinvent something and make it successful was to make it younger," Wolfe said. "Now, young is not the only option, because the Boomer's generation is also reinventing what's fashionable. We are seeing the establishment of a real fashion generational gap, which is why some ad campaigns that used inappropriate youthful images trying to sell very sophisticated product have not been successful."

The backlash against youth seems to manifest itself most visibly in advertising and marketing. When Badgley Mischka picked the Olsen twins last season as the faces of its campaign, some fashion types were bewildered and amused at the choice, wondering just how the design duo's sophisticated clientele would react to the twins. Sharon Stone seems a much better clotheshorse for Badgley Mischka's sophisticated gowns.

"For the last two years, [the youth obsession] had hit a crescendo," said Raul Martinez, ceo and executive creative director of advertising and consulting agency AR, which represents Banana Republic, Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana, Forth & Towne and Jones New York. "It got to a very strange place where you had editorial or advertising and you were dressing little girls to inspire a woman's view. How does a woman relate when she sees a girl of 16 or 17?"

Gap, too, is going back to its roots after dabbling for years with a contemporary, seasonal trend-driven philosophy. Starting this fall, the retailer is putting its focus back on such classic items as jeans, T-shirts and hooded tops. It's supporting the new direction with ads featuring a mix of ages, from Mia Farrow to Jeremy Piven, model Eva Herzigova and singer Natasha Bedingfield."We are celebrating people of all ages, and the fact that fashion and style is a mind-set rather than an age," said Erica Archambault, a spokeswoman for Gap. "You can be 16 or 60 and still look great in skinny black pants."

Gap's current ads feature Audrey Hepburn, an icon who transcends generations, in the bohemian Left Bank scene from the movie "Funny Face."

"A lot of people are realizing you can't be exclusionary," Archambault added. "We want Gap to be a place that is inviting to people of all ages. When you focus too narrowly on an age segment, you turn off customers that could be potentially great customers."

That's been a formula at Eileen Fisher all along. In its advertising campaigns, the bridge brand likes to mix people of all ages to underscore the message that fashion isn't just about a certain age. For fall, the ads feature groups of women aged 22 to 55, all in one image.

"Most people came late to the table in understanding that the fashion customer is getting older," said Jill Glover, president and executive creative director of Glover Group, which has Eileen Fisher as a client. "It's like women said that they demanded not to be told to live a certain way or to look a certain way. They understood that beauty in fashion doesn't stop when you are 22."

Alas, the runway still swims almost exclusively in the Fountain of Youth. At Monday's Proenza Schouler show, catwalk veteran Karolina Kurkova was sitting front row, rather than walking with this season's new crop of models. "These girls, they're so young," the wizened 22-year-old Kurkova observed. "They're not even fully developed."

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