By  on March 31, 2010

Fashion misses and the misses’ market have long been synonymous.

But there’s been a reengineering. Over the last two years, everything from overhauling the executive and design ranks to cost-cutting, modernizing collections to installing “brand filters” has occurred at Ann Taylor, Talbots, Dress Barn, Chico’s, J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Liz Claiborne and Jones Apparel, stirring a sense this could at last be the year the sector crawls out of its hole and reverses declines.

Retailers say they’ve been waking up to what women want and imbuing what were mundane “missy” lines with higher-grade fabrics, detailing, embellishments, color, closer fits and stretch, not to mention taking inspiration from contemporary and designer styles for a younger, sexier appeal but with age-appropriate sizing and moderate to better pricing.

“She is not the forgotten customer,” Liz Sweney, J.C. Penney Co. Inc.’s executive vice president and general merchandise manager for women’s apparel, accessories and jewelry, said of the sector. “The Baby Boomer is very young-thinking. Her body may not be able to fit into a skimpy thing, but they still get it. She does not want to be left behind. That’s why we are launching Liz Claiborne” as an exclusive collection for fall.

“The business has changed so much,” observed Jeff Gennett, chief merchandising officer at Macy’s Inc. “Manufacturers focusing on speed-to-market and cycle time are winning. A lot of our domestic partners are on board with that,” he said, citing Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. “Others need to improve on cycle time.”

“Today Chico’s has jeggings. Who would have ever thought that customer would wear jeggings?” said retail analyst Jennifer Black.

It’s reached the point where some misses’ companies no longer want to be labeled as such. They acknowledge that “missy” evokes predictable, matronly collections stacked with conservative career suits and floppy sportswear loosely constructed to cover up middle-aged figures. “The terminology is outdated,” said Kay Krill, chief executive officer of AnnTaylor Stores Corp. “We never called ourselves misses’. We’re timeless, modern and ageless, and we had to adjust and become more relevant to what modern consumers want today. It’s been an evolution. I feel like we are on the right track.”

“We don’t want to be conservative. It’s not where women are,” said Lori Wagner, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of The Talbots Inc., which last year dropped the word misses’ from its stores, catalogues and other corporate messaging.

“Missy is so Fifties Eisenhower administration. When you hear it, it just sets up the feeling it’s clothing you want nothing to do with,” observed Laurel Tielis, author of “Ka-Ching! How to Ring Up More Sales.” While critical of misses’ retailers, Tielis did say the reputation isn’t all bad. “They do provide clothes that are affordable, wearable, well-made and safe. You’re going to look nice, but not too nice. You’re not going to stand out much, which can be very important for women in many businesses.”

The misses’ market represents the largest chunk of the women’s apparel business. It’s bigger than juniors, contemporary or designer, and, historically, it’s been the least exciting and the most challenging to define. Some fashion executives say it’s a size range, roughly 6 to 16; others say it’s an age range, 35 and over, while still others say it’s a lifestyle. But all agree that, historically, the category has been the slowest to innovate of any sector of the fashion industry — until this year.

Talbots, striving to update the image, for fall will offer “a country club chic” appeal with lots of layering, leopard prints and raised heels for some sex appeal, a few special pieces such as shearling coats and bomber jackets, and noticeably less of the career suit look and the color red, both signature styles of the past. The company is also relaunching denim with new washes and fits and a $5 gift card for just trying a pair on.

Macy’s is rolling out a workwear section for the Style & Co. private brand, with suiting separates, blouses and layering pieces in knits and wovens. From 50 or so doors currently, “We are going chainwide as quickly as we can,” said Gennett.

Other key misses’ labels at Macy’s are the private brands Charter Club, INC, JM Collection and American Rag, exclusive labels Tommy Hilfiger, Rachel Rachel Roy and Ellen Tracy, as well as Lauren by Ralph Lauren, Michael Michael Kors, Jones NY and Anne Klein.

Liz Claiborne, after failing to resonate with customers at Macy’s and other department stores where the label was dropped, will be reintroduced exclusively at Penney’s in August and officially launched in September. Penney’s also has such traditional in-house brands as St. John’s Bay, Worthington and a.n.a. The chain has been seeing sales gains in misses’, but not as large as those in junior and contemporary styles, Sweney acknowledged. Success in the sector lies in how trends are translated. “If plaid is a trend, you’ve got to have it in every lifestyle, but we interpret it differently,” Sweney said. “Ruffles, plaid shirts, leggings — we did them for the missy customer.”

At Chico’s FAS Inc., David Dyer, president and ceo, recently cited a “renewed focus on the customer and fresh marketing campaigns that excited existing customers” and a good start to 2010. The Dress Barn Inc. ceo David Jaffe said his chain has benefited from consumers “trading down” to moderate prices.

Richard Dickson, a veteran ofEstée Lauder, Bloomingdale’s and most recently Mattel Inc.’s Barbie brand, became ceo of Jones Apparel Group Inc.’s branded businesses two months ago to pump them up, and there’s a new label, J Jones New York, getting broadly distributed to misses’ doors.

Ann Taylor, after installing a new president, chief designer and chief supply chain officer last year, is sharpening its look, adding versatility to the fashion for outfitting options, and aiming to be relevant to a broader spectrum. “We really want to sell buy now, wear now fashion,” said Lisa Axelson, senior vice president of design. As the season progresses from August to September and October, the collection evolves from lighter to heavier weight fabrics. In addition, Ann Taylor has injected “a bit more fashion and international romance, inspired by Parisian women from the Forties, into our modern classics,” said Axelson.

Accessories have been expanded by 30 to 40 percent, and are inspired by leopard prints and deconstructed vintage pieces combined with chains and ribbons for a modern mix. There are some lower prices, too, for fall, including pants that start at $79 and go as high as $129, compared with last year when pants started at $99. “You have to listen to your customer. If you don’t, you won’t survive. That’s been my focus for my whole year I’ve been here,” said Axelson.

If the economy improves and firms begin hiring again, a comeback for the sector could be significant as demand rises for career looks and moderate-to-better prices. Skewing younger as some companies seem to be doing is also wise with the Generation Y population outgrowing the Baby Boomer segment, around 84 million versus 74 million, creating the potential to attract Gen-Y consumers.

Market research firm The NPD Group estimates that, for the last fiscal year, misses’ apparel generated $45.84 billion in sales in the U.S., compared with $48.35 billion the year before. NPD said the total women’s apparel market came to $108.7 billion last year. The figures don’t include accessories, jewelry or footwear.

According to Macy’s Gennett, a dressy cycle, layering pieces, jacket alternatives and a shift in knits to crafted looks, fabric manipulation and embellishments are fueling misses’ sales. So is activewear, either functional or spectator-oriented, including terry and velour separates, track suits, hoodies and brands such as Nike, Adidas and Puma. “We are building AUR [average unit retail price] in the missy world. We believe a real core strength of Macy’s is our career business. If a woman is going back to work, there probably isn’t a place to go for more options,” he said.

“Stores are turning a corner. We really see them paying more attention to product than ever before,” said Glenn Schlossberg, founder and ceo of Jump Apparel Group, which specializes in dresses and sportswear for misses’ and juniors and sells mostly midtier department stores like Macy’s, Bon-Ton and Penney’s with its Tiana B, Onyx and Marina labels.

The problem has been that retailers have been “too cautious” and overly dependent on last year’s bestsellers, Schlossberg said. “Those that try new fabrics, colors and shapes are seeing success. One of our competitive advantages is domestic production. We are able to test product and quickly get into reorders during the season, sometimes three or four times.”

“Something has shifted. The Baby Boomer is reacting,” said Talbots’ Lizanne Kindler, who was recently promoted to executive vice president and general merchandise manager from senior vice president. “We have created a clear brand vision and applied a strong filter to what we do on a day-to-day basis in terms of the aesthetic and product. It’s definitely a more relaxed lifestyle. That’s where women are at.”

With its new corporate mantra “tradition transformed,” Talbots is updating classic silhouettes and shifting to pencil skirts and sheath dresses with prints and textures, and refining accessories with sophisticated hardware and refined leather. “It’s all about how to do you transform a classic white shirt to make it fun or updated. It could be a ruffle, a seaming or the texture of the fabric.” Comfort, fit alternatives and versatility are important, Kindler stressed, like being able to wear a top with black pants to a formal event or with jeans for a casual occasion.

Retail analyst Black is impressed by the progress she sees in the market. She commended Chico’s for getting into jeggings, showing a more sophisticated and monochromatic color palette that’s less glitzy, having styles to help customers without perfect bodies appear leaner, and even giving tips on how to wear a scarf— longer on one side, shorter on the other, for an elongating effect.

White House|Black Market, Black said, has evolved with a more diverse, less repetitive offering, a focus on pant fits and denim, and seems to be attracting designer-level customers, while the collections of Jones Apparel Group offer “a contemporary look as well as a more classic styling, catering to a broad base of consumers. J Jones New York, she said, appears polished, offers a casual weekend option and simple sizing.

And she credited Talbots with updated, cohesive collections, capitalizing on casual trends and denim and less on career, amping up the music in the stores and demonstratingstrong service. “They make it very easy to buy things and return them if you have to. There are always just enough people there to help,” Black said.

Lately, misses’ retailers have been showing sales gains due to some pent-up demand and easy comparisons to last year’s negative numbers. But it’s also due to improved offerings. “If there’s a fashion twist, if it’s something she doesn’t own, a little modern in feeling, it does well at retail,” said Kathy Bradley-Riley, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Doneger Group. Shifts in shapes and proportions, skinny legs, tunic tops, pencil skirts, cardigans, military-inspired jackets with epaulets, ruffles and skirts hovering on or slightly above the knee are contributing.

“A lot of brands lost relevance and didn’t quite understand how a woman’s lifestyle was changing and that she relaxed a bit in how she dressed,” said Bradley-Riley.

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