LONDON — As retailers race into another New Year, there is one certainty, no matter the economic climate or consumer mood — the growing power of mass.
And it’s a global phenomenon, propelled by the likes of Zara, H&M, Topshop, Monoprix, Mango, Uniqlo and New Look — not to mention Wal-Mart, Target, Tesco and Carrefour.
But gone are the days when mass fashion appealed only to teens on a budget wanting the latest fashion look who didn’t care if the clothes disintegrated in three months’ time. Cross-shopping is gaining ground around the world and, as a result, mass retailers have begun to tailor their offerings to older, wealthier and more demanding audiences —giving fashion labels even more of a run for their money. Nowhere is it more evident than in the competitive British retail market, where everyone from the Tesco supermarket chain to Wal-Mart’s Asda to H&M offer fashion looks at low prices.
“It happens at dinner parties all the time,” said the British jewelry designer Catherine Prevost. “Someone says: ‘Look, I got this top from Zara for $100,’ and then the woman across the table who spent $600 on one just like it feels really stupid.”
The British stylist Bay Garnett said women today are more picky about how they spend their money. “I think people are as label-conscious as ever, just more discreet. People will still happily pay a lot for cashmere, but feel [like] a mug spending hundreds on a cotton Balenciaga sweater when the cheaper Topshop equivalent is, ironically, cooler.”
Richard Hyman, chairman of Verdict Research, a retail consultancy here, said fashion houses and luxury brands are increasingly having to share consumers’ dollars with the mass sector.
“I don’t see the high street [mass retail] as a direct threat to designer brands — we’re certainly not going to see designer brands disappear — but they are eroding designers’ revenues,” he said. “The mainstream area of the market is increasingly strengthening its premium offer and, as a result, the premium area — where the designers are — won’t show much growth” for the next five years.
Even fashion lovers with money to burn say they buy just a few classic items every season, and fill in the blanks with lower-cost clothing. Prevost spends her money on three great coats, from designers including Pucci, Michael Kors and Andrew Gn. “It’s all about the coat — coats can change your look, and it’s fun to pair them with a turtleneck or the perfect black trouser from Zara,” she said. “Dressing today is much more creative and fun than it was before.”
For Melissa Odabash, a London-based American swimsuit designer, the season’s investment items are five or six pairs of designer jeans, two cashmere sweaters, a pair of black boots and a pair of black evening shoes. She fills the rest in with high street and vintage items from the Portobello Market or Topshop’s vintage section.
“The high street is amazing — it must be killing the fashion business. Once upon a time, the high street offer wasn’t that great, but now they’re getting good quality fabrics — nothing is itchy anymore. So tell me, who’s not going to buy the $32 silk blend turtleneck from Zara?” asked Odabash.
Jane Shepherdson, brand director at Topshop, the Oxford Circus fashion hotbed that picks trends up from the runways and the street, said quality is a huge priority for the store.
“Over the past three years, the age profile of our customer has shifted from teenagers to 25- to 35-year-olds. And they want quality. So we spend an awful lot of time choosing yarns, and getting the finishes and stitching right. We also know the item has to last the season, it has to feel nice and have Lycra in it so that it fits well,” she said.
Shepherdson added that having older customers also affects the way Topshop interprets the trends and merchandises the store. “We know we have to get a cross section of things in there — print skirts and appliqué T-shirts that are easy to mix with a plain black top.”
Stores including Topshop and New Look not only specialize in getting the trends into the store, they have also fully embraced the designer world. Sophia Kokosalaki, Zandra Rhodes and Emma Cook all create special collections for Topshop, while Georgina Goodman and Eley Kishimoto turn out lines for New Look, another British chain that gets trends into the store with a sprinter’s speed.
Indeed, New Look takes itself so seriously as a fashion force that it hired Future Systems, the London firm that created Marni’s store interiors and the futuristic Selfridges in Birmingham, to design its first Oxford Street flagship, right near Selfridges.
The result is a cross between an old Hollywood film set and a warehouse with a sweeping, highly polished stainless-steel staircase leading from the street to the first-floor store, which has open, unfinished ceilings, exposed wires, pipes and old graffiti.
“About 40 percent of our customers are Selfridges customers who are probably thinking that New Look is an equally cool and interesting place to shop,” said Sarah Walter, fashion consultant at New Look.
Walter said the high street simply used to be about clothes that everyone could afford. “It didn’t have the kudos that it has today — and none of the clothes made it to the top glossy magazines or got the recognition from opinion formers.” Now British fashion magazines regularly shoot clothes from New Look, Topshop, Zara and H&M.
According to Verdict, sales of U.K. women’s wear from mainstream outlets — such as the high street stores — will beat out the upper end of the market in terms of growth and overall sales between 1997 and 2007.
The mainstream market will grow 21.3 percent to $15 billion over the 10-year period while the premium market — where Verdict groups designer brands — will grow 15 percent to $3.8 billion. Sales in the value end of the market will have more than doubled to $6 billion during the same period.
What’s driving the growth? Hyman said it’s not just an improved high street offer. It’s consumers, too, who have become more demanding. “The idea of value has become pervasive in society — even the wealthiest people are looking for better value, whether it’s in politics, health care or at a restaurant. People want to be perceived as smart and savvy — and they know it’s not smart and savvy to pay 10 times more than they should for something.”
Despite the rising power of the high street, designers see it as a boon, rather than a threat. “Fashion is a passion, whether it’s inspired by the street and vintage, secondhand clothing, or a glossy magazine with haute couture and designer labels,” said Julien Macdonald.
“People interpret it in many ways. Any piece of clothing is an investment in your personal style, and whether you have a million or nothing in your bank account, it’s always worth investing,” he added.
Matthew Williamson agreed. “I would prefer to see my designs mixed up with high street items than be worn head-to-toe. It’s more individual to create your own interpretation of a look. However, the high street garment will always be an inferior product for obvious reasons — quality, details, etc. — but the high street is great for disposable, seasonal trends.”
Indeed, Topshop’s Shepherdson conceded that she cannot compete with designer brands when it comes to certain items. “There are areas — such as tailoring — that we know are not our strength. And, of course, we can’t compete with designer-level silks and fabrics. The prices are too high for us.”
Dressing today is more about choice than anything else, said Maria Buccellati, a Milan-based swimsuit designer and longtime model. “It’s about finding the right item, rather than spending a lot of money. There is such choice nowadays and women are willing to search for what they want.”