APPAREL COMPANIES ARE CATERING TO THE OFT-OVERLOOKED OVER-55 CROWD.

As their ranks swell and their spending power surges, women 55 and older have become a hot demographic for many moderate and better retailers and manufacturers.

Companies are responding with apparel that is trendy: making allowances to acknowledge the physical changes that accompany getting older, such as waistlines that might not be as thin as a younger woman’s, a posture that might not be as straight and tall and problems like arthritis and osteoporosis.

Among the features makers have added are elastic waists, Velcro closures and easily accessible pockets. Long-sleeved shirts, longer jackets and capri pants are also popular styles for this set.

Based upon the most recent statistics, this isn’t a group to be ignored. There are more than 33 million women in the U.S. age 55 and older, and they spent about $20 billion on apparel in 2000, according to NPD Group, a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm.

“The mature shopper is now an investment — this was not always the case,” said Marshal Cohen, president of NPDFashionworld, the firm’s consulting arm. “The mature market used to be viewed as short term and budget oriented. They are younger, spirited and vibrant consumers who have shed their child-rearing responsibilities and are back to focusing on themselves. Many of them are social, active and single.

“Retailers have learned that they are one of the age groups that have more discretionary income to shop. However, the more senior the shopper, the more price-sensitive the shopper.”

Cohen said the 55-plus consumer niche represents the second-largest female shopping segment, behind the 35-to-45-year-old category.

“While a very small segment of the upper-end mature market is trend-related for this mature shopper, it is one of the fastest-growing demos,” Cohen said. “As the population grows in age, and the boomers are now in this mature market, there are more of them — and more of them with style. The desire to hold onto their youth is clearly evidenced in the earlier segment of the mature shopper.”

Bob Salem, consultant and former senior vice president of corporate marketing at The Leslie Fay Co., said women ages 45 to 64 are the firm’s core demographic. Salem said that over the next three years, this population segment is expected to grow dramatically, so “now is the time to capture her.”

Leslie Fay plans to launch a new division, possibly for fall, to cater to the casual fashion needs of mature shoppers. The company currently targets the demographic with its stable of lifestyle labels, including its signature careerwear line and its Rimini better-priced social-occasion dress label.

Salem said mature shoppers are loyal to brands and rely on them for fashion guidance.

“Starting for spring, we’re also changing the look of our collections by making them more modern. Too many of us have been a step behind her,” he said. “Now, we need to step up with her. The 55-year-old of today equates to the 35-year-old of a decade ago. She’s demanding more modern, sexier clothing that often has a dimension of stretch.”

Important styles for mature shoppers at Leslie Fay include monochromatic looks that elongate the silhouette and smaller prints that detract the eye from figure problems.

“Nobody’s perfect” is the theory behind Drama, a New York-based dress and sportswear company that focuses on items for women with figure challenges, including those over 50.

“The average American consumer is not the norm of what they show in most fashion magazines,” said Anni Koltun, creative director for the moderate-priced Drama line. “But she still wants to look as much like that image as possible. That’s the challenge of designing for women, especially those over 50.”

Drama has combined a common-sense approach to trends with some clever pattern-making to gain market share. Sales are expected to grow at least 15 percent in 2002.

Among the company’s bestsellers are side-zipper microfiber pants with a curving seam, which conforms to women’s bodies and camouflages figure flaws, and a skirt that features a hidden zipper, which also works to hide flaws.

Women 35 to 60 years old are the target market for Chico’s FAS, a Fort Myers, Fla.-based specialty chain, with more than 40 percent of them over 50, according to Jim Frain vice president of marketing.

Balancing offerings to appeal to a wide age range is a difficult challenge, but crucial to Chico’s success, he said.

“Nobody, even women in their 70s, wants to look old,” Frain said. “It’s important to look up-to-date — not super-trendy and ridiculous, like something a 19-year-old would wear, but sophisticated.”

Fit and comfort must be addressed before anything else, which includes attention to fabrics and details such as elastic in waistlines. While department stores have recently paid more attention to baby boomers, Frain said he’s surprised that the specialty store market hasn’t tapped in more.

“We’ve followed baby boomers since they were babies, and that is still where the money is,” he said.

While traditional retail channels may have been slow to address older customers, at least one catalog operation, Hingham, Mass.-based J. Jill, has successfully targeted this niche for 15 years.

“We’re trend relevant, not trendy, like J. Crew and Banana Republic all grown up,” said Gordon Cooke, president and chief executive officer. “This woman wants sophisticated, casual design, with a twist.”

Sales at J. Jill have grown from $15 million in 1995 to $300 million in 2001. Expanding beyond catalog, J. Jill has opened 51 stores in the past two years and will add 25 more in 2002. J. Jill’s Web site accounts for 25 percent of a total of $200 million direct-mail sales.

“We’re not defined by distribution channel, but through brand and merchandising,” said Cooke.

David Neumann, president and ceo at F.L. Malik, a Dallas-based dress and sportswear company, said his firm caters to an older demographic because it is a lucrative category.

“We can’t leave them just because they’re getting older — that would be dangerous,” said Neumann, whose wife, Frances, designs the company’s F.L. Malik and Ivy Jane collections. “As we’ve cultivated a customer, it’s part of our responsibility not to leave her just because she gets older. They would leave us if we didn’t give it to them.”

The F.L. Malik and Ivy Jane collections now include silhouettes that can adapt to aging physiques, including elastic-waist pants and three-quarter-sleeved tops. Neumann said coordinated separates have become increasingly important for mature shoppers, since some women require tops and bottoms of different sizes in order to accommodate a top- or bottom-heavy frame.

Victoria Morgan, owner of Victoria’s on Main, in Loris, S.C., said: “The median age of our customer is 45 years old and up. Mature shoppers are extremely important to my business. Women in the 50s were satisfied to be grandma, but not anymore. Older women are even becoming more common in the workplace and are starting second careers after they retire [from their main careers].”

Morgan said vendors are tuning in better to the special requirements of older consumers. Top brands at her store include Victoria Morgan, City Girl by Nancy Bolen, Plaza South and Old Dell.

Jeff Farmer, co-president of Draper’s & Damon’s, a 40-unit retail chain specializing in the over-55 crowd, said business in this category has a number of factors working in its favor.

“It’s a forgotten woman who’s got great disposable income and wants fashion,” Farmer said, although conceding that the age group is not completely immune to the recession. “She lives on a fixed income, and she’s affected by the decrease in her portfolio. Also, the terrorists have scared this woman a little bit. But she’s a consistent, loyal customer.”

The Irvine, Calif.-based company, which counts some $100 million in annual sales between the retail chain, catalog and an e-commerce site, has seen significant growth in sales on the Internet.

“She seems to be a little bit more friendly to the Internet than she has been in the past,” he said. – Rusty Williamson with contributions by Georgia Lee, Atlanta, and Kristin Young, Los Angeles