WHAT WOMEN WANT
Byline: Shirliey Fung
NEW YORK — As retailers and vendors struggle to address a rapidly changing women’s apparel market, one question keeps coming up: What is it that hip, young women really want from fashion?
To find out, WWD spoke with 11 New Yorkers in their 20s and 30s who work at a national TV network, an international bank and a dot-com, in positions from vice president to executive assistant, to learn where they like to shop, what they like to wear, what they typically pay and what they’d like to see retailers and vendors do better.
The Women at HBO
HBO may be the network that produces the ultrastylish “Sex and the City,” but unlike Carrie, the show’s designer-dressed protagonist, the women who work behind the scenes depend more on moderate and better-priced apparel to fill their closets.
To HBO’s Kelley Lee, Asheba Edghill, Natalie Sarraf, Julie Cho and Elissa Kadison, who work in various roles at the network, moderate refers more to a price point than to a lifestyle. These five women often create their own moderate market by bargain hunting at off-price retailers and shopping sales in order to pay lower-tier prices for higher-tier merchandise.
For the most part, they are satisfied with what the moderate and better markets have to offer, but in separate interviews, they each expressed concerns about the homogeneity of merchandise, fit and quality, and the time it takes to find great-looking, reasonably priced items in this city.
If there’s any one lesson moderate and better manufacturers can learn, it’s that there is a need for better-fitting apparel in the tall and petite markets — especially in the bottoms arena.
“It’s difficult for me to find a pair of pants that fit me well,” said Lee, who is 5 feet 7 inches and long in the torso, adding that she often finds it necessary to alter new pants.
When she does choose to alter, she prefers to have it done on more expensive brands she sees as investment pieces. “When I buy lower-end brands, I don’t want to spend money on alterations, so I’d rather just pass them up,” she said, adding that she prefers to spend $45 or $50 for a pair of pants, but will often have to go as high as $70 to find a pair that fits.
Edghill, who is 5 feet 10 inches, has tried to buy apparel from Leslie Fay, but complained that neither the pants nor the sleeves on the shirts she has tried on were long enough.
“I find that to be true of the lower-end stuff,” she said. “I can’t buy pants at the Gap or Old Navy. Pants are my biggest headache. I can only buy my tops and skirts at the cheaper stores.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Sarraf, who is 5 feet 3 inches and wears a size 0 or 2, also finds shopping for pants to be difficult.
“A lot of times, the cheaper brands don’t have sizes that are small enough to fit me,” she said. “I have to go to little boutique places because they cater to someone who is smaller.”
Sarraf said that she could probably find pants that fit her if she had more time to look, but she often hits more expensive stores in order to save time.
All five women said that they find a certain similarity in the styles and colors of the clothing in the lower-end markets. “I don’t think there’s much variety,” said Kadison. “Everything’s pretty much the same.”
Edghill concurred: “A lot of stores seem to follow the same colors, the same styles, the same cut,” she said, adding that she’s often forced to shop higher-end stores to find unusual items. “I find more variety when I pay more.”
Because of the similarity in styles offered, Sarraf shies away from chain stores. “I definitely don’t like to go to chains as much because you don’t want to come out looking like everyone else,” she said. “Sometimes, I feel like the manufacturers are all copying each other. If something is selling well, then they all make it.”
Edghill, the only woman out the five who owns her home and a car, feels the strain of the tightening economy and higher energy costs. “I’ve noticed that a bigger chunk of my money is going to gas,” she said. “I used to use more of it for clothing.”
With less disposable income, Edghill has been shopping sales more frequently. At department stores, she said that a 20 percent discount isn’t enough incentive to make her buy, noting promotions should be around 40 percent to entice her.
Sarraf said that she, too, searches out 40 percent sales. Her favorites are the ones at Bloomingdale’s.
“I won’t buy anything full price at Banana [Republic], because I know the quality isn’t worth the price,” said Cho. “I won’t spend more than $80 there because if I wait a couple of weeks, I know it’ll go on sale.”
As a result, off-price stores and outlets such as the ones at Woodbury Common Premium Outlets in Central Valley, N.Y., are also important stomping grounds. “Loehmann’s is my best friend,” said Kadison who believes that prices are inflated at many full-price stores. “When you’re living on a budget and living on your own in New York City, it’s definitely frustrating to shop full price.”
A couple of the women also like cheap chic purveyors such as H&M and Zara, especially for trendier items.
“Stores should keep in mind that people aren’t really going to spend a lot of money on something that’s not even going to stay for half a season,” said Cho, who said one of her worst buys was a $100 fake snakeskin skirt. “It’s a good argument for H&M. Stores should make their trendier stuff less expensive.”
Kadison said she was pleasantly surprised at the selection and quality at H&M and “did a big shopping spree there” recently, purchasing a velvet suit, among other things.
But these stores aren’t for everyone. Edghill and Lee disdain the crowds at some of the cheaper shops.
“H&M and Century 21 are madhouses,” said Lee, who admits that although it was overwhelming, she did have a good experience the one time she shopped at H&M.
“I did find a few things of decent quality that I’m happy with,” she said.
Sarraf stays away from the trendy, cheap stores, however, because she feels that the quality of some of the items is compromised. But she said, “I go to the lower-end stores for summer things that are more disposable.”
One way to avoid the crowds is to hit some smaller off-pricers. Cho said that she would like to see more retailers like the boutique-sized Nice Price, which is located on Manhattan’s Upper West Side at 493 Columbus Avenue and offers discounted contemporary and bridge labels in a smaller setting than does Loehmann’s or Century 21.
The Women at About.com
The new economy boom introduced a new way of doing business as well as a new way of dressing.
“Internet business has a totally different set of boundaries than corporate America,” said Liza Berlent of About.com. She, Ania Pielecha and Linda Misser find that, depending on the client du jour, they can wear clothes ranging from jeans to suits.
Appropriately, Pielecha is a fan of online shopping. She’s been clicking for deals for two years now and finds the convenience of being able to buy on her own time priceless. She also finds that retailers like Banana Republic often offer online-only deals or free shipping in order to bring in shoppers.
When she does do Internet buying, Pielecha tends to stick to items like sweaters and T-shirts, for which it’s easier to guess the correct size, as well as familiar brands such as The Gap and J. Crew. “The downside is you can’t feel the fabric or try it on,” she said. “So the brands that I purchase are the ones that I trust.”
Berlent likes old fashioned brick-and-mortar stores, but she makes a point of avoiding department stores.
“The service is usually terrible. It’s overwhelming and difficult to find what you want. The clothing has been fingered and tried on by masses of people. Department stores make me not trust brands that I do trust when I go to stores that are dedicated to those brands,” she said. “They don’t take as much care as smaller stores do when they put sensors on sensitive fabric and it’s like you’re in Siberia — you can never find anyone to help you. It’s not a pleasurable experience.”
On the flip side, Berlent praised stores like Zara that offer amenities like seating areas and rest rooms.
“It’s nice that some of the lower-end stores are creating high-end environments. It’s nice to shop at these stores: the price point is just perfect and the environment is just a perk,” she said.
Misser is also a fan of Zara’s: “I like what they’re trying to do. They have so many items and they’re constantly cranking out fun and interesting pieces.”
She added, though, that she wished the retailer offered better quality clothing in more expensive fabrics.
Zara aside, Misser tends toward classics and investment pieces, so she’s willing to spend a little more. Like many other women, she finds that the apparel at Daffy’s and Loehmann’s gives her fit, quality and prices she desires. She said stores like Banana Republic and J. Crew sell apparel that is too expensive for the quality.
Having a classic aesthetic can be difficult in a trend cycle.
“Things have been a lot more trendy lately. For instance, everyone’s making low-rider jeans now,” Misser said. “If it’s not a particular trend I’m interested in, it’s hard to buy anything else.”
The Women at Credit Lyonnais
Although Credit Lyonnais joined the casual movement last year, of the three companies WWD surveyed, its employees are still required to dress the most conservatively.
But the casualization has been enough of a change that employees have had to restock their closets. This has turned out to be a plus for the apparel business: Christine Chong, Glendora Jones and Dawn Botwen are finding that they’re spending more money on clothing since their firm took the relaxed route.
“You probably spend more money this way, because there are more pieces that you have to buy. Before, if you had a jacket, you could wear a camisole, now you have to buy more sweaters and more blouses,” said Jones, who estimates that she now spends an extra $500 to $1,000 a year on clothes.
“I’m doing more shopping because I’ve had to restock my closet with casual wear,” said Chong, although she added that “having dress casual has made it easier to shop; you’re not segregating your closet into purely work and after-work.”
Botwen disagreed. “I find it more difficult to shop for work. You never know when a client is going to come in, so you want to dress down, but not too down.”
The bulk of her workwear now consists of leggings, blazers, short skirts and sweater sets, but she said the search for these basics can often be frustrating.
Botwen said that Banana Republic, a former staple, has let her down recently
“You used to be able to go into Banana and find a contemporary and preppy outfit,” she said. “Now it’s gone the other direction in terms of style, they’re trendier now.”
She added that she would like to see the chain bring back short skirts. Jones had a different gripe about Banana Republic. She likes the merchandise, but feels that the prices can sometimes run too high. At the same time, she said that “you can find a skirt for $140, but then you can go in a couple of weeks later and catch a sale. If you’re patient at Banana Republic, you can find it because they always have a sale rack.”
Jones said the prices at Old Navy and H&M were more to her liking. “I know that Old Navy is lower-end, but you can find things of nice quality for a mature person,” she said. “I find a lot of things I can wear with jeans for the weekend: cotton tops with boatnecks, V-necks.”
Botwen has increasingly started shopping at Ann Taylor. She said she felt the quality at that store declined from 1998 to 1999, but that the quality has improved over the last year-and-a-half.
She cited the high turnover in merchandise as one reason she keeps going back. “I’d probably go less if I knew the merchandise wasn’t changing,” she said.
Chong feels that the price-to-quality ratio is better at The Gap. “Banana Republic quality is on par with The Gap, but you’re paying twice as much,” she said. “The Gap does the best job because I know what I’m expecting. It’s good quality for what it is.”
At the same time, Chong said that she only relies on chain stores like The Gap for basics “because I don’t like to be wearing the same thing that 80,000 other women are wearing.” In order to combat the sameness, she has hired a fashion student to custom make some of her clothing. She said that the unique items she looks for can be found at higher price points, but that they are out of her price range. Likewise, Jones, who often has trouble locating skirts in certain colors and styles, makes about 20 percent of her own skirts. Chong said that wouldn’t mind the sameness so much if the clothing had a more creative flair.
“I am happy with what’s out there, except that everything’s the same; there’s not a lot of creativity,” she said, adding that she’d love to find a herringbone-print shirtdress in her price bracket. “If everything were fantastic and the same, I wouldn’t mind, but I can’t find what I’m looking for.”