FULLER FIGURES, EMPTY CLOSETS
WOMEN IN THEIR 40S AND 50S ARE SEEKING FASHION CHOICES THAT RANGE FAR BEYOND STRETCH PANTS. BUT IS THE MARKET READY TO MEET THEM HALFWAY?
Byline: Cami Alexander
So, you’re a typical baby boomer, born between 1946 and 1964, have a couple of kids and plenty of disposable income, drive an upscale car and have a nicely furnished, comfortable home. You’re also one of a generation that’s been closely watched by consumer, lifestyle and business analysts for years — not to mention catered to by almost every industry.
“Baby boomers will be important until they drop over dead — and that’s not anytime soon,” said Bill Dodson, president and chief executive officer of Lilly Dodson Stores. “It’s due to their numbers, their traveling more and their expendable income.”
But, can you walk into any women’s clothing store and find what you want to wear — something that suits your age — at the price you’re willing to pay? Not likely, says a sampling of specialty owners interviewed by WWD.
“I hear every day that customers like the color; they like the design, but they wish it wasn’t so tight,” said Zari Godwin, owner of Lady Asher , a contemporary and updated store in Houston. “There’s too much itty-bitty [apparel] for 18-year-olds, whose bodies are small. Our customers still want fun and beautiful things, and they don’t really care about the price, as long as we have nice things to offer, and sizes that fit. This segment is really overlooked.”
“I don’t see [baby boomers] caring much about price,” said Pam Martin, owner of the Martin & Co. showroom at the Dallas Apparel Mart. “They want very fashionable-looking clothes that are an easier fit. I think that this group in general is getting missed.”
But baby boomers’ clothing needs aren’t just comfort-driven; they want up-to-the-minute clothing that can keep pace with their increasingly fast-forward lives.
Bill Dodson, president of Lilly Dodson’s Dallas-based designer stores, recognizes that his customers want “something easy,” meaning clothes that that can make a seamless transition from the office to an evening out, from at home to straight out of a suitcase.
“Our customer wants luxury of fabric and fit,” said Dodson. “She is loyal to the designer that makes her feel modern, yet comfortable. She wants new, fresh fabrics and colors. In her lifestyle, she is curious about business and pleasure. She has homes all over the world, with wardrobes that fit that moment and time, [whether she’s in] Santa Fe or New York.”
“[Boomers] are the ones with the busiest lifestyles,” agreed Leslie Diers, president of the Dallas-based better-to-designer chain Lester Melnick. “They’re working. They’re involved in civic organizations and charity organizations. They’re the busiest, and they have the broadest needs.”
Busy though they may be, boomers keep themselves abreast of the latest trends, according to store owners.
“My customer is very forward thinking,” pointed out Nancy Diebolt, owner of Turtletique, a bridge boutique in Dallas. “She wants to keep up with the times. She doesn’t want her clothes to look like yesterday’s clothes. I don’t either, and I’m 61 years old. I want new; it’s nice to have a new look.”
“A grandmother doesn’t look like a grandmother anymore, agreed Diers. “[She] wants to continue to wear fashionable clothing that fits [her] figure.”
“They’re not fad buyers, but they want to stay in fashion,” said Sue Bearrie, owner of the store of the same name in Southlake, Tex., of her customers. “I don’t think older women dress ‘old’ anymore, but if they do, they don’t shop in boutiques. They shop in department stores.”
A customer may possess a youthful spirit, but some retailers felt that not having a youthful physique to match could limit shopping options.
“If you’re not in shape, you do have a problem,” said Betty Thrasher, owner of The Rosebud, a better-to-bridge shop in Temple, Tex. “It’s hard to find things that make heavier people look good.”
“A 40-year-old has a body shape that’s different than an 18-year-old’s. She has one or two kids, and their bodies are different,” said Lady Asher’s Godwin. “Our customers are working out and they’re in great shape, but they still don’t have that 18-year-old body.”
Turtletique’s Diebolt took a more optimistic view of her customer’s ability to dress down in years.
“My customer happens to be very forward thinking. She readily accepts a new look, and she works out and takes care of herself. She can wear a skinny pant, and absolutely love it.”
Betty Thrasher of The Rosebud also feels that the reports of a baby-boomer-style crisis may be somewhat exaggerated.
“I really don’t think there’s a problem, because everything is in the market,” said Thrasher. “You can find what you’re looking for. We go to market in Dallas, and we think Dallas is very well covered. You can find anything you need if you’re willing to search for it. I have children in the baby boomer bracket, and they don’t seem to have any trouble at all. The only problem we have in this market is for more mature ladies who need ‘luncheon clothes — that’s what we’re really lacking. They need clothes that make them look tall and slim with no belts, [but] we’re seeing a lot of belted, fitted looks right now.”
Some lines have tried to change their styles to fit middle-aged women, said Sue Bearrie, owner of the eponymous Southlake store. “We’re not seeing HotPants or anything like that anymore,” she says. “Designers have gone more to addressing the older customer. They’re the people who have the money. They make clothes that are more flattering, but the baby boomers keep their bodies in better shape than the generation before them.”
“Most lines have changed [to meet the needs of the aging population],” Turtlelique’s Diebolt concurred. “Everybody has a stretch pant in their line now, all the way from Ellen Tracy on. Everybody has hopped on the trend to a point.”
But not all lines have been successful at changing to meet the needs of these customers, said Godwin. “When they do that, I’ve noticed some lines try to make [clothes] a little longer and a little wider in order to accommodate,” she said. “They think if they do that, they’re accommodating. And then it loses the shape and loses the look.” Specialty store owners can quickly tell you which lines are doing a good job of addressing the needs of the baby boomer market: Cambio Jeans, Garfield & Marks, Kiko, Central Falls, Democracy, Eileen Fisher, Hugo Boss for Women, Sylvia Neisel, Tom & Linda Platt, Escada Sport, Escada ML, Alberto Makali, Forwear, Tempo, Como, Kay Celine and Rena Lange.