THE SAME GAME
WITH SO MANY BRANDS CLINGING TO A HANDFUL OF THE HOTTEST LOOKS, SPECIALTY STORES ARE STRUGGLING TO SET THEMSELVES APART FROM THE CROWD.
Byline: Kristin Larson
There once was a time when every well-dressed gal couldn’t leave for a night on the town without her pashmina shawl. During the day, the standard ensemble was a sweater set with capris. And of course, she never forgot her Kate Spade bag.
These days, the “in” looks are everywhere — on the street, in department stores and boutiques, on the Internet. Indeed, it’s no longer necessary to be a dedicated follower of fashion to know what’s hot — you simply need to enter a store — any store — or click online. The hot names are obvious, even inescapable: Michael Stars, Juicy, Earl Jean, Custo Barcelona and Kate Spade, to name a few.
Call it trend saturation. Retailers and industry analysts alike say this phenomenon of homogenous fashion has been building for several seasons, and is now nearing a climax.
At least, that’s what they hope.
Indeed, when the top trends are emanating from fewer and fewer companies, the competition for consumer dollars becomes even tougher in a world where specialty store owners are struggling to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.
“Retail is not what it used to be 10 years ago,” said Esther Fishman, whose Lincoln Park store, Art Effect, has been a mainstay on Chicago’s trendy Armitage Avenue for 17 years. “It costs much more to be in business these days, so people on the manufacturing end are less likely to take risks. There’s too much sameness. The problem is, the department stores are selling the same things as the boutiques.”
Atlanta boutique owner Marie Rexer, who owns Rexer-Parkes along with Ginny Brewer, says her store carries the extremely popular T-shirts by Michael Stars and Juicy, even though a half dozen stores in town feature these same lines.
“They sell,” said Rexer, who draws the line with Earl Jeans because they’re too ubiquitous. “But it’s more of a challenge as a buyer and retailer to try to find unique things from each vendor so you don’t have the sameness. Like with Michael Stars: We sell their shiny fabric Ts, and people love them because they’re a little bit different.”
Even though Rexer thinks there’s enough variety at hand, she admits she’s noticed a certain familiarity the last few seasons. “The prints are sure out there. The last time we were at market in Atlanta, I said to myself, ‘I swear I saw this elsewhere,”‘ she said.
And she probably did. Stefanie Halpern, owner of the Almanac, a better-to-moderate boutique in Atlanta, blames the economy on the lack of market diversity. “I think a lot of people got burned last spring,” she said. “Now, with the election, the stock market and the economy, I think people are being more cautious. As for designers — if they got stuck with a bunch of fabric that didn’t move [last season], they’re being more careful.”
It wasn’t always such a bad thing for certain trends to have such a high familiarity quotient, said Ann Caruso, director of retail development for better, bridge and contemporary at The Doneger Group.
“The customer’s reception of trends like the pashmina craze was good, because [that trend] was so obvious,” she said. “Now, retailers at the shows are looking for things that are different, and lines that are stepping out.”
Caruso attributes season-after-season sameness to risk-averse manufacturers. “There are a few key vendors that are setting the trend in the marketplace, and instead of trying to be inventive, other manufacturers will try and mimic the vendors that are successful,” she said.
“Now, if a retailer gets an exclusive with a line that represents the hot look, other retailers will replicate it with similar vendors. Whatever the look is becomes like a uniform.”
Behind retailers’ trend-centeredness lurks a strong profit motive, according to Sharon Graubard, a fashion forecaster and vice-president/design director for Ellen Sideri Partnership Inc., a retail consulting firm in New York. “In America, the buying at large stores is done by committee. Now, the buyers are number-crunchers, and it’s more about making money than a gut-level feeling about fashion,” said Graubard, who also writes a weekly trend report for the B2B publication tradeweave.com. “Plus, everyone uses the same trend services, so [styles] go directly from the factory to the selling floor.”
In addition, the runway collections — once the province of a rarefied Seventh Avenue crowd — have lost their exclusivity, thanks to widespread Internet and TV news broadcasts.
“Years ago, it took a lot longer for a trend to trickle down, and when the junior market had it, it was done,” said Tina Hart, one of the owners of Luna’s Tina Hart, a Southeastern mini chain catering to women ages 18 to 35. “Now, all of America can see the trends at the same time as the retailers do, so it’s a lot quicker.”
The quick turnaround means the contemporary retailer must jump on these looks and brands immediately.
In the midst of all this trend saturation, Hart says her customers have become very brand-specific, and they want that Earl Jean, Nanette Lepore or Rebecca Taylor tag.
What helps is to have exclusives — even if “exclusive” is limited to your zip code or even street, Hart said. Thirty percent of her store is devoted to vendor exclusives such as BCBG Max Azria, Theory, French Connection, William B. and Earl Jean.
Cynthia Warner, the owner of a Chicago boutique called Studio 910, also tries her hardest to feature lines that aren’t sold everywhere. Now she visits every trade show and does a lot of research on the computer. “I’ve had to find new ways of resourcing,” she said.
“I’m seeing designers being a little more fearful of stepping out and being different,” she added. “It’s to the point where I’ll see the identical fabric in three or four lines,” with prices starting at a $24 T-shirt and going up to an $800 suit.
Not only does Warner say there is not enough variety in the marketplace, she says the fashions are getting younger and younger. “I don’t know too many 30-year-old women who are going to wear bold, geometric skirts,” said Warner, whose clients range from age 24 to 55. “It’s unrealistic to think that everyone can wear a little miniskirt or a camouflage pant. Sometimes, you just need to go out to dinner wearing something decent.”
But Warner agrees that certain trends can’t be ignored, so she tries to introduce them in subtler ways. For example, she’s selling a camouflage T-shirt that’s in a sheer material instead of standard-issue cotton.
Seeking out unique lines can be quite challenging, agreed Lillie Milovanovic, who owns Lillie Alexander Ltd. in Lake Forest. “I’ve been looking for vendors who will give you exclusivity, at least in the same town, but it’s difficult when everyone wants to jump on the same trend or line,” she said. “You try to find your own identity, and then you can’t, when the vendor reps are selling to every store in town.”
Instead, Milovanovic tries to focus on her customers’ wants instead of on the latest trends. “We do fashion, but we do it in a clean way,” she said.
“You have to concentrate on other ends of your business to keep your customers, like service,” Hart concurred. “If everyone has the same product, what’s going to make one customer shop a store has a lot to do with the store [itself].”
And if there’s a silver lining to trend overkill, said Ellen Sideri’s Graubard, it’s that the ubiquitousness of certain brands has raised Americans’ style consciousness and sent them in search of unique new fashion sources — such as, she said, the booming vintage market.
“Banana Republic and the Gap standardized the taste level for Americans. Before them, Americans were running around in jogging suits. Now, people are ready for good style. And the big appeal of vintage is that it’s a way to individualize your look. So I do think the customer is still searching for individuality.”
It remains to be seen who gives it to them.