THE FORGOTTEN ONES
IN A RETAIL LANDSCAPE OVERRUN WITH MINISKIRTS AND MUSCLE T-SHIRTS, WHAT’S A WITH-IT BABY BOOMER TO DO?
Byline: Deirdre Mendoza
Next season’s revealing looks — thigh-grazing miniskirts, muscle T-shirts and jeans with ever-lower rises — are fine for the young and hard-bodied — or the Lara Flynn Boyle school of incredible shrinking celebrities. But where are the trends catering to women whose bodies aren’t measured in Barbie-esque proportions?
As the contemporary market skews younger and demographics shift, West Coast retailers are forced to populate their racks with the smallest possible sizes — from size 0 to a 10 that fits more like an 8 — while ferreting out the few sophisticated looks for the empowered baby boomer woman who’s still got looks to spare.
One would think that baby boomers account for a meager percentage of potential sales. But women aged 46 to 64 will constitute 25 percent of the U.S. population by 2010 — meaning they’re not a consumer base to overlook.
And in 1999, consumers ages 45 to 54 generated $19 billion in women’s apparel sales — that’s roughly 20 percent of the nation’s total apparel spending, according to the market research firm NPD Group.
After a decade of exhaustive careering and childrearing, the growing movement of boomer consumers is expected to impact the market with self-serving attitudes and disposable cash.
“As children age, boomer women will get back in the work force and rededicate themselves to their careers. And we see them redirecting their dollars toward themselves,” said Lois Huff, principal consultant with the Retail Intelligence System at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Huff believes boomer women make up an explosive market segment, noting they are an educated, self-oriented group no longer restricted by family demands. “This is a segment that needs a professional wardrobe, as well as clothes that fit the fashion environment and are functional,” she said.
This challenge is familiar to Liz Klein, owner of Joshua Simon in San Francisco’s Noe Valley area. The 25-year-old specialty store has consistently catered to the professional boomer.
Klein, 55, said she has been dismayed by the downward spiral in sizing on the West Coast. She attributes it to two factors: The influx of young, moneyed entrepreneurs in the region’s high tech industry, and rampant media advocacy of waif-like figures.
Despite the influence of smaller-sized cuts, Klein said she has hung onto a loyal clientele of mostly self-employed women looking for fresh looks that are forward without being too extreme.
Stretch linen, cropped pants, A-line silhouettes, calf-length skirts and drawstring bottoms work well for her customer, and she lists Modo Doc, Three Dot, Eileen Fisher and Babette among her top-selling resources.
“One way we translate a wearable look is by carrying stretch linen so a fuller body can fit in, but not be poured into pants,” she said. “We go for looks that are streamlined, but not body-hugging.”
At La Bella in Long Beach, Calif., owners Cherie Shelton and Cynthia Corella have also addressed the sizing problem, joking that there is a “shrinking woman” in Los Angeles.
Shelton noted a market void for sizes 10 and up, but countered that many of her 40-year-old-plus customers are in great shape and able to wear many of the season’s hottest looks. La Bella, which opened in April 1999, has been able to maintain a broad customer base by working individually with its clientele.
“This is a customer who doesn’t want to be frumpy — she wants to be fashion forward. So we can throw on that hip sweater over her tailored look, or a cute rhinestone belt with a conservative suit and she’s jazzed up.” Her popular lines include William B., Bella Dahl, Rozae Nichols and Petrazillia.
Shelton confirmed the market has gotten younger, noting retailers have to work harder to find true-to-scale resources.
“L.A.’s getting smaller and it tends to show in the merchandise we carry, but it’s not about being all-consumed by trends. This customer is not looking to stop traffic — she wants to add some fun, groovy stuff to what she already has going on,” said Shelton.
Among the manufacturers capturing this 40-to-64-year-old segment of the market is David Dart, whose signature collection has been a key resource for boomers since 1987. He noted color and prints keep the line current, and he steers clear of tight silhouettes.
For July deliveries, he asked the question: How do you do Cavalli-style jeans for a David Dart customer? The result was a group of baroque animal print bottoms in a sophisticated palette of avocado, tangerine and chocolate brown. Dart has also traded stretch jeans for rayon pants with elastic waistbands and is doing the novel T-shirts that flooded the market this season in lighter shades, replacing trendier rhinestone embellishments with antique gold studs.
“Our customer loves buying coordinated looks. She wants it to be new, on-trend, but she doesn’t want to look like her daughter or her granddaughter,” he said.
Ultimately, he noted candidly, “there isn’t a whole lot out there for the more mature customer.” But he counts Ellen Tracy and Eileen Fisher among a handful of successful resources targeting this segment.
Peter Cohen is another Los Angeles designer fighting the good fight for this customer by focusing on sophisticated and forgiving silhouettes that enhance the mature boomer body. His upscale collection brings imported fabrics and leathers to a seasoned clientele while offering more coverage and fluid bodies. Tops offer hints of cleavage without being overly revealing, and dresses often gather at the torso, allowing for a looser fit below.
Silver-haired Carmen, a favorite Vogue model of the Fifties and Sixties, serves as muse, yet Cohen’s customer runs the gamut from urban professional to thirtysomething actress Anne Heche. “There’s a certain elegance you can achieve at a later stage of life that you can’t when you’re younger,” said Cohen.
In Beverly Hills, Farrah Dragon Cashmere has had success appealing to a 30- to 50-year-old customer with color and versatile cashmere looks.
“I don’t go too crazy with trendy stuff, because it’s cashmere and they want it to last forever. We offer three-quarter sleeves, in case that the woman isn’t really hip on showing her upper arms,” said Dragon, who opened her door in September 2000.
Dragon said she is still learning her customer’s mind-set, but notes her more mature customer is often in good shape and able to take risks with styling.
For soccer moms and what Dragon aptly calls the yoga crowd, she stocks drawstring bottoms by White & Warren. Twinsets and cardigans are also strong sellers.