ATLANTA — Until recently, career apparel was put on the back burner as periods of dressing down or sexing up predominated in stores and on the streets. But given today’s job insecurity and fashion’s return to tailored feminine looks, careerwear is rising from dowdy underachiever to star performer.
Career is seeing more action than almost any other sector, with new lines, greater push at retail and increased demand from consumers. The result is double-digit sales increases so far this spring, with predictions of similar growth to continue throughout the year.
Suddenly, the apparel industry is waking up to the fact that working women do buy clothes, and that, given more product and better options, they might buy more. With a host of new career-oriented collections touted as polished, sophisticated and feminine, manufacturers are all over working women, with choices that fill in the blanks between matronly suits and boring khakis.
According to STS Market Research, sales of dressier looks last year totaled $12.1 billion (which includes suits, dress pants, dresses, skirts, shirts and blouses). No wonder retailers smell an opportunity and why, after years of relegating career to stuffy suit departments, pricy bridge areas or vague attempts at “business casual” interpretations, major stores are reinventing their career apparel floors. With more space and funding, departments are clearly defined through signage and display, with more sales specialists on hand to help customers put together career wardrobes.
Experts say consumers’ renewed interest in dressing up for work partly stems from job insecurity and partly from a cultural backlash. Confused and tired of the extreme casualization of the Nineties and the dot-com boom, women are also weary of the overt sexuality that came to a head with Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl exposé.
“When every bank teller out there looks like Madonna, it’s gone as far as it can go,” said David Wolfe, creative director of The Doneger Group, a New York-based buying office. “After a decade of embellishment and novelty, change is happening. It’s on the runways. Consumers want it.”
Wolfe said abandoning true career dressing was a mistake for both companies and retailers. Trying to instill an “anything goes” philosophy at the workplace that included jeans, sandals and even shorts, fashion lost touch with a key consumer segment of women who still preferred to dress up to go to the office. Given recent employment trends, appearance in the workplace is more crucial than ever.
“People are concerned with job security. Dressing down could imply that you don’t need to be taken seriously, or don’t need the job,” said Wolfe. “People are starting to realize that offices aren’t the beach, and work is not a casual occasion.”
He said that, while the return to career dressing presents a great opportunity, it should be a complete reinvention, rather than a mere updating of casual or a Fifties retro rehash.
At Proffitt’s/McRae’s, a division of Saks Department Store Group, based in Alcoa, Tenn., reviving career store-wide has paid off this spring, as the sector showed the best sales increase of any category, according to Toni Browning, president and chief executive officer of the Proffitt’s/McRae’s division.
For the first time, career departments, now with 25 to 35 percent more space, are segregated and denoted with signage, rather than a mix of product throughout women’s areas. With a dressier, more feminine direction, Proffitt’s presents two points of view. Suits represent more tailored looks, while separates give customers a softer, more relaxed alternative.
“Casual Fridays, when denim-based dressing was accepted, were so confusing,” said Browning. “Two years ago, capris were our hottest item; now, it’s skirts.”
New sportswear collections, such as Lauren and Signature, aren’t the only thing generating interest in career dressing. Major suit resources, including Kasper, Tahari and Anne Klein, also have updated styling, said Browning, to good results. Soft dressing options, including georgette skirts, novelty jackets and twinsets, also resonate with consumers.
“Customers are driving this, rather than workplace dress codes,” said Browning. “Customers are ready for dressier looks. They want to come to work looking good, but they also want ways to express their individuality.”
While most evident in better-price departments, Proffitt’s career push reaches out to entry-level employees. The retailer offers more suits under $100, mostly in private label. Junior lines, including Byer California, My Michelle and Star City, have added more jackets and skirts for young career women.
From direct-mail to the company Web site, must-have spring item lists include more career pieces. Direct consumer contact is the goal, through targeted mailings and more trunk shows. Proffitt’s new “Focused on You” Saturday afternoon TV show (on ABC and NBC in three markets) includes woman-on-the-street interviews and career makeovers.
At Bloomingdale’s, the interest in dressing up again has helped not only better areas, but contemporary and bridge departments, as well, according to Frank Doroff, executive vice president, ready-to-wear.
“Apparel in general is on the rebound,” he said. Bridge lines that offer career apparel are performing well, including Kay Unger, BCBG and Laundry.
In better areas, Bloomingdale’s has increased space and funding for career coordinates, replacing an overabundance of more casual sportswear. Merchandising by vendor, new brands — including Calvin Klein, Ralph by Ralph Lauren and Jones New York Signature — are more prominently displayed, along with existing vendors, such as Theory.
At Rich’s-Macy’s, an Atlanta-based Federated division, launches, including H Hilfiger, Signature and Lauren, have brought excitement and created demand in better areas.
“The new lines have brought an element to career that has been missing,” said Kathryn Pickering, general merchandise manager, rtw. “The consumer is more willing to invest in career clothing, with the quality quotient upgraded.”
Marshall Field’s, a 62-store chain based in Minneapolis, Minn., increased career space this spring, adding such lines as Calvin Klein and Lauren.
JoAnn Young, the store’s national trend corespondent, said designers’ focus on novelty and embellished looks over the past decade led retailers astray from true career dressing. Now, the runway resurgence of more elegant, tailored looks is both cause and effect of renewed consumers’ interest in career.
Young said that, while a backlash to casual dressing reflects a more conservative mood in society, “at the same time, we have to give options, so we don’t alienate professional women who want to dress with personal expression.”
Alternatives to suits include stand-alone shirts, blouses or cardigans, with piping or unique buttons and bows, paired with skirts. Jackets are fitted, often with accents, such as belts and bows that emphasize waistlines. Career assortments are now merchandised in collections rather than scattered throughout categories.
“Showing more complete vendor collections and placing them with like vendors helps consumers who know and like particular brands. They can find them easier,” said Young. Marshall Field’s will partner with Sigrid Olsen, Jones New York and Eileen Fisher for career trunk shows, and add more personal shoppers in stores.
Manufacturers said consumer demand is driving their return to career. Jones New York launched the Signature line this spring, after two years of gathering consumer data through focus groups and other research across the country.
“Everything had been career versus casual — we had true career with the Jones New York collection and we had weekend wear with the Jones Sport collection, but we learned that women need something in between,” said Mark Mendelson, group president. Signature’s relaxed jackets, twinsets, skirts and pants are designed for the everyday workplace that often doesn’t require a suit.
Consumer research revealed working women want a more convenient shopping experience and to be rewarded for brand loyalty. To simplify shopping, Jones has better visuals and merchandising that shows how clothes work together. This spring, Lloyd Boston, author and stylist on NBC’s “Today” show, embarks on a tour of 12 markets, where he will hold in-store seminars, such as “closet chaos,” to help demystify dressing for work.
Jones also will continue its Work-Life seminars, begun last spring in around 25 markets a season. Held in the workplace of corporations such as Merrill Lynch, for around 200 executives, the trunk show seminars include personal shoppers from retailers, along with makeup and accessories tips.
To reward customers, Jones will hold in-store parties for its best customers, with gift certificates, look books and giveaways, from Starbucks coupons to free movie tickets.
Jones divisions had “record February sales,” said Mendelson, boosted by other launches that are rejuvenating better areas.
“This rising tide is lifting all boats,” he said. “As the career zone grows, it’s important that retailers pay attention to essentials that make department stores a convenient, one-stop shopping area. Are the fitting rooms right, is the register nearby and is there enough service? These are basics that stores have to have.”
Department stores, long criticized for a lack of service and convenience, are starting to pay attention, said Tom Murry, president of Calvin Klein Inc. In-store shops for the Calvin Klein better-price career sportswear line are designed to simplify shopping.
“The layout, design and fixtures are understandable, and customers can see everything clearly from a distance,” said Murry. “Images show how pieces work together, and tie back into the advertising campaign.” In-store events, rare for better areas, said Murry, include casual modeling and trunk shows. Italian fabrics, attention to tailoring and details are designed to bring a bridge aesthetic to the better market. Priced at retail from $65 for knits to $495 for suedes and leathers, the line creates a “top-tier” better-price zone.
While each Calvin Klein item can stand alone, it also works as part of an outfit. Merchandising as a collection has encouraged multiple sales. Overall, early sales have been strong, with good sell-throughs, said Murry. With staggered deliveries, Calvin Klein debuts in 125 doors for spring and around 150 for fall.
“We know that diminishing returns relate to door count,” he said. “We’re limiting doors to keep it special and nonpromotional.”
Limited distribution, creating a bridge sensibility in a “premium better” price zone and direct contact with retailers and consumers are all goals for the new Realities line from Liz Claiborne.
The idea of giving consumers options goes beyond styling to price and fit. Prices fall into levels — good, better and best — with jackets, for example, retailing at $168, $188 or $228. Offering perceived value through attention to tailoring, detail and construction, the line targets a better-price customer who aspires to buy bridge apparel. Fit options — close, easy or loose — give customers many possibilities.
By the end of 2004, Realities will be in 220 doors, including Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Parisian and Lord & Taylor. Training, both on-site and remote, has been beefed up. Advertising budgets are skewed to more local markets, for charity tie-ins that connect with communities.
“We need to humanize the shopping experience, embrace the customer in a more emotional way,” said Henry McGuire, vice president, sales. “It’s all about listening to the consumer. We learned she was frustrated with better departments that had been so skewed to casual. We knew we had to offer alternatives.”
For specialty chains, more able to react quickly to market trends, the career rejuvenation presents a golden opportunity.
Career has always been the primary focus for Mark Shale, a 95-year-old Chicago-based women’s and men’s specialty chain with eight stores in the Midwest, Southeast and Southwest. Originally a men’s store, Mark Shale added women’s apparel in the Seventies, on the cusp of the dress-for-success era, with lots of skirted suits and bow-tie blouses. The casualization of the past decade caused a decline in traditional suits and dresses that were replaced by more pants and separates.
“During the dot-com period, the attitude was, ‘The worse I look, the more important I am,’” said Scott Baskin, president and ceo. “Casualization was a real struggle for women, although there were die-hards who never stopped wearing suits. As contemporary apparel became successful, the apparel industry all jumped on the bandwagon. Now, manufacturers are addressing women who don’t want to overdress every day, but realize that work isn’t a romp in the park.”
The approach replaces dowdy suits with more modern offerings for older women, and introduces a younger clientele, who have known nothing but casual Fridays, to the concept of polished, feminine professional looks.
“Women 40 and older are dressing much closer to their daughters than to their mothers,” said Baskin. “Everybody wants to look 35, but there’s a real need for modern, updated clothing that will fit an older woman who wants a slight low-rise, but extra hip room, and close, but not body-hugging, silhouettes.”
Baskin has seen a return to suits, in updated interpretations, as a fashion statement over the past 18 months. He carries Tahari, Barry Bricken and Garfield & Marks, careful to avoid styles duplicated in department stores. In separates, Yansi Fugel and Lafayette 148 have filled the bill for softer looks. Dresses, still in demand, remain the biggest void in career apparel, said Baskin.
With all the newness in the market, sales in career areas are up in double digits for 2004 over last year. But Baskin and other retailers say career apparel, in the context of American popular culture, has not reached its potential. With an open-to-buy always bigger than he can fill, Baskin hopes the current career trend will continue with more lines, though he isn’t convinced it will happen.
“All creativity in our country is driven toward young people,” he said. “In fashion, there’s still more designers interested in dressing the Olsen twins than Diane Sawyer.”