LOS ANGELES — Just one look at Guess’ signage displayed in a Macy’s West juniors’ department, highlighting vixen Paris Hilton at the ripe age of 23, clutching a plush stuffed animal to her bare chest or teasing the rock-hard abs of a hunk in her high-heeled mules, and it’s clear that the customer being targeted is over her awkward years.
Braces and acne may be hallmarks of the teen girl, but the juniors’ apparel category is leaping over the pubescent set and appealing to her more grown-up sensibility by way of celebrity connections, advertisements connections, advertisements in more fashion-forward magazines and through better product. A number of companies, such as Necessary Objects, BCBG’s To the Max and Bubblegum USA, who considered juniors their domain, are reinventing themselves into young contemporary labels, adding contemporary divisions or simply exiting the juniors’ business. Even Guess, which has billed itself as a young contemporary line but has hung in juniors’ departments for 22 years, has rolled out a separate contemporary concept called Marciano.
“Today’s juniors’ girl has disappeared,” said Max Azria, founder and chief executive officer of BCBG. “A junior customer may be 12 years old, but by 15 or 17, she’s matured into a young, contemporary woman and that style she’s defined can continue until she’s 35.”
From celebrity magazine pictures of 18-year-old Mischa Barton to 20-year-old Ashlee Simpson draped in designer looks, Young Hollywood’s influence on impressionable teens also can’t be ignored. As a result, the youth customer’s new fashion role model has heightened her interest in up-market brands. She’s often bypassing the juniors’ departments in favor of contemporary boutiques, such as Kitson on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles or Fred Segal Fun in Santa Monica, for Seven For All Mankind jeans at $132 retail and C&C California bell-sleeve T-shirts at $55 retail.
“The contemporary world has exploded as the juniors’ customer is biting the bullet and spending more money,” said Sandy Potter, principal at L.A. buying office Directives West. “So the juniors’ manufacturers aren’t stupid. They realize there’s a void in the market, and they can sell something at opening contemporary price points to juniors’. I call it better juniors.”
The retail landscape of the juniors’ world also reveals a grim picture as the shopper befuddles merchants, seeking bargains as well as fashion staples at higher-end stores.
Pressure from cheap-chic chain Forever 21 in L.A., whose knack of churning out stylish duds at rock-bottom prices has pushed annual sales to $500 million, is a reason Wet Seal is fumbling and bankrupt Gadzooks is in the midst of restructuring.
“Because Forever 21 is as good as they are, they haven’t left a lot of room at the top,” said Kathy Bronstein, former chief executive officer of Wet Seal, who was ousted last year. “They’re first to market, have the best pricing and have the fastest turnaround. And they don’t get caught up in the quagmire of a typical retail institution of planning, crunching numbers and sitting in long meetings.”
At the same time, chains such as American Eagle Outfitters and Pacific Sunwear are making the grade with strong back-to-school sales, as a result of clear points of view, industry experts said.
Straddling the dual price points shoppers are seeking, Macy’s West is an example of the broad spectrum that fills the juniors’ closet, where prices began creeping up with the growing influence of urban items. At one end, the department store chain sells $199 furry reversible vests by Rocawear, Guess jeans for $72 and BCBGirls cuffed jeans with circular knee patches for $98. But, it still reaches out to the customer’s need for $29.99 L.E.I. jeans. Shawn Lambertsen-Forbes, fashion director for juniors’ at Macy’s West, said the divergent price point trend began in the denim category as more firms have traded up to the $49 to $68 retail tier, such as It Jeans and Baby Phat.
“Consumers are willing to pay for better product, better materials, and better designs,” she said. “And if they’re not willing to buy that $200 top, they’ll still create that look, just with a better price point.”
BCBGirls is betting on item-appeal for its recent launch. Exhibiting a young, edgy attitude, the line includes slim-cut cropped pants, pleated flirty skirts, crocheted sweaters and military-inspired denim jackets. Wholesale prices range from $22 for a basic knit to $77 for a novelty jacket.
Azria also repositioned To the Max, a juniors’ line begun seven years ago, into a young contemporary collection of work separates, such as fitted tweed jackets, chiffon blouses and ladylike skirts, and sportswear items. Similarly priced to BCBGirls, the line’s wholesale prices range from $22 for solid shirts to $64 for jackets.
The risk with new divisions is cannibalization of the core brand, but Azria said his ventures will appeal to different audiences.
“The two lines will have nothing to do with each other since my main line is more designer and more expensive,” said Azria, who expects the young contemporary brands to pull in $50 million to $60 million each in wholesale volume in the first year.
Like Azria, Ady Gluck-Frankel, the owner of New York-based Necessary Objects, will cover both juniors’ and contemporary real estate at department stores. Her new young contemporary line, Love…ady, bowed for holiday and was picked up by Nordstrom’s Point of View and Macy’s East. Not that sales have been shabby at Necessary Objects, where wholesale volume averages $60 million. But Gluck-Frankel said she had the production tools already in place to tap into the contemporary customer.
“We own our factories, we’re practically vertical except for our fabrics so I thought the timing was right,” she said. “Contemporary is growing, and I believe it’s the wave of the future.”
She expects wholesale volume to reach $8 million to $10 million in her first year for the Love…ady collection, which consists of sateen floral print Forties dresses, lined tweed jackets and knee-length pleated wool skirts. Wholesale prices range from $28 to $78, more than double the prices of Necessary Objects, due to the better quality and more labor-intensive construction, like Chantilly lace trims and Peter Pan collars.
Tailored trousers, chiffon and silk tops and contoured waistband jeans are products created for Tylerskye, a contemporary line whose owners also produce moderate denim under the Bubblegum USA label. Co-owner Laura Hong said she launched Tylerskye, named after her two young girls, Tyler and Skye, to tap into clothing she could relate to as a mom. At the same time, she acknowledged the growing pressures of the juniors’ market, pulling Bubblegum out of Wet Seal and Gadzooks in the past few years.
“Key players in juniors aren’t key anymore and the only way to grow your line is to steal market share from someone else,” she said. But with the contemporary market there’s room for all players. The line shipped for fall and has already amassed 250 accounts, including Lisa Kline in L.A., Big Drop in New York and Abigail Morgan in San Francisco.
Others say it was time for a new business model. Tag Rag, a 12-year-old juniors’ streetwear line, is on the back burner for owner Orly Dahan. He’s now focusing on his contemporary lines, Gold Hawk, which hit its stride with camisole tops and has added bottoms, and Tag + denim, a premium jeans line that has been picked up by 250 accounts in six months, including Isetan in Japan and Colette in Paris. Dahan said the lack of price restrictions has liberated his creativity.
“It involves less headaches, better control of production, and I’m happy when I go to work, which I wasn’t when I was in juniors,” he said.