Are women suffering from fashion ennui?

Copy of NM_nm jeans0 REUTERS File picture: Cheryl Ravelo, Reuters

New York - You've no doubt seen the news that it's been something of a rough patch for some of the biggest names of mid-priced women's fashion.

Mall stalwarts such as Gap, J. Crew and Urban Outfitters lately have posted disappointing sales, and so have department stores Nordstrom and Macy's.

There are multiple factors fuelling their struggles: Unseasonably warm weather at the end of last year stunted sales of coats, boots and gloves at retailers of all stripes. Meanwhile, some of these chains are facing problems of their own making: Gap, Banana Republic, and J. Crew have been blunt about the fact that the fit and style of their clothes have simply been off the mark.

Some industry insiders have pointed to another issue as a culprit of slow sales of women's clothing. When reporting lacklustre quarterly sales at Urban Outfitters - the company that includes the chain of the same name as well as Anthropologie and Free People - chief executive Richard Hayne said: “Our customer's current lack of enthusiasm for the apparel and accessory categories is primarily due to a lack of fashion newness.” Maria Mendelsberg, a retail industry analyst at Cambiar Investors, also called out a dearth of new styles as a factor that weighed on retailer's sales this holiday season.

In a January research note, retail analyst Brian Tunick of RBC Capital Markets wrote that sales in 2016 could be pressured by “lack of consumer call to action until we get the next fashion cycle.” Essentially, they are raising this question: Are everyday women suffering from a bout of fashion boredom?

To ponder this, it helps to rewind to 2007, the year that the skinny jean arrived in many women's closets and supplanted the bootcut style that had been a cornerstone of their wardrobes since the 90s. Now, think about all the other fashion changes that came with jumping on the skinny jeans bandwagon: Perhaps you bought knee-high riding boots to wear pulled over the jeans. Maybe you sprang for more flowy tops to give some balance to the body-hugging silhouette of the jeans.

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It was a major aesthetic shift, a moment when suddenly much of your wardrobe felt dated and in need of an upgrade. And while surely new trends have blossomed since then - athleisure, midi skirts, crop tops, to name a few - an outfit anchored around a skinny jean has been a constant for quite a while now.

“Overall, bottoms take about 10 years to fully evolve,” said Sidney Morgan-Petro, retail editor at trend forecasting firm WGSN. “It's really one of the things that can define a decade.”

By that analysis, we're getting awfully close to the twilight of the skinny jeans moment, if we're not in it already. And such a period can be a tough one for apparel retailers.

“If you look in your closet and see that people are still wearing the same kind of items, there's really no push to go buy the same stuff” you already have, Mendelsberg said. And so retailers are slowly, carefully nudging us to something new. WGSN studied the “new-in” pieces in retailers' online inventory this autumn and winter, and the analysis found that the skinny jean has decreased within this set of merchandise by 6.3 percent in just one year. Meanwhile, flare jeans have increased their share by the same amount.

WGSN separately analysed what styles and silhouettes appeared on the catwalks in designers' spring 2016 collections. That study found that wide-leg style denim grew 93 percent compared to the previous year's spring runways, while flare legs jumped 78 percent. Skinny jeans took a slight dip of 3 percent.

Morgan-Petro said based on her research overall, she believes a culotte-style pant is the next big trend in bottoms that is poised to get women to open their wallets. In part, she notes that the cropped style works better with some key shoe trends right now, including ankle booties and the ghillie-style lace-up shoes that are everywhere from Bergdorf Goodman to American Eagle Outfitters.

Still, not everyone is convinced that women are experiencing fashion fatigue. Katie Smith, senior fashion and retail analyst at big data firm Edited, has a different framework for thinking about the issue of newness in the clothing business. Edited studies how many new items are flowing into retailers' online merchandise assortment. Smith's analysis found that some 40 percent of in-stock US women's wear was new in the last three months. And some retailers are only ramping that up: Bloomingdale's for example, had 47 percent more newness in its assortment in the last three months than it did during the same time period last year. That means, by Smith's analysis, women are seeing plenty of fresh clothing pieces.

“Aesthetically, I don't sense a fatigue in the data or in retailer's communications,” Smith said. Smith also points out that, though skinny jeans have been around for a while, they've been through some different iterations: First dark wash and gray pairs, then bright-coloured versions, then still more styles with holes and fraying.

As retailers' spring collections start hitting store floors this month, we should start to get a clearer idea of how hard chains are going to push women to retire their skinny jeans - and whether women are going to respond favourably to those overtures.


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