Apparel retailers slip out of step with more demanding clientele

 A customer shops the Bryan by Bryan collection at Lord & Taylor in New York.
A customer shops the Bryan by Bryan collection at Lord & Taylor in New York.

NEW YORK - Andrea Colby is on strike against the world of fashion.

The 37-year-old publicist has never been a big style risk taker, but even mainstream names like Jones New York and AnnTaylor- brands that she had been once loyal to - are becoming too staid for her.

"Their stuff is pretty run of the mill with nothing really striking me - too conservative," said the Albany, N.Y., resident. For a couple of years, she's been avoiding what she sees as too many suited, matchy-match looks.

Across the nation, women over 35 increasingly are rebelling against the suits and head-to-toe dressing of traditional department store labels like Liz Claiborne, Jones New York, and old-guard mall stores like Talbots and AnnTaylor.

That's put sales of traditional women's fashions in a rut that has deepened over the past year, and companies have announced reduced profit outlooks, missed sales targets, and dramatic restructuring.

Liz Claiborne Inc. is now focusing on fewer but more powerful brands like Juicy Couture, maker of the much-copied sweatsuits with "Juicy" printed across the rear. Apparel maker VF Corp. is chasing after the customer who will spend $200 on a pair of jeans with its acquisition of Seven for All Mankind LLC.

Talbots Inc. is redoing its fashions into styles new CEO Trudy Sullivan even calls "sexy." And AnnTaylor Stores Inc., struggling with sluggish business, is set to open a new store concept next fall, aimed at the modern baby boomer.

At Lord & Taylor, now owned by NRDC Equity Partners, a dramatic cleanup has already occurred. Traditional sportswear now accounts for only 40 percent of its business, down from 90 percent in 2000, and it's dropping fast, said Jane Elfers, president and CEO. It's been replaced partly by a "modern" department featuring hot styles that are forgiving - cropped jackets with shorter sleeves, jumpers paired with leggings, and A-line dresses.

With 65 percent of the $106 billion women's apparel business catering to the 35-to-54 age group, analysts say the industry needs to be concerned.

"If (they) don't get mom excited, she is not buying anything else in the store," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst at NPD Group Inc.

It seems, however, that women's apparel sellers just can't get it right. The last 12 months, several new concepts catering to boomers have closed. Gap Inc. shut Forth & Towne, while children's clothing retailer Gymboree shut down Janeville, which sold casual clothing to boomers.

Analysts blame the sluggishness on a number of factors - shoppers' penchant for trendier items that can be mixed with other labels and more competition from hot new brands like Juicy Couture and chains like Spanish cheap chic retailer Zara and Los Angeles-based Forever21. These chains are doing a good job of attracting moms and daughters with designer knockoffs, refreshed frequently.