Catharsis: The winding road of Anthropologie

During the {usually} cold winter months nothing tides a shopping lover over quite like a great catalogue. Even as we declare the ridiculousness of models in short sleeves inside we secretly delight in the fashions to come. After the disappointment of the February 2012 catalogue and the corresponding frustration over some of the clothing, I figured now is a good time to take a look at Anthropologie’s current state and open the discussion up to the community.

For me, 2008 and 2009 were my personal shopping high points. The trends of the seasons fell nicely into my style sensibilities and both Anthropologie and J.Crew (my two favorite stores) were hitting all the right notes. Even luxury brands were speaking to me, with plenty of beautiful options worth saving up for. I look back at the shapes from late 2008 and early 2009 and I still love them! A-line skirts that brush the knees. Beautifully detailed or ruffled tops that show off curves in a distinctly feminine shape. Bold dresses that work and play well. Lots of defines waists and collarbone-showcasing necklines. Pumps with solid heels but no crazy platforms. Accessories in gold, silver and leather. An emphasis on rich, saturated colors and strong contrasts. What’s not to like?

With the economy crash in late 2008 many retailers suffered but Anthropologie did quite well in 2009. Unfortunately that’s also when they made a drastic left turn. Midway through the year the brand was outperforming its peers and setting new earnings records. In a strategy session Anthropologie decided that in order to keep pace, it needed to start attracting new customers. This is a smart decision but the execution was so strange. By new customers Anthropologie meant a newer, younger demographic. Alright, doesn’t sound so bad…I’m technically a part of that though on the older edge.

But to do it, Anthropologie decided that they had to abandon the designs that had brought them so much success and turn instead towards trendier, edgier cuts and designs. When I look at the February 2009 catalogue below, it’s like the product of a bygone era. This was the last of the classic Anthro catalogues. Come March we got a new shape, a new paper material and an appropriate amount of confusion from the community.  

Since then, it’s been hit or miss for many of us. After about a year Anthropologie realized their mistake and kudos to them for not only owning up to it but also working quicky to course-correct. I hope Anthro realizes know that the designs that made them so wonderful in the first place are timeless and attract fans of all ages. They may never be as big as The Gap — is that a bad thing though? In this era of investor insanity where stockholders only care about seeing their share values grow, perhaps stability and routine, repeatable growth should be praised more than incredible peaks (which often come with incredible valleys).

And so the effort began in 2011 to turn back the clock so to speak and recapture the Anthro of yore. Leadership was cycled in and out, with the former design heads re-installed to bring back some of that old magic. It made for a very bumpy year where some items were unbelievably great while many were just head-scratchers. While the design team worked their asses off to reassure the customer base, the production team also had to do a 180 on the call to lower production costs by sourcing new materials and factories. Suddenly the call came back — thank god — for quality materials at the fairest price out there.

It’s still very much a work in progress. Fall 2011 was the first collection influenced by the new/old team but it was not fully their ideas or designs. Now for Spring 2012 we see the full potential and clues about what’s to come. I for one am very encouraged! In January 2011 I spent my birthday discount mostly on wishlist popbacks. This year I happily spent into my savings a bit to invest in a bunch of Anthro pretties at full price. (The Birthday Haul post is coming, I swear!)

Let’s take a look at most of my recent purchases:

Out of all of these items, I’d say the Palma Dress ($188, review here) has me the most excited. A year and a half ago the print on this dress would have been too big and the buttons in the back would have been cheap plastic. A year ago the print would have been too big and mismatched egregiously. Now Anthro pretty much nailed it. It’s an incredible color with a pretty print, and while the seams are still annoyingly mismatched it’s not as noticeable with the print. The details are right and the shape is something I can wear to work but still keep on for a date with my guy. Best of all, it’s reminiscent of old Anthro while taking things just a bit forward. Likewise, the Ribboned Rocket Cardigan ($128, review upcoming) is familiar to Anthro lovers without being a complete retread. On the jewelry front I’m so happy to see delicate gold and silver pieces back! I do love me a good statement necklace but only every once in awhile. It was getting too big and too loud for awhile. And I think Anthro has continually done well in bags — last year alone I bought 3 new leather bags at Anthro and this year I’ve already invested in the Brushstrokes Still Life Clutch, which I simply adore.

While I’m seeing a lot of promise there is still work to be done. In their quarterly earnings calls Anthropologie has recognized that the customer isn’t responding to some of their shapes — i.e. the wide flares or shapeless draped tops. Yet despite saying they get it I still see those same questionable styles season after season. It’s like Anthro is saying, “OK you didn’t like denim super flares…how about corduroy super flares? No? OK, how about chino super flares! No? OK…how about…pastel super flares!! You’ll like them dammit if we just keep knocking you over the head with them.”

I feel that Anthro is still eying the trends a bit too much — how many sidetail hems can a store carry? And two of my most loathed trends are already in-store: floral pants and pastel pants. While I love that fashion has embraced color for Spring 2012, I prefer my pops from saturated jewel tones. So while the sapphires and rubies in pants and tops call to me the robin’s egg blue and easter egg pink are better left back in the 1980s Country Club they came from. Floral pants I’ll never understand…can leopard jeans be far behind, Anthropologie? (Hope not…I really hope not.) But I also understand that not every trend will speak to me, so much the way I love ruffles to death I will politely nod and smile as my friend proudly shows off her new creeping vine print on white pants that make no sense to me but admittedly look great on her.

That’s not to say Anthropologie is alone in tackling those trends — it just always raises an eyebrow with me considering that the brand used to defy trends, not embrace them. They would do well to remember their own customer profile: independent women looking for something different. I’ve said it many times before and I’ll say it again: I’m equally at home in Anthropologie, Theory, Helmut Lang or Alexander Wang. I don’t go to Anthropologie to look for my ultra-modern downtown chic pieces. I go there to find clothing that’s flattering, pretty and that makes me feel like the lady I am. I can balance the toughness and preppiness in elsewhere.

My hope is that Anthropologie gives their designs time to catch on. Frustrated customers need to be appealed to for a few seasons before they’ll return. The word needs to get out that Anthro is coming back. And there’s still some logistical issues, like price points, that need help. My outlook is positive. However, I feel that the community differs with me on several of these points.

Some of my favorite recent items:

Now that I’ve had my say I turn to you — how do you feel about the Spring 2012 collection so far? When was the last time you visited an Anthropologie store? Do you see improvements in the materials and quality, or do you think they still need work? How do you feel about the price points right now? And anything else you’d like to discuss.

Please remember to be respectful of other’s opinions — don’t attack anyone else. Keep your statements to how you feel and think rather than calling out someone else. I look forward to your thoughts!

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