Why are sales suffering at so many women’s stores? They made bad clothes, according to the Washington Post

Anthropologie’s summer windows in the Allen, TX store.

Following up from the Urban Outfitters’ Q2 earnings’ call post last week, here’s a very interesting article from the Washington Post on the sad, sad, sad state of women’s clothing these days. The thesis of the column is simple: Consumers have money to spend but mostly can’t find clothes they want to buy. Why not? Well, for one reason as the article states:

“This slate of mega-retailers has long been among the prime draws to the mall for middle-class women, offering apparel that they could easily mix and match into outfits for client meetings, kiddie birthday parties or date nights. But lately, they can’t seem to design clothes that women want to buy. In other words, people think their clothes are ugly.”

While Anthropologie is specifically cited in the article — called out for taking $88 of loose-fitting rayon and insisting it’s a ‘t-shirt dress’ — they certainly aren’t alone. The Gap family of stores also gets skewered, as does J.Crew.

Here are some of the highlights (lowlights?) from the article, well worth a full read:

“Most glaringly, Banana Republic has acknowledged that it struggled to sell a blazer last year because women couldn’t fit their arms into the armholes.”

“Gap has pivoted to more cheery colors and more ladylike silhouettes after customers balked at the minimalist, somewhat androgynous designs unleashed by former creative director Rebekka Bay. Around the time Bay left the company, Peck reportedly said to employees: “It’s a sign of the times, unfortunately, that when there was an Ugly Christmas Sweater Party at the company, some of the sweaters there were from our current assortment.”

“Many shoppers are choosing to spend their dollars on experiences — such as travel or dining out — rather than goods. And off-price players such as Ross, T.J. Maxx and Marshalls have been winning over new shoppers with their treasure-hunt atmosphere, adding to the strain created by the likes of Target and H&M, which are offering stylish pieces at low prices.”

“The errors could be related to these retailers’ race to adapt to the breakneck speed at which style trends now move. H&M, Zara and other fast-fashion brands have dramatically accelerated how quickly an idea can get from the design studio to the store, compressing that process from several months to a matter of weeks. And shoppers have much more access to what’s hot, thanks to live-streamed runway shows and a steady diet of Instagram photos. As a result, retailers are rethinking all aspects of the business, from supply chains to design calendars to marketing tactics. Amid those dizzying attempts at transformation, it’s been hard to get the basics right.”

Better still? The comments, 2,000+ of them from stylish women of all ages (I haven’t read them all but I did read more than 1,000 of them and saw comments from teenagers all the way up to octogenarians!) pleading with their favorite retailer to go back to quality materials and stop trying to be a store they’re not.

Among the retailers cited in the comments? J.Crew, Anthropologie, Banana Republic, Talbots, Chicos, Ralph Lauren, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Saks, Bloomingdales, Ann Taylor, LOFT, Madewell, Lands’ End Canvas, Victoria’s Secret, Express just to name a few.

Among the repeated woes in the comments:
– No one designs for women over 25. (And it should be noted that even when I was early 20s I hated a lot of the stuff that was supposedly designed for me.)
– Most clothing is designed to be flattering on people who are a size 0 or 2, and between 5’9″ and 5’11”, with a very specific narrowly-defined body shape. Everyone else is screwed.
– The material is so bad now that it’s common to come across loose buttons, busted zippers and mismatched button holes in the store on brand new items.

Who hasn’t commented on the article yet? Not a single, solitary store as far as I can see. No CEOs or CCOs or VPs or anything. Nor a single retail analyst or board member.

I could dig into the reasons why material is awful these days and clothes don’t fit right, but it would take an entire book! The topline reasons are due to outsourcing our material production line (aside from things like silk, which we’ve always imported) and how our trade deals with countries like Mexico and China helped reduce the price and quality of consumer goods simultaneously. But this is a simple sentence on issues that are far more complex than their summary implies.

No matter the reasons the result is the same, we’re here stuck in one of the most boring retail cycles I can remember. My early 20s trend-hunting excitement has waned; these days I’m much more about classics given a modern spin. And no one seems to do that well — not at the low-end, the medium range or even the high-end within my budget.

It seems like every store is too afraid to try quality and higher price points, because if they have even one bad quarter it could scare analysts and investors and send their stock tumbling to lethal levels. Eventually one store is going to start the trend though — eventually someone’s going to get so desperate they’re going to try it.

So, who will it be that picks themselves up by their bootstraps first, casts out rayon and spandex, and remembers things like 12 and 14-gauge merino wool, pima cotton and crepe de chine? I know who I’m hoping it will be…

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