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Fashion Retail Slump: Are Brands Out Of Touch?


Clothing store Anthropologie reported some rather disappointing sales last week. They're down a full 2 percent, which is a lot in that industry. The popular purveyor of peasant blouses and boho dresses just hasn't been able to make its customers happy lately. And Anthropologie isn't the only clothing store that's misfiring. It's a slump that's affected a couple of mid-price clothing stores. We wondered what's happening with retailers. Why can't they make a sweater that women like? So we called up Sarah Halzack. She covers national retail for The Washington Post. Hi, Sarah.


MARTIN: I understand this has happened a lot at different retail chains as of late - J.Crew, Banana Republic have also been missing the mark. So how come? Why is this happening? Isn't this their job to know what people want and then make those clothes?

HALZACK: It does really feel like a retailing 101 problem, doesn't it? But it's hard to know exactly what's going on. But some of it might have to do with the speed at which trends are moving these days. We've seen players like H&M and ZARA and Forever 21 be so masterful at this, at jumping on a trend that bubbles up in social media or that a celebrity's wearing and then respond to it within a matter of weeks. Some of these legacy chains haven't been quite so good at that. I think another thing that has happened is as retailers have aimed to manage costs, they've sometimes experimented with different fabrics that perhaps are a different quality or that perhaps result in a different fit. So we saw this particularly with J.Crew. They said that some women were just finding that their pants simply didn't fit very well.

MARTIN: What about just the styles that they're putting out there? I mean, you said that they're just not hitting the mark. Can you give me an example of something at Anthropologie or J.Crew of Banana that they thought was going to be a big hit and was a dud?

HALZACK: So the classic example of this comes from J.Crew. It's a sweater known as the Tilly. And it was a crew neck sweater that had sort of a cropped fit. And customers were just baffled by this. And J.Crew has said it sold terribly. And it was simply just a matter of fit. It was cropped in a weird way, wasn't comfortable on people's bodies. It just really missed the mark. And then Banana Republic, their chief executive - or the chief executive of Gap, which owns Banana Republic - recently talked about a blazer that they made where women tried to put their arm in the armhole and they couldn't even get it in.

MARTIN: Nothing like building up the self-esteem of your consumer base by creating a jacket where your arms won't go through the armhole. That doesn't seem like a good thing (laughter).

HALZACK: (Laughter) And the other thing that might be relevant in this conversation too is where we are in terms of the fashion cycle in general.

There's been some conversation in the industry that skinny jeans and flowy tops is a look that's been dominant for almost 10 years now. And...

MARTIN: May I interrupt you to tell you that I am literally wearing skinny jeans and a flowy top right now? So on the one hand, I'm thinking, oh, I'm cool. I'm, like, on mark. But you're telling me that I am like so 2003. Like, this style should be - we should be beyond this now.

HALZACK: We are in the twilight of this style. It's true. And so there's been some conversation in the industry that - particularly in this mid-price fashion category - that that may be some of where the lack of interest is coming from is that if you have a great pair of skinny jeans in your closet, which it sounds like you do, what's your incentive right now to go out and get shopping and buying new stuff? We're due for a pendulum swing. And that might be something that would be helpful to retailers of this ilk to get women to come back in their doors and spend some money.

MARTIN: Sarah Halzack covers national retail for The Washington Post. Thank you so much Sarah, I think.

HALZACK: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.