Features, Trends

Chicken or the Egg: Death of Fashion or Death of Retail?

Consider that in 2017, 5,000 stores closed, 21 chains filed for bankruptcy and 106 million square feet of retail were vacated. Pretty bad, right? Well then, consider 2018 thus far. Look at the numbers for the first quarter: 3,800 more stores closed, six more bankruptcies, 90 more million square-feet of retail vacated — and the folks who forecast such things estimate that 25 percent more malls will close.

There can be no doubt there is a sea change in how we shop and how we buy underway. Surely, the contributing factors require a regression analysis to tease the causes apart: The race to the bottom on promotional (always) pricing; the decline in genuine sales help, as in help, advice, expertise; and yes of course the rise of online shopping. The gap-toothed, deserted look of most shopping malls and urban retail streets signal a remarkable cultural shift. “What, you still shop in physical stores?” is the question du jour. And no one is asking “Are you having fun shopping?”

Recently, we embarked on a pop-culture study for a client and unearthed an additional corrosive agent in the retailaggedon mix. The goal was to determine why clothing purchases lack urgency. Was it simply due to a shifting idea of what is worth spending money on to express personal identity? Are we entering a post-consumption world? Is the fault in our stars or in ourselves, our fashion brands, our stores?

Exploring Fashion Passion

Our research was a five-step study. Step One: We reviewed clothing purchases over three (relatively) recent decades: the 70s, 80s and 90s. Think about the historical transit (in all things, but especially in fashion) in the space of each decade. The 70s style was defined by bell bottom jeans and tie-dyes, macramé vests with fringe, sandals and wide leather belts. Or if you were a Working Joe, Brooks Brothers boxy suits, oversized white shirts and wing tips. Then consider how by the end of the decade and on the cusp of the 80s, big-shouldered women (and men) appeared. It was a Dallas silhouette with over-the-top hair and fashion detailing.

During these three decades, the reflections of popular culture were manifested in how we dressed for success. You simply cannot look at a TV show or movie from each of these eras – 70s, 80s, 90s – without grimacing a bit. At the hairstyles, wardrobe choices and color combinations. Don’t believe me? Take a look back at Sex and The City. The dramatic fashion was relevant and fans identified with – mimicked — the wardrobes. The fashion magazines supported the costume show of pop culture.

Step Two: We then looked at the period from 2010 to now. It’s the world of jeans, hoodies and sneakers. The television shows celebrated bland fashion: The Good Wife, Pretty Little Liars, the L Word. Later ones were Frankie & Grace, House of Cards, Big Little Lies. There is not one clue of fashion trending. Nothing. Anything the Good Wife wore in 2010, a good wife could wear now. Nothing in their wardrobes shed light on the era. There’s no fashion trend through line.

Step Three: We did interviews with fashion experts to figure out the reasons. Two main themes emerged. First, stylists on major films and television programming are rewarded for ensuring an “evergreen” look for the characters. Why? Because of residual rights, e.g. reruns. If the cast looks too dated, the resale value is depleted.

But what really dates these shows? The characters’ cell phones. The early 2010s were chock-a-block with flip phones. As we wade through the seasons, we see the advent of smartphones. Insight: The hot fashion trends aren’t apparel, they are tech-based. Technology is the culprit in more ways than one. It’s not just about online shopping. It’s about the necessity and identity-defining status of your smartphone. A redefinition of fashion status to tech conveys genuine urgency. You may not need to purchase the latest Stuart Weitzman sandal, but you are a fashion pariah if you don’t carry the right phone. We’ve all seen that the moment the new iPhone is unveiled, whoosh! Lines around the block.

Step Four: We did a walking tour of variously shared workspaces throughout the city — WeWorks to The Assemblage to The Commons. We went to corporate offices and creative agencies. Sure enough, we all live in jeans and hoodie land, with a profound focus on what kind of technology is in hand. Our conclusion? The last real fashion innovation that matters at some essential, personal, gotta-have-it level is Untuckit and Lululemon.

Step Five: Then, of course, we studied the Red Carpet at the Costume Institute Opening Night: Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. Nothings beats this for pure spectacle in support of fashion brand identity. Yet it is fascinating in its studied irrelevance. Yes, there is plenty to gape at, but nothing that provides the viewer with a sense of urgency about a particular brand or a look. But hey, it’s the costume institute.

Cultural Anthropology

Perhaps the demise of the urgency of following fashion trends is actually more of a social-economic phenomenon. We are witnessing the continuing bifurcation of the country into one- percenters and the rest of us. Common folk don’t seem to care about fashion meta-meaning. And it’s confusing because our popular and billionaire role models actually do have closets filled with hoodies and jeans. This brings new meaning to the entire notion of fashion and status dressing up.

Luxury retail seems to be doing just fine, thank you. The non-tech corridor one-percenters still have plenty of reasons to dress up. They create social engagements to wear their beautiful clothes. They thrive on the see and be seen worldview.

As for the rest of us, it’s sad to contemplate a world in which we wander around wearing the exact same clothing as everyone else. A world where we prefer to invest in the “look” of our phones as our fashion accessory of choice.

We don’t need malls for this. We don’t need magazines for this. We don’t need fashion brands for this.

The transference of fashion status to tech has broad implications for retail. Look at the stores that went out of business or contracted in the last year. What were they thinking? Selling jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, sneakers and undifferentiated apparel: Aeropostale, Gap, J. Crew, Wet Seal, Abercrombie & Fitch, Banana Republic, JC Penney, Foot Locker, Aerosoles, Nine West, BCBG, BonTon. Everyone selling the same stuff to the same people in the same way. This is an industry in freefall. And fashion, alongside retail, is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

And yet. And yet there’s a glimmer: A modern princess bride in Givenchy, Stella McCartney and Cartier. One feels the veil of undifferentiated irrelevance is lifting. One imagines the fast fashion echo chamber alive with collarbone revealing classics as the sincerest form of flattery, and the entire category goes on high alert, enlivening designers, pattern cutters and manufacturing plants throughout the world. We want this. This archetype-prevailing evolution of optimism. This confident sense of self that inspires everyone to dress their best, casual with the prerequisite ripped jeans, as well as dressy.

Who knew? Tiffany, for one. It is already capturing aspiration and promise in its advertising and designs. There’s hope. Brands can lead in redefining personal style and therefore, a reason to buy. And that will help retail if stores don’t just cram their spaces with stuff. Lead with stories. Lead with aspiration. Lead with promise. It’s spring after all. It’s hope springing eternal.

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