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Women Balk at New Fashions : Higher Hemlines, Prices Trip Up Apparel Industry

June 26, 1988|MARTHA GROVES | Times Staff Writer

Turned off by seesaw hemlines, high prices and a lack of captivating fashions, women have put the brakes on clothes buying and put a big dent in the nation's apparel industry.

Consider Christine McCarthy, who gave up on the big department and specialty stores when they started showing a lot of above-the-knee styles. "A guy's not going to wear shorts to work, and I'm not going to wear a miniskirt," fumed the First Interstate Bank senior vice president. Now, she buys many outfits directly through designers catering to executive women.

Or attorney Andrea Y. Slade, who wears conservative but updated fashions for judge and jury and was feeling "desperate" about her summer wardrobe. "Nothing they're selling is appropriate for what I do, especially the short skirts and bright colors."

And Barbara Tell, a real estate development executive who bemoans the lack of stylish yet classic apparel. "The clothes are geared to a very young market," she said. "That stopped a lot of my buying. And the quality of the fabrics and the price of the clothing just don't match."

These are the women who should be the bread and butter of U.S. retailing, the baby boomers in the workplace, the thirty-something crowd seen by retailers as having money to burn and a burning need to frequently replenish wardrobes with image clothing. They make up a big portion of the women 18 to 65, 70% of whom are working.

But for nearly a year, women like these have made themselves scarce in the nation's clothing shops, with the result that many merchants have reported a string of lackluster sales gains or, in some cases, steep declines from the year before.

For February through May, Carter Hawley Hale Stores, owner of the Broadway, reported that sales were down 2% from the year before at comparable stores. The Limited, a leading specialty retailer, showed a decline of 5%. And Dayton Hudson, parent of Target and Mervyn's, cited weak women's clothing sales in reporting a small 1.5% gain.

No Real Growth

"Apparel retailing is experiencing a period of slow growth that's really unprecedented for the 1980s," said Carl Steidtmann, vice president and chief economist of Management Horizons, a consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio. "You really have to go back to the 1974-75 recession to find a period when apparel sales actually contracted."

By year-end, Steidtmann noted, leading specialty apparel retailers will have had their second year of essentially no real growth in sales volume. Where dollar gains have been reported, they have been largely wiped out by the clothing industry's recent rampant price inflation--a sharp 6.2% run-up in the last year for women's apparel--which resulted from the plummeting value of the dollar and quota restrictions that raised the cost of imports.

The price increases seem to have eased lately. The consumer price index for May, issued last week, showed a slight drop in women's apparel prices after two months of increases.

Through their reticence to spend, women have expressed frustration with retailers and apparel manufacturers for trying to swing fashion to the short and clingy as millions of women approach middle age and increasingly need garments that wear well in the workplace. And they have thrown retailers into their own recession, even as much of the rest of the economy continues to show strength.

The slump "was precipitated by the fashion industry's death wish and the whole need to hype short skirts and to attempt to manipulate the fashion-buying public in a way that is so anachronistic," said Carol Farmer, a New York retail consultant. "Women didn't like the fashions, which were unflattering, and they rejected them."

Even once high-flying specialty merchants such as the Limited, which for years had the fashion world by the tail, have been saddled with oversupplies of merchandise that simply do not appeal to the public.

Few Signs of Optimism

Department stores have fared somewhat better because stagnant sales of women's apparel were tempered by healthy sales of home furnishings and other items. But at those stores, too, the watchword is caution, retail consultants and analysts say.

After all, many of these chains have just passed through a years-long transition in which they weeded out hard-line goods such as furniture and major appliances and filled the space with women's sportswear, the most troubled apparel category.

With few exceptions--notably Nordstrom, Dillard Department Stores and, recently, the Gap--stores have been crying in their cash registers for months, and there are few signs of optimism for the coming months.

"Everybody is in trouble," said Al D. McCready, national director of retail and wholesale trade at Deloitte Haskins & Sells, a big New York accounting firm. "You have a heck of a time finding anybody who will say anything positive."

Retailers and clothing designers have only themselves to blame for the slump, industry watchers say.

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