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Gypsy Look's Demise Could Pose Headaches for Retailers

September 21, 2002|LESLIE EARNEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The bohemian look, rooted in the gypsy lifestyle, appears to be moving on.

The style, whose soft, flouncing skirts and scooped-neck blouses with bell-shaped sleeves have had cash registers ringing since early last year, is waning.

Bohemian's demise would be a big blow for a wide range of fashion retailers--from discounters to specialty shops to department stores--that, starved for a new trend, invested heavily in the style. On Friday, Wachovia Securities apparel analyst Joseph Teklits said in a report that the look appears to have hit "a brick wall."

Apparel manufacturers also could feel the sting because they often share in the loss if retailers must slash prices to sell products.

Capping a weak back-to-school selling season, merchants are complaining of sluggish sales this month, partly because the look is losing steam and there's nothing to replace it, Teklits said.

Retailers that cater to trendy young female shoppers are feeling the pinch. San Diego-based Charlotte Russe Holding Inc., a 240-store clothing chain that caters to teens and young women, lowered its quarterly profit expectations Thursday, citing slower back-to-school business. Its stock plunged 18%, but rebounded slightly Friday, gaining 26 cents, to $11.30, in Nasdaq trading.

Competitors Bebe and Wet Seal Inc. also are seeing year-over-year sales declines and American Eagle Outfitter's bohemian-inspired fall line for women "will be a tough sell," Teklits said.

Abbey Landers, a 21-year-old UCLA student shopping Friday at South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, won't be buying any more of the stuff. "The rumor is it's going to go out of fashion, so why buy it?" said Landers, who was wearing vintage hip-hugger jeans and a red scoop-necked top.

Many retailers would be hurt by a cooling of the trend because they stocked up on the style, said Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPD FashionWorld, a division of NPD Group, a market research company in New York.

"More than ever before, there are so few trends that, when one emerges, everybody jumps on the bandwagon," he said. The only other must-have item for shoppers has been jeans, but that is less risky because jeans are a staple.

"The bohemian look is a trend that's in and out like a flash," Cohen said. "But retailers have reacted to it like it's a [longer-term] lifestyle change, and that's not the case."

Retailers, saddled with cautious consumers and a temperamental economy, don't need more headaches heading into the holiday season. A demise of the bohemian look would be especially painful because the sale of young women's fashions has been one of the few bright spots in apparel retailing over the last year, Teklits said.

The style emerged in early 2001, steadily gained steam and peaked this spring. By then, peasant-style blouses were selling at discount stores for $18 and at pricey department stores for $68, Cohen said.

The trend gave discounters and specialty stores another leg up on department stores, because young women were shelling out money for a look, not a brand, Cohen said. It also highlighted one way the fashion world has changed, with lower-priced stores latching on to trends earlier and even helping to define them.

"Today, the most expensive designers and the lowest-priced retailers are getting a lot of information from the same sources," traveling to Europe, using similar style forecasting companies and subscribing to the same trend reports, Cohen said. The upshot: "The consumer is exposed today to very similar trends at all different prices."

Wet Seal, the girls' and young women's apparel chain, jumped on the trend early. The Foothill Ranch put the style in its shops, including its teen-oriented Arden B stores and Zutopia for younger girls. By early August, Arden B had begun replacing bohemian with a "simpler, cleaner" fashion. Customers were "more ready for the change than we had anticipated," Chief Executive Kathy Bronstein said in August.

Although the look initially targeted the under 35-crowd, versions of the bohemian look "trickled up" to older women as retailers that sell to different age groups jumped on the trend, said Sara Scheuer, spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation in Washington.

But the look isn't an easy sell for the professional woman who is closely guarding her clothing budget and doesn't want to look like she "just stepped out of a VW bus on the way to a concert," Scheuer said.

Some elements of the bohemian style--a frilly blouse paired with a denim blazer--probably will carry forward as designers find ways to blend the look with the basic, conservative styles that are resurfacing, Scheuer said.

"I think what's going to sell is the stuff that's got some crossover appeal," she said.

Women's Wear Daily, the bible of the women's apparel industry, recently featured more revealing versions of the look--see-through fabrics and shoulder-baring sleeves.

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