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A sense of occasion

The value of the occasionwear market is growing, but which retailers are getting the benefit of this extra spending?

Royal Ascot was its glamorous self last week. Despite the mostly grey skies and windy weather, male and female race-goers had gone all out to dress to impress. The attention and money put into outfits, even on the less prestigious general admittance side of the racecourse, where hats and penguin suits are still optional, indicates that the British public is still willing to pull out all the stops for big events. It is an attitude that has boosted the value of the women’s occasionwear market by 3% in the past year.

The total value of the sector grew from £1.35 billion to £1.39bn in the 52 weeks ended April 29. Women’s occasionwear represents just under 8% of the total value of the womenswear market as a whole and shifts 51.3 million units annually.

It’s a hefty chunk of business for retailers as average prices in this area are more than double that of average garment prices in other categories. According to TNS Worldpanel Fashion, the average price of a womenswear garment across the entire sector is £10.53, but the average price of an occasionwear garment is £26.45. The figures seem to indicate that it is dresses rather than separates that are propelling the market, with frocks accounting for 31% of value market share, up almost 8% on the previous year.

Traditionally, occasionwear is a part of the market where independent retailers have flourished, and that is still borne out in terms of value. TNS figures show that in the past year boutique owners’ share of spend in women’s occasionwear rose by 2%. However, chain stores are not standing still. Their share of the market by value is up 3.2%. It is general stores and department stores that seem to be losing out in spending terms, with their shares decreasing 1.1% and 2.6% respectively.

However, some specialist areas continue to do well in department stores – millinery being one of them. Sarah Bull, buying administrator in John Lewis’s fashion accessories department, says that sales of fascinators are up 12% on last year. She said: “It’s a very strong trend that has been driven by a number of factors. The first is that we have seen fascinators grow from a few feathers to something much more substantial. They are much bigger in style and that’s something that has come through from designers such as Philip Treacy. Celebrities have also been driving the trend. Sarah Jessica Parker wore a fascinator in the Sex And The City film and we have seen the younger royals such as Princess Beatrice and Zara Phillips taking them up.

“Peter Phillips’ recent wedding must be one in only a handful of times that we have seen the Queen wearing a fascinator – that’s a big nod to the trend and means that women of all ages are likely to feel a lot more comfortable wearing fascinators going forward.”

Bull adds that although John Lewis keeps a close eye on the whole millinery market to ensure it stays competitive at opening price point, where fascinators start at £15 and hats at £20, it is looking to expand at the premium end. She added: “It is the more premium styles that are performing particularly well and that is likely to be the direction that we will be looking to capitalise on going forward. We shall look to expand our offer in the £95 to £150 fascinators.” Bull said that the number of unit sales in hats and millinery at John Lewis continues to grow year on year.
Next year the retailer will widen its emphasis on regional race days. “Big race days in general seem to be a growing trend, and looking forward we will be buying specific ranges to go into the relevant regional stores at the relevant time of year to suit these particular events. We are studying the race calendar across the UK carefully to look at the opportunities.”

The men’s hire sector also reflects this growth, with national hire specialists such as Moss Bros reporting that they are expecting double-digit growth in hire sales for 2008 as a result of more men opting to wear formalwear at Royal Ascot, which is already the business’s busiest week of the year.

Royal Ascot aside, the main growth in occasionwear is coming from a nationwide phenomenon – the rise of the School Prom. Moss Bros estimates that in the past year there has been a 120% increase in the number of schools holding proms, and the business works with 500 schools and colleges sponsoring such events. It seems dressing up formally is becoming more popular with youngsters, which will give hope to occasionwear specialists, as they may feel that a generation that gets used to dressing up for the big events at a young age will be happier to spend in the same arena as they get older.

Essentials
£1.39bn: The value of the occasionwear market for the year ended April 29
51.3m: The total number of occasionwear garments sold annually
£26.45: The average price of an occasionwear garment

Source: TNS Worldpanel Fashion

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