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The ways to win in womenswear

Isabel Manns SS20

Drapers explores what it takes for brands and retailers to stand out in a crowded and fast-paced womenswear market.

It is no secret that 2019 was a challenging year for fashion retail. However, one sector in particular appeared to bear the brunt of it: womenswear.

LK Bennett and Bonmarché went into administration, as both high street retailers battled tough trading conditions and increased competition from nimble, price-conscious online players. Meanwhile, premium retailers Karen Millen and Coast blamed “an extremely challenging retail trading environment in the UK” for their own fall into administration, and were acquired by Boohoo Group.

Elsewhere amid the general doom and gloom on the high street, market stalwart New Look’s group revenue fell by 12.9% year on year to £523.8m in the six months to 28 September 2019, which it said reflected “ongoing consumer uncertainty and seasonal volatility”. Meanwhile, credit ratings agency Moody’s downgraded Marks & Spencer’s outlook from stable to negative after the retailer’s UK clothing and home sales underperformed. 

It is no secret that in the fashion industry, the ready-to-wear womenswear market is saturated

Monica Wahla, buying director at Debenhams

As the womenswear market becomes even more saturated and competitive, brands and businesses in the field are struggling to shine.

“One of the biggest challenges facing British fashion retailers is the increased competition in the market,” says Tamara Sender, senior fashion analyst at market research agency Mintel. “There is a real capacity issue as more retailers than ever before are now vying for consumer spend.”

Monica Wahla, buying director at Debenhams, agrees that womenswear shoppers have too much choice: “It is no secret that in the fashion industry, the ready-to-wear womenswear market is saturated. As a result, customers have become increasingly particular about where they shop. With so much choice available, they can afford to have very specific criteria when buying new clothes.”

Only those with a point of difference, choice of product and an enticing shopping experience will flourish in this sector. But there are still opportunities to be had for those retailers and brands that can crack all three – the UK womenswear market will grow by 8.6% between 2020 and 2025, Mintel suggests.

The retailers that are doing well are those that understand their customers and offer them more choice

Tamara Sender, Mintel

Next was one high street name celebrating a successful festive trading period – full-price sales rose by 5.2% year on year in the three months from 27 October to 28 December 2019. It experienced growth across all its product categories, including womenswear.

“The retailers that are doing well are those that understand their customers and offer them more choice”, Mintel’s Sender adds. “Next, for example, has maintained its position as a major player, as it experiences a structural change in the business with online sales seeing the strongest growth.

“Through ongoing investment in its online platform and the introduction of new third-party brands on its Label website, it has made it easier for customers to shop for a wider choice of goods, sizes and selection of names in one place.”

Those seeking to stand out in womenswear must attempt to connect with their customers, Cara Melzack, former Select Fashion buyer and founder of knitwear brand Cara & The Sky, says.

“It is no longer just selling clothes, it is selling a story, a journey. Women want to connect with what they are buying. They want to know where it came from and how it was designed in order to feel a part of the brand. We need to continuously evolve, be brave and challenge traditions that no longer work for the modern woman.”

Nasty Gal SS20

Nasty Gal spring 20

Two opposing trends are still influencing consumer behaviour in the womenswear market. The power of an affordably priced, trend-driven offer cannot be understated – consider the ongoing success of Boohoo Group, where revenue jumped by 42%, 102% and 32% at Boohoo, Nasty Gal and PrettyLittleThing respectively in the four months to 31 December 2019. Etailer Sosandar and value retailer Primark also continue to report soaring sales.

But brands and buyers towards the premium end of the market argue that a new interest in sustainability means shoppers are becoming more aware of what, and how much, they are buying. As a result, they are concentrating on buying less but better, and opting for higher-quality items, even if they come with a bigger price tag.

Demand for rental and resale services is booming

Victoria Prew, Hurr Collective

This has led to two other emerging trends, clothing resale and rental, which are making it even harder for those in the sector to stand out.

Debenhams spring 20

Debenhams spring 20

“People are still hungry for fashion,” says Ida Petersson, director of men’s and womenswear buying at luxury retailer Browns. “However, the womenswear marketplace is more complicated than ever with a new player on the field – the resale sector – which is gaining momentum and I predict will start to impact the womenswear market, particularly luxury, in the coming years.

“[Retailers and brands] are trying to ensure they have a high level of exclusivity and experiences to stand out.”

Victoria Prew, CEO and co-founder of rental platform Hurr Collective, agrees: “Demand for rental and resale services is booming. We’ve seen demand surge for Hurr at the same time that fast fashion has come under the spotlight. Consumers are increasingly interested in sustainable fashion, and are looking for a smarter way to shop.”

Online marketplace Etsy UK witnessed a 26% increase in searches for vintage items in the six months to 31 December 2019, compared with the same time the previous year. 

Shoppers on auction site Ebay spent £187m on pre-owned fashion in the 12 months to December 2019 – a 15% increase compared with five years ago. Before 2017, purchases of pre-owned fashion were declining on Ebay. However, these purchases have risen by 10% year on year between 2017 and 2019. Searches on the site including the word “sustainable” have risen by 600%, “used” by 417% and “eco-friendly” by 344% in the same period.

The rapid growth in resale sites can be explained by subtle shifts in consumer behaviour, relating to sustainability, brand accessibility and the perception of value, says Helen Riley, fashion acquisition manager at Ebay UK: “We’ve seen a consistent upward trajectory for womenswear reselling over the past five years, with searches for jumpsuits, handbags, purses and dresses increasing year on year. I believe this is because consumers are becoming much more aware of the impact fast fashion has on the environment and are, therefore, more open to buying second-hand.”

I expect to see demand for sustainable and vintage fashion continue as consumers become more eco-conscious

Helen Riley, Ebay

Riley says several retailers have started tapping into the market as a result, and those that have not done so should: “Brands are also responding to new consumer habits by working with Ebay. Since summer 2019 we’ve onboarded more high street womenswear brands to the platform, including Oliver Bonas, New Look, Radley and Crew Clothing.

“I expect to see the surge in demand for sustainable and vintage fashion continue as consumers become more and more eco-conscious.”

As shoppers become more considered with their purchases, items that can be styled and worn season after season, rather than flash-in-the-pan trends, are increasingly in demand.

“The customer is turning away from trends in that traditional, seasonal way”, Laura Rowan, buyer at department store Harvey Nichols says. “The mood definitely feels more considered, and customers are looking for investment pieces, which they can wear in different ways for different occasions and translate to the demands of a busy lifestyle. There is a feeling of a resistance against fast fashion and an emphasis on quality over quantity.”

Stephanie Mordehachvili, founder and CEO of London-based womenswear retailer Blaiz, agrees: “Women are wanting stellar quality, unique designs, at fair pricing – people are buying more intelligently than they ever did. From our experience, we used to have clients coming in and making more impulse purchases at higher prices, butr now they are coming in and finding key pieces they love, thinking about them, or asking for specific pieces to fill a gap in their own wardrobes.” 

Isabel Manns, founder of the eponymous womenswear brand (pictured top), says she is filling a gap in the market by selling high-end, reversible clothes to cater to consumer’s needs: “Buying sustainably is such an important topic now, but it can be hard for designers to constantly source their supply chain to be sustainable. We are trying to overcome the saturation by creating long-lasting timeless styles, with them being reversible and made in London.”

London-based womenswear independent Iris has also bought pieces that last for the seasons ahead, including maxi-dresses and denim that can be paired with trainers for a relaxed look, or with a chunky Chelsea boot for the evening.

“The pieces at Iris are investment pieces”, Annie Classen, founder and managing director at the store, says: “Yes, they are more expensive, but they can be worn season after season due to their unique and special nature and just won’t date so fast.

“I think we have now been long enough in the business to recognise and hone in on a brand that we can see has longevity and offers our customers a high quality product.”

When it comes to product, womenswear experts believe fake leather, polka dots and floral prints will be key trends for the season ahead, but say hair accessories, skinny jeans and sneakers are on their way out (see box, bottom).

“One of the key clothing trends has been faux leather across a number of clothing categories with updates on leather bikers, trenches and trousers leading the way along with softer draping silhouettes – this is set to be a further breakout trend in SS20 also”, says Claire Asher, product director at womenswear etailer Nasty Gal says. “The 1980s puff shoulder has had great sales, and this silhouette isn’t going anywhere. If anything, it is getting bigger for spring 20 – the bigger the better. This strong silhouette shows a return to power dressing.”

M&S Goodmove activewear

Marks & Spencer Goodmove

Shoppers will also be buying into sportier and loungewear looks when it comes to the season ahead, Lisa Illis, head of design for womenswear at Marks & Spencer, says.

“People today are definitely buying more activewear – for both working out and to wear as casual clothing. Whilst January is a mini-peak for activewear, the time we really see it flying off the shelves is the beginning of the summer when customers start to look towards holidays and the evenings are lighter.

“In response to this we’ve kicked off 2020 with a new range of 150 activewear products: Goodmove.”

Maria Östblom, head of design for womenswear at H&M, has also anticipated a spike in activewear sales: “Athleisurewear in particular is proving a real hit, as people look for pieces that are both stylish and wearable, as well as practical for exercising.

“We’re also seeing rising demand for activewear made from sustainable materials, so we’re expecting our upcoming Conscious sportswear collection, which is launching later this spring, to fast become a customer favourite.”

Womenswear retailers must listen to their customers and create a compelling offer to stand out from the rest of the market. Sustainable, ethical and trans-seasonal products are now more important than ever.

Hot or not

What’s in

  • Midi-skirts; floaty maxi-dresses; chunky knitwear; activewear; loungewear; straight-fit, high-waisted and flared jeans; street-inspired tailoring; power dressing; fake leather; polka dots; floral prints; “neo” mint and pistachio; hot pinks; and pastel hues

What’s out

  • Headbands; statement hair accessories; big logo T-shirts; chunky trainers; snakeskin print; neon pops and brown shades

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