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Value before trend shapes womenswear

In an uncertain economic climate with unpredictable consumer confidence, buyers are taking fewer risks and focusing on servicing their regular customers

Heading into the autumn 11 buying season, womenswear buyers are searching for versatile pieces to keep their customers satisfied. Despite volatile consumer confidence, the market remains generally positive, placing trust in new brands and endeavouring to answer the old question: ‘what do women want?’

Indies are not wrong to feel optimistic, as the womenswear market grew in the past year. According to retail research firm Kantar Worldpanel Fashion, the total value of the UK womenswear market rose 4% to £19.1bn in the 52 weeks to November 23, up from £18.4bn in the same period in 2009.

Fresh brands

Delving deeper into Kantar’s research makes for interesting reading. Sales of womenswear to 45 to 54-year-olds grew 10% to £3.7bn in the 52-week period. Shoppers aged under 35 and those in the 35 to 44 age group recorded the slowest growth in the market - just 1%. Buyers here noted a shift anecdotally, while indies are rethinking their brand mix as a result.

Richard McLaughlin, owner of Attic, which has two stores in Aberdeen stocking the likes of Bolongaro Trevor and Motel, says he is “shaking it up a bit” and possibly bringing in new brands for autumn 11, but will not be drawn on which.

He says: “I would love to see a reversion to better quality. I think price has been too much of a focus. The customers we are trying to attract now aren’t looking for throwaway fashion, so it’s not quite so important to be fighting against the high street.”

McLaughlin says he is pointing his aim away from the younger market to focus on women in their mid-20s to late 30s, claiming teenagers and women in their early 20s are having a tough time financially and not spending as much as they used to.

Across the board it appears that most womenswear indies will keep budgets stable for autumn 11 but may reconfigure spend per brand. Michelle Birkins, owner of premium womenswear boutique Michelle B in Barrowford, Lancashire, will increase her budget but says she’s “not going too mad”. Birkins adds: “This downturn is not getting any better, so we’ve just got to be cautious. I’m buying more into what I feel comfortable with and less into what I think is risky.”

For spring 11 Birkins brought in new brands including Gustav and St John to cater for specific requirements. “It’s all about servicing the customer base,” she says. “I buy specifically for individual customers.”

Brands Birkins will add for autumn 11 are Barbour, Marc Cain and Temperley London.

“We’re going to bring Barbour in,” says Birkins, explaining that it’s the brand’s “wax and leather jackets and the top, premium product” that have won her allegiance.

Knitwear trend

However, despite enjoying the layering and laid-back tailoring trends she has seen so far for autumn 11, Birkins says: “Nothing is ripping my leg off yet.” She adds: “I think knitwear is going to be quite key. I’m looking for a really fantastic cashmere brand that is not ridiculously priced.”

Keeping the brand mix interesting is exercising the minds of a lot of retailers. Gemma Fox, owner of indie Plume in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, which stocks the likes of Almost Famous and Crumpet, says she will hold 15% to 20% more of her budget back for ordering in-season.

“I think you’ve got to be a lot more flexible and also it keeps your product fresh and exciting,” she says.

Fox explains that weekly fashion magazines such as Grazia have helped fuel customers’ appetites for passing trends, which might not have been apparent when she was placing forward orders. She says: “You’ve got to keep on top of emerging trends and there do seem to be these little micro-tends that are popping up in-season.”

But she thinks fewer shoppers are impulse buying. “Maybe that is why people are buying the more casual labels - because they want to buy pieces they are going to get a lot of wear out of,” she says. “It is less about amazing statement pieces and more about versatile pieces.”

In the run-up to Christmas 2010, Fox says she saw a move away from beaded, sparkly tops and silky dresses and is therefore seeking more casual pieces for autumn 11.

“Dressing down seems to be the new dressing up,” she says. “So you’ve got tailored jackets in sweatshirt material rather than a tailored cotton blazer and people really seem to be buying into layering. We sell American Vintage and just can’t sell enough of it. It is incredibly simple but people really love it because they can use it as a foundation and build on it according to their own style.”

Jo Hooper, head of womenswear buying at department store chain John Lewis, has also seen a shift towards versatile pieces. She says: “Across the market people are being choosy about where they spend their cash. I think it’s about value. By value I don’t mean cheap,

I mean the relative value of the pounds-per-wear equation: ‘How many times can I wear it?’ ”

Dress sense

For this reason Hooper predicts the dress will remain key for autumn 11.

She says: “Our consumer has never been a fast fashion, disposable fashion-type person. I think versatility is the key. They ask: ‘If I buy this dress can I wear it to work, to a special occasion, can I do both?’ And I think that is also what has led to this huge growth [we have seen] in shoes and accessories. People are asking: ‘How do I make it work?’ The answer lies in how you put it together.”

Hooper and others stress it is hard to forecast how consumers will shop in the coming year because there remain so many unknowns.

“Every season is different,” says Hooper. “Whether it’s because of the weather, or the economy, or the uncertainty talked about on the news, buying patterns change.”

On the other hand, womenswear retailers do not appear to be too concerned about the VAT rise that came into effect at the beginning of the year. Indies suggest that, if someone is prepared to spend a few hundred pounds on a dress, a couple of extra pounds won’t matter too much. It is unclear whether the growth in the womenswear market will continue in the same guise through 2011, but the 2.5% VAT rise could help rather than hinder growth by value.

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