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The brave new world of womenswear

ss18 modern rarity look 4

In an overcrowded womenswear market, versatile, quality product and a positive in-store experience are vital.

“Competition is fierce, and will get fiercer,” says Sarah Welsh, brand director at Oasis. “It’s exciting because you’ve got to push forward, and you’ve got to innovate. You can’t stand still.”

Women's wear and men's wear growth

Women’s and men’s wear growth

The UK womenswear market is saturated. Forecast by Euromonitor to be worth £22.4bn in 2018, it still claims the lion’s share of the fashion market, at more than double the  £11.7bn value of the menswear sector. Nevertheless, menswear is growing at a faster rate – 3.9% predicted this year – compared with womenswear growth of 3.4%.

“Everyone’s taking [womenswear] market share from everyone else with no increased consumer spend,” says Welsh. “There are more players coming into and leaving the market, which is resulting in lots of jostling for space.”

Beth Butterwick, chief executive at Karen Millen, agrees: “The market is overcrowded at every level, across the value, mid-range, premium and luxury sectors. 

“The fact that the world is smaller and more accessible has also had an impact. Brands that once positioned themselves as offering unique local experiences can now be found across multiple territories.”

Crisis of confidence

Standing out from the crowd is difficult at the best of times, and these are by no means the best of times. The month after the Brexit vote, the July 2016 GfK consumer confidence index hit a 26-year low of -12. And it remains low : -9 in January 2018. Today, consumers must be persuaded to make a purchase at all, before they can be compelled to choose one brand over another.

“Customers are considering purchases carefully and are as much interested in the experience of shopping as the items they buy,” says Hazel Catterall, head of womenswear buying at Harvey Nichols.

“The emerging developments from the ongoing Brexit negotiations are a huge factor that will have an impact on consumer attitudes and spending.”

Butterwick agrees: “With a host of macro- and micro-economic factors affecting real disposable income, the consumer is increasingly trading fashion for other sectors such as beauty, leisure and other health-related experiences, so brands have to work hard to stand out.

“Retailers are now looking to ease and improve the customer experience as part of this ‘value for money’ proposition.”

17.05.27 borgodenor rs18lb 020 004 rt

Borgo de Nor makes dresses that transcend seasons and can be worn both day and night

“With online retailers growing so rapidly and online shopping becoming so easy and accessible to all, physical stores must remain compelling and experiential for customers to want and need to come into bricks-and-mortar stores,” adds Catterall. This is why Harvey Nichols has focused on refurbishing its flagship store in Knightsbridge, including starting the overhaul of its women’s floors this year.

Value proposition

In addition to expecting more qualitative experiences, shoppers want value for money, and price continues to be a key driver.

Sara Bradley, womenswear trading director at Debenhams, says: “Customers [are] maintaining a keener eye with regard to price on womenswear than they do with accessories, for example.”

However, Welsh, maintains “you can’t live and die on price alone”: “Price is incredibly important, but so is innovation and making sure you’re inspiring your customer. Let’s face it: she’s got so many other things to spend her money on, you’ve really got to inspire her to get your share of the wallet.”

This is why for Adam Frisby, founder of online celebrity fashion brand In The Style, high product standards are a priority: “Although our prices remain very low and competitive in the market, we invest a lot into quality,” he explains. “We ensure product is at the highest standards for what people pay.”

Quality over quantity is what womenswear customers are currently looking for, says Catterall: “There seems to be a growing sense that everyone has too much ‘stuff’. Customers are growing much more considered in their choices.”

Trends in the womenswear market

Trends in the womenswear market

Instead, she says customers are now “looking for enduring products that are less trend driven but have more longevity”.

Jo Bennett, head of womenswear buying at John Lewis, which launched own brand Modern Rarity in 2016 as the “antithesis to fast fashion”, agrees: “Women are investing in versatile, quality pieces that will last.

“Design integrity is also vital as women look for new styles to add to their wardrobes – often just a simple update to go with something they purchased last year.”

Adam Kelly, director of buying and merchandising at department store group Fenwick, seconds this: “There is definitely a continued trend toward category dressing and wardrobe simplicity.

“Consumers are looking for versatility in key pieces that can be styled up or down and worn with a different attitude – brands such as Borgo de Nor, for example, with dresses that transcend seasons and can be worn both day and night.”

Thanks to this, dresses were a “big season trend” in January, says Welsh, who believes this will continue through into the summer: “This often happens in tougher times, because you can buy a dress in one go, while a top and jeans takes a bit more consideration.

Ss18 modern rarity look 4

John Lewis launched own brand Modern Rarity in 2016 as the “antithesis to fast fashion”

“It’s been a girly, feminine season. Ruffles, spots, easy, non-challenging fashion. If she wants to buy a dress in January, she’ll certainly want to buy one in May.”

This preference for versatile, season-transcending clothing – whether the result of economic uncertainty or the choice to spend cash on non-material things – will continue well into the next 12 months, says Kelly:Consumers’ purchases will continue to be more considered with an emphasis on buying unique investment pieces. The market will continue to evolve, but with a unique product edit and a committed focus on service, we’re seeing more opportunity for growth.”

Welsh predicts that there will be “clear winners and clear losers” in this period: “As it stands today, the market requires strategic sourcing, moving to new continents and moving to new areas in order to inspire your customer but not charging her any more for it. I think that’s one of the biggest challenges facing buyers today.

“It’s never been a better time to be a customer. She’s got so much opportunity.”


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