As the fashion industry wakes up to the 50-plus market, niche retailers in this space will gradually face more competition from the high street – but there is no need for them to panic yet, writes Kirsty McGregor.
Flash after flash went off as 87-year-old Daphne Selfe skipped down the catwalk, smiling shyly at the photographers as if surprised by the attention. To a round of applause, she led the rest of the models out for a final walk, their grey and white hair striking against the colourful clothes.
The event – a fashion show organised by womenswear brand JD Williams using only models in their fifties or older – succeeded in celebrating ageless beauty and style. The models wore styles designed by students at the London College of Fashion: on-trend yet age appropriate, with fit an important factor.
Despite its touches of humour – opening to strains of The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks – the show had a serious message. JD Williams hosted the event on February 18, the eve of London Fashion Week, to highlight its view that the 50-plus market is still largely ignored and its value underappreciated by the fashion industry.
“I was at London Fashion Week last year and I thought, there’s just nothing here for that age group,” explains Angela Spindler, chief executive of JD Williams’ parent company N Brown.
The 50-plus segment of the clothing market is still underserved despite it being the fastest growing segment of the population, with very few clothing specialists targeting this audience
When Drapers chose Selfe (then 86) as the model for our spring 15 womenswear preview in July 2014, it seemed a bit daring, a bit different. Here was a beautiful, white-haired older woman modelling clothing from a wide variety of brands, not just those aimed at her age group. We felt we were tapping into a shift in attitudes towards older people – women in particular – in fashion. Yet it seems that, more than 18 months later, this part of the market is still being largely overlooked. (Continued after advert, below)
To coincide with its Fifty Plus Fashion Week show, JD Williams released its second annual report into 50-plus female fashion, which found only 21% of women in that age group felt well catered for by the high street in 2015. More than half (58%) felt their age group was forgotten by fashion retailers.
“Single brand retailers really struggle with overtly targeting this market as it is very challenging to develop a brand that resonates across age profiles,” explains Spindler.
Yet this is still such an important, growing market. People aged 45 or over spent £16.7bn on clothing in 2015 – 48.4% of the total spend on adult clothing, according to Verdict.
“The 50-plus segment of the clothing market is still underserved despite it being the fastest growing segment of the population, with very few clothing specialists targeting this audience,” says Honor Westnedge, lead retail analyst at Verdict.
“At the value end of the market Bonmarché and BHS dominate, while in the mid-market M&S has the monopoly due to its large store portfolio, quality credentials and simply because shoppers have few alternatives.”
JD Williams and Bonmarché have tapped into the 50-plus market by designing clothing specifically for older people. “As a niche retailer, we are well-placed to truly understand the particular needs of the older consumer as those evolve and cater to them accordingly,” says Paul Kendrick, marketing and multichannel director for Bonmarché.
Marks & Spencer is trying to promote a different attitude to age. The retailer has at times been criticised for focusing too much on trying to attract younger, trend-led customers to the detriment of its core female customer, half of whom are 50-plus. M&S maintains this is oversimplifying matters.
“Older women don’t want to be treated as separate. They don’t want to be put into a group of over 50s,” says Jo Hales, head of buying for womenswear. “It’s people’s attitudes that count, not age. Customers tell us that all the time: they want to look fantastic. The ageless style ethos is becoming key.”
Hales says M&S has moved away from designing for different ages. “We still ask, is it appropriate? A mini skirt isn’t necessarily going to work for an older woman. But we don’t design for 50-plus, 60-plus. If women want something classic, timeless – we have that. And if they want something more fashionable, we have that too.”
M&S launched a collaboration with 32-year-old model and style icon Alexa Chung on February 18, the same day as JD Williams’ fashion show. But Hales shrugs off the suggestion that such tie-ups might alienate its older customers: “Alexa is stylish. What’s she’s done is go back to our heritage and look at some great pieces, classics anybody could wear. I think, because M&S is so big, we have to do lots of exciting things. At the same time I’m working with Twiggy, who’s 65 and looks fantastic. She can wear something very contemporary, and Alexa wears it in a different way.”
This strategy makes sense. Those currently in their mid-forties and early fifties will take their shopping habits with them as they get older, wanting to dress more stylishly and follow trends more closely. While the fashion industry may still undervalue this market, retailers and brands targeting a more mature shopper will face increased competition from the rest of the high street in the coming years, as women aged 50-plus seek out more contemporary ranges from the likes of Zara, Whistles and House of Fraser.
So, some progress will be made after all, albeit slowly. However, the days of seeing 50-plus models on the catwalk at London Fashion Week are still a long way off.