Fashion retailers are starting to wake up to the fact that older women want stylish, well-fitting clothing, and are increasingly digitally savvy.
Among the discussions about gardening, ageism, food and the menopause on 50-plus online forum Gransnet, there are more than 1,000 threads on style and beauty. An article on the site gives advice on what to avoid wearing once you reach your sixth decade: calf-length pleated tartan skirts, crimplene and fleeces are a no-no, and should be replaced with well-fitted jeans, slouchy cardigans, contemporary trainers and stylish flats.
The world still hasn’t woken up to the size of this market, and the fact they have large disposable incomes
Ed Watson, Ambrose Wilson
Today’s older women want age-appropriate but stylish clothing. They increasingly shop online, and are willing to spend on the high-quality, long-lasting clothes they demand. Retailers are beginning to catch on to the potential in this market, and are adjusting their products and advertising approaches to appeal to this relatively affluent demographic.
Ready for relaunch
N Brown Group announced in May that it would increase its focus on the older customer, and is planning to raise awareness of 60-plus womenswear brand Ambrose Wilson via various marketing channels, including online.
The group’s interim chief brand officer, Ed Watson, says: “The world still hasn’t woken up to the size of this market, and the fact they have large disposable incomes. Many retailers have shied away or been embarrassed about this consumer group. There’s a perception of older women wearing twinset and pearls, and having a blue rinse.
“But women who are in their seventies now were born after the war – there’s been a generational shift. Attitudinally, they are very different – they grew up in the 1960s.”
[The older consumer] is either influencing the spend in her household, or she’s the one with the biggest purse
Nayna McIntosh, Hope Fashion
Until recently, Ambrose Wilson sat in the “traditional and secondary” segment of N Brown Group, while JD Williams, Simply Be and Jacamo were considered its “power brands”. However, the company announced in May that it would drop this hierarchy of labels.
“That’s how excited we are in terms of the opportunity for Ambrose Wilson,” says Watson. “It’s been around for 50 years, but now it’s time to put the accelerator down. The market is ignoring this customer.
“No one is talking to them in a way that shows that they understand her and relate to her. It’s all to play for, and the market is worth £300m. We know her and love her, so we’re well placed to meet her needs.”
Age of enlightenment
The market for fashion targeted at older women is growing. Commercial property body Revo’s Insight Report 2019, published in January, points out that 18% of the UK population is aged over 65, and predicts this will rise to 25% by 2050. It estimates that this demographic holds as much as 37% of total household wealth.
“[The older consumer] is either influencing the spend in her household, or she’s the one with the biggest purse,” says Nayna McIntosh, founder of womenswear brand Hope Fashion, which “unashamedly” targets women aged 50 and above. “I think fashion brands are having to catch up – there’s an older consumer out there who doesn’t want top-to-toe beige or elasticated trousers.”
Some of the growth is expected to come from online sales. Nearly half (48%) of over-65s now shop online – up from 16% in 2008, data released by the Office for National Statistics in August 2018 shows.
This consumer is becoming more digitally savvy
Ed Watson, N Brown Group
And while social media sites such as Instagram and Snapchat are still dominated by younger people, 70% of UK adults aged 55 to 64 and 61% of those aged 65 to 75 said they used Facebook in 2018, communications consultancy We Are Flint revealed. Just over half (52%) of over-75s use the site. Gransnet, meanwhile, has 250,000 monthly users.
“This consumer is becoming more digitally savvy,” confirms Watson, pointing to the fact that online sales at Ambrose Wilson were up 7.4% in the year to 2 March 2019.
Failing to focus
However, many fashion brands are not getting their advertising to this consumer group right, on- or offline. Research by Gransnet and its sister site, Mumsnet, published in October 2018, found 78% of users aged 50 or over feel under-represented or misrepresented by advertising.
Technology brands were seen as the worst offenders – cited by 87% – but this was followed closely by fashion brands at 84%.
McIntosh says this is improving, but slowly: “When I first started Hope five years ago, you couldn’t find many images of older, glamorous, sexy and, in some cases, larger women. In the last two to three years it’s moved on.
“If you look at the catwalks, big fashion brands are now targeting older women. [Singer and model] Grace Jones was in the Tommy Hilfiger show [at Paris Fashion Week in March] – she’s in her seventies, and looks amazing. [Model] Patti Hansen walked for Michael Kors [during New York Fashion Week in February] – she’s 63.”
Hope uses a mix of “real women” and professional models in the same age range as its target customer, which McIntosh says works well on social media: “If we were to bombard [our customer] with imagery of professional models on social media, she would challenge us.
“It helps to see someone who looks more like me. I’m five foot nothing, and a size 10 or 12. If they can see me wearing and styling something, it gives them ideas and solutions. And it gives the brand authenticity.”
For Ambrose Wilson, marketing activity is often planned around daytime TV – its target customers are typically retired and spend a lot of time at home – but Watson says there is an “opportunity in terms of digital”, adding,“the key thing is that she relates to the imagery she’s seeing from the brand.”
There may be a bit more cloth in the sleeves, or a slightly longer hem – but it still has to be stylish
Nayna McIntosh, Hope Fashion
When it comes to design, experts agree that the most important thing is to recognise that women’s bodies change shape as they age, and to create clothing that enhances their customers’ confidence.
“We talk about shape as well as fit and size,” explains Watson. “Your shape changes with age, and we have to incorporate the lumps and bumps. There may be a bit more cloth in the sleeves, or a slightly longer hem – but it still has to be stylish.”
“Some of these women are in the best shape of their lives,” points out McIntosh. “But for many women, the menopause has an impact on your body shape – that’s a biological fact. You start to carry weight where you didn’t before. How you’ve dressed for past 20 years is no longer appropriate, but you still want to look in the mirror and feel good.”
Christopher Nieper, managing director of womenswear brand David Nieper, whose customers are typically aged 40 and above, agrees: “As we change shape through life, garments that fit a younger customer aren’t the same as those that fit the older woman. These consumers are very discerning – they have exacting standards and they know
what they like, which is a challenge for designers.”
He adds that high-quality fabrics are essential, and – as is the case for younger shopper – sustainability is an increasingly important priority for the older consumer. This has been driven by the popularity of programmes such as Stacey Dooley’s Fashion’s Dirty Secrets and David Attenborough’s Blue Planet.
“Consumers have been shocked into the realisation that the fashion industry must act to mitigate the impact it is having on the environment, and that they have a part to play,” Nieper explains. “As a result, we find this group is increasingly looking for high quality – they are not part of the ‘fast fashion’ generation. They come from a generation where things are mended rather than thrown away, and expect to wear their favourite garments time after time.”
McIntosh agrees: “Our customers are very conscious about the planet we’re leaving for our kids.”
This rising interest in sustainability, together with an increasing demand for age-appropriate, relaxed-fit yet stylish clothing presents an opportunity to retailers and brands.
This is a largely under-served market, but as more older consumers embrace online and social media shopping, it will become harder – and more of a missed opportunity – to ignore them.