FASHION

Halting the slump

The rag trade searches for improved sales

BARBARA WICKENS April 10 1989
FASHION

Halting the slump

The rag trade searches for improved sales

BARBARA WICKENS April 10 1989

Halting the slump

The rag trade searches for improved sales

FASHION

Ever since a handful of Parisian clothiers burst into international prominence during the late 1940s, the world’s leading design houses have been accustomed to dictating what fashionconscious women will wear. But that tradition has suffered a major decline over the past two years as North American and European women have displayed opposition to high fashion by spending less on clothes. The resulting sales slump has led manufacturers and retailers in the garment trade to question what they did wrong.

The debate takes on added force this month as women’s clothing stores, which are currently stocked with the latest in spring fashions, make their buying decisions for next fall. Professional buyers and members of the clothes-buying public saw a preview in Toronto last week at the fifth Festival of Canadian Fashion of the kinds of clothes that will be in the stores five months from now.

After watching the opening night fashion shows and browsing through some of the more than 200 exhibitors’ booths, Corinne Engel, a Toronto social worker, said that this year’s festival was the best yet. Said Engel, who has attended each year since the first event in 1985: “There’s a lot of variety here—something for everyone.” Johanne Ramsay, director of operations for Concorde Business Centres in Toronto, said that she generally wore designs by Toronto’s Peter Lam, but she added that she would be interested in buying some other manufacturers’ outfits that she had seen. Said Ramsay: “I like the originality that I saw here tonight.”

It was the sort of reaction that insiders had been hoping would strengthen the industry, which last year had sales of $3.4 billion in women’s clothing stores in Canada. According to Mel Fruitman, vice-president of the Retail Council of Canada, sales in women’s clothing stores grew by about 10 per cent a year during the mid-1980s. But starting in March, 1987,

the annual rate of increase in sales began to decline sharply. By December, 1988—the latest period for which figures are available— sales had grown by only 3.3 per cent from the year before. Fruitman said that when inflation—which averaged four per cent—was taken into account, “growth has really been flat.” Declining retail sales have begun to hurt manufacturers as store buyers hesitate to

place large new orders. The dismal outlook has also triggered widespread concern about who or what is to blame for the downturn. Some critics of the fashion industry say that high prices and unexciting stores are at fault, while others attribute the slump to inappropriate styles—including the miniskirt—that repel many feminists, and to the emergence of consumers who have become highly selective with the money they spend on fashion. Ann-Marie

Gagné, a communications officer with the Quebec tourism ministry in Montreal, said that she rarely shops at the beginning of the season when the clothes first arrive in the stores. “It

makes no sense to shop for spring and summer right now when you know that everything will be on sale in June,” said Gagné. Orla Cousineau, a lawyer in Vancouver with William M. Mercer Ltd., an employee-benefits consulting firm, said that she prefers to shop for one-of-akind items in boutiques rather than chain or department stores. But the selection is fairly limited for professional women, said Cousineau. “I shop mainly for career clothing but I don’t want things that are boring or dull. That’s the challenge. The mini is a no-go in my line of work.” Gayle Hendry, manager of the variety department in a Calgary Safeway store, said that she “was not a real shopper anymore.” Added Hendry: “I used to buy clothes like crazy but I have a mortgage and I’m having a baby. Besides, everything in the stores looks the same.”

Montreal designer Leo Chevalier, president of Leo Chevalier International Ltd., who was awarded an Order of Canada in 1979 for his contribution to the fashion industry, agreed that women have had little to choose from lately. Said Chevalier: “I don’t think that the Canadian consumer is being very well served by the Canadian industry. I speak with a lot of women, and anybody over 40 is having a horrible time trying to find something to wear.”

Still, the industry’s problems were temporarily put aside in the buoyant atmosphere of the Toronto fashion festival. Designers participating in the opening-night fashion shows received a small but steady smattering of applause for their designs. Black, which has been popular for the past five years, was again the predominant shade. For fall, 1989, however, it was enlivened with colors ranging from bold, clear reds to such unusual colors as curry. Jacket styles included everything from short, closefitting boleros to full, sweeping A-line styles, while vests were also popular. Tu Ly, a young Toronto designer who came to prominence at last year’s festival, showed a black jacket with the front panels colored red to resemble a vest. Designers showed a greater number of slacks than in previous years. Styles included skintight versions from the Bent Boys—Brenda Bent and Lorren Boy of Toronto—and full, palazzo-style pants from Alain Thomas of Montreal. Skirt lengths—which included a number of deliberately uneven

hems—were generally considerably longer than those recently shown in Europe, seldom going higher than the top of the knee.

Rarely present in the show was the style that has symbolized the fashion industry’s recent decline in influence—the miniskirt. First popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the miniskirt was rejected by most North American women after it was reintroduced in about 1987. Some fashion experts cite the repudiation of the miniskirt as proof that designers can no longer dictate style to women.

Still, other observers say that poor judgment is only part of the problem. Declared Anthony Stokan, a retail marketing consultant with Toronto-based Anthony Russell and Associates: “You don’t hear the paint industry saying they had a tough year because they made up too much grey paint instead of pink and blue. It’s ridiculous.” Added Michael Pearce, who teaches retailing and consumer marketing at the University of Western Ontario in London: “These are smart people. If it was any one thing, they’d have fixed it by now.” Part of the problem may be that a decade of high-volume sales encouraged too many retailers to enter the market—leading to a shakeout as sales volumes softened. Mary Thomas, a merchandising analyst with the stock brokerage house Dean Witter Reynolds (Canada) Inc. in Toronto, said that between 1978 and 1988, the number of outlets operated by Canadian apparel retail chain stores grew to 10,657 from 3,995—a 167-per-cent increase during a period when sales grew by only 146 per cent. Said Thomas: “This truly is an overstored world.” At the same time, experts say that the industry as a whole has been slow to respond to evidence of discontent among female customers. Industry surveys show that women are increasingly less willing to pay high prices for poor-quality clothing in stores where they are served by part-time sales people who barely know what goods are in stock. Said Stokan: “The stores that are going to do well will rectify their internal problems instead of looking at the consumer as someone to blame.” He added, “The average female consumer has become much demanding

of the average retailer.”

Indeed, Canadian designer Roger Edwards—whose sexy fashions are popular among such celebrities as Canadian actress Helen Shaver and U.S. actress and model Shari Belafonte-Harper—summed up the industry’s problems as “too much quantity and not enough quality.” For the Torontobased designer, the solution is to bypass other retailers and operate his own retail outlet, which is scheduled to open in

Toronto in July. “Anything

unique or different is selling these days,” said Edwards, “if shoppers are given a chance.”

By setting up his own retail outlet, Edwards will be taking a step that appears to have

worked for a number of other Canadian design-

ers—including Alfred Sung, part-owner of Monaco Group Inc. In addition to selling his designs in about 900 stores across North America, there are now seven Alfred Sung stores—four in Canada and three in the United States—and 46 Club Monaco stores, which sell

moderately priced weekend wear. As well, Toronto-based Dylex Ltd.—which bought a 50-per-cent interest in Monaco Group Inc. in February—plans to convert some of its 601 Foxmoor stores in the United States into Club Monaco stores. Saul Mimran, president of Monaco Group Inc. and Sung’s partner for the past 10 years, said that the first six Club Monaco stores in the United States are scheduled to open this August in California.

According to Mimran, Club Monaco’s decision to operate its own chain of stores grew out of a growing frustration with the retail sector. “The Club Monaco line was designed as a wholesale collection,” said Mim-

ran. “We did not intentionally design it to retail

it. But retailers did not know how to handle the line. It took a lot out of us to get our own stores going, but it has turned out to be a very strong concept.”

Meanwhile, some observers of the retail sector attribute the growing problems of the women’s clothing industry to underlying changes in North American society. The University of Western Ontario’s Pearce, for one, said that members of the baby-boom generation, born between 1946 and 1964, are now establishing their own economic priorities—and putting mortgages and home furnishings ahead of clothes. According to Pearce, young adults now go in for “investment dressing”—buying a few expensive items for special business occasions and spending more carefully on the clothes for every day. Agreed Stokan: “Consumers have taken a break from fashion. In fact, spending behavior is up, but the money has been rerouted.” Another social shift that is hurting the garment industry is the fact that with about 60 per cent of all women working, they have less time to shop. Said Andrée Moro, Toronto-area manager for Brettons, which sells clothing and accessories for the whole family: “Studies have shown us that the aver-

age woman shops for clothes two times a month for 20 minutes each. That’s for herself and, her family.”

Still, industry officials say they hope that after two years of frugal clothing purchases, Canadian women may be in the mood this year for a shopping binge. “After two years of pentup demand,” said Fruitman, “there’s a latent need to refresh wardrobes. With the right product, we could see an improvement for fall.” Even more reassuring for the industry was the response from buyers at the Canadian International Womenswear Show in Montreal last month. Chantal Tittley Moreault, a spokesman for Le Groupe Expositions, which produced the Montreal show, said that 5,000 buyers—more than 250 of them from the United States, including such major retailers as Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom—placed “a definite increase in orders” with the 254 exhibitors. Still, it will be the fall before the store buyers will be sure whether they have made the right decisions. If the public’s reception of the fall clothing at the Toronto festival is any indication, their confidence is justified.

BARBARA WICKENS