- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 2, 2002

NEW YORK
Know what's hot in teen fashion? Retailers wish they did. Gap Inc. is still struggling, and Tommy Hilfiger and Polo Ralph Lauren are losing luster among the young. It seems there is no one brand or chain that's dictating style for youth these days.
The lack of focus became more apparent for the back-to-school season, which was grim, with a sluggish economy forcing companies to rein in their creativity, analysts said.
"There isn't that excitement or sense of got-to-have-it in fashion this year," said Wendy Liebmann, president of marketing consultant WSL Strategic Retail in New York. "There's no one creating the fizz and bubble."
Gap announced Thursday that it had picked Paul Pressler, a Walt Disney Co. executive, as its new chief executive to help restore magic to the chain. But some industry observers say those days are over when any one brand held sway over the masses.
The big brand is being replaced by "a whole laundry list of niche brands," according to Michael Wood, vice president of Teenage Research Unlimited, a market research firm in Northbrook, Ill.
Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard's Retail Trend Report, said: "We're entering an age of individualism. Teens don't want to be dictated to."
That's not good news for the industry.
When chains such as Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch Inc. were true leaders, they energized the fashion business, driving consumers to malls and generating a slew of knockoffs from rivals who hoped to cash in on the look of the moment.
After making pants and khakis chic in the 1990s, Gap lost its pulse, producing fashion faux pas and struggling with 28 consecutive months of declining sales. It is pinning its turnaround on a return of the trendy basics that made it famous.
Abercrombie & Fitch's pricier versions of khakis and other casual basics, backed by edgy and often contentious advertising, created a buzz in the late '90s. But recently the clothes appear to have lost some excitement, analysts said.
Labels such as Tommy Hilfiger, known for its preppy classics, and Polo Ralph Lauren, whose trademark is country club chic, have lost their cachet as their brands became overly distributed and have lacked design innovation.
"The monotony is what's killing so many specialty stores," Mr. Barnard said. "Now the only way to tell one store from another is by the name on the door."
"Back-to-school was dismal," said Michael Niemira, vice president of Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi Ltd. He expects sales at stores opened at least a year to be up only 3 percent for September. He had earlier forecast a 6 percent gain.

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