As the new season kicks off, brands and retailers are trying new tactics to stand out in the crowded and fast-moving womenswear market
One word has dominated retailers’ trading updates of late: “challenging.” No segment of the UK fashion industry is entirely safe from current market headwinds, which include price-sensitive shoppers and Brexit anxieties, but the difficulties facing the high street are being particularly keenly felt in the cramped and competitive world of womenswear.
The end of 2018 bought a slew of profit warnings in the sector. Fast fashion etailer Missguided found itself in the red following premature investment in its retail proposition, in what it labelled an “extremely challenging year.” Next, a major player in the womenswear market, dropped its full-year profit guidance after customers turned to lower-margin gift and beauty products over the festive period; and affordable occasionwear specialist Quiz also downgraded its full-year revenue and profit forecasts in the wake of a “challenging” Christmas.
“The biggest challenge is still that the womenswear market is very overstocked. There is just too much [product] out there,” explains Tiffany Hogan, a senior apparel analyst at Kantar Retail. “The rate of change is also incredibly fast. It’s difficult to predict what shoppers will want next month, as trends evolve so quickly.”
Enrico Ziglio, founder and chief executive of London-based womenswear labels Sister Jane and Ghospell, agrees that womenswear shoppers are increasingly hungry for newness: “Consumers are making more considered purchase decisions and they need to feel a strong connection to the brands they buy from. They are becoming explorers searching for newness. They are looking to discover new, exciting brands that speak to their unique style and values, and offer them something that no one else has.”
The biggest challenge is still that the womenswear market is very overstocked
Tiffany Hogan, Kantar Retail
Only those with a distinctive proposition, strong product and a compelling story to tell customers will thrive in womenswear. But there are still opportunities to be had for those retailers and brands that can crack all three – the UK womenswear market will grow by 14% between 2018 and 2022 to £33.5bn, market research agency Mintel suggests.
Lifestyle retailer Joules was one high street name celebrating a successful festive trading period – sales soared by 11.7% year on year in the seven weeks to 6 January. It said it had experienced growth across all its product categories, including womenswear.
A flexible approach has been the secret to the retailer’s success in the market, chief executive Colin Porter tells Drapers: “For us, it has been about getting the product proposition right and making sure the customer can get the Joules brand wherever she chooses to shop – whether she buys through our online channels, or enjoys buying her clothing through Next Label, or she’s a John Lewis shopper through and through. Flexibility is key in the current climate.”
Olivia Cantillon, founder of womenswear etailer Own the Look, agrees that retailers need to offer customers as many opportunities to make a purchase as possible: “The womenswear shopper wants every touch point they have with a brand or retailer to be shoppable. They want ease and they don’t want to have to navigate their way to your website to checkout and purchase. Customers want to be able to purchase through your social channels.”
Two opposing trends are influencing consumer behaviour in the womenswear market. The power of an affordably priced, trend-driven offer cannot be understated – consider the ongoing success of the Boohoo Group, where revenue jumped by 15%, 74% and 95% at Boohoo, Nasty Gal and PrettyLittleThing respectively in the four months to 31 December. Value retailer Primark also continues to report soaring sales.
But brands and buyers towards the premium end of the market argue that customers are concentrating on buying less but better, and opting for higher-quality items even if they come with a bigger price tag.
A new interest in sustainability and a trend for decluttering – Netflix’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo has proved a surprise smash hit – means shoppers are becoming more aware of what, and how much, they are buying. Items that can be styled and worn season after season, rather than flash-in-the-pan trends, are increasingly in demand.
Buyers aren’t thinking as seasonally – they are looking for a real signature from a designer
“We’ve done some printed slip dresses that have proved really popular because shoppers are looking for pieces that last,” explains Olivia Rubin, founder of the eponymous womenswear brand. Stockists for the label from spring 19 include Selfridges and Harvey Nichols Hong Kong.
“Slip dresses can be worth without anything underneath in the summer and paired with chunky knits or roll necks in the colder months,” she adds. “Customers are really buying into that, even if it means paying a premium price. Buyers aren’t thinking as seasonally – they are looking for a real signature from a designer and something that stands out.”
Lucy Aylen, founder of womenswear brand Never Fully Dressed, adds: “We are finding that really fast fashion seems to have had its day. Shoppers are much more mindful about the decisions they make. That can be a challenge as a smaller fashion brand, as you need to see that return quickly, but we think that even though that customer might not be spending as frequently, we will have them [as a customer] for longer, and really build a relationship with them.”
Department store John Lewis & Partners also chose to focus on timeless wardrobe staples for the launch of its eponymous own-brand, its largest to date, last summer.
When it comes to product, animal print remains a key trend. The craze for leopard has expanded to include a whole safari of animals, including snake and zebra.
“Animal print, across leopard, snake and zebra, continues to be popular with our customers and sales increased 178% on last year. Corduroy was another key fabric trend, up 23% year on year,” says Anna Clarke, head of design at Sainsbury’s clothing range Tu.
She adds that yellow and the 1970s are some key trends for the spring season: “Neon and synthetic yellow tones have also made a comeback this season with a psychedelic print direction, as the 70s continue to be a source of inspiration. We researched archive prints for high summer and created our Neon Glow collection, which plays into this bold trend. Our Fiesta collection is inspired by Frida Kahlo – the range uses a colour clash of primary bright shades and stylised folksy florals for a true high summer look.”
Shoppers will also be buying into a sportier look when it comes to autumn 19, she continues: “For autumn, we will see the influence of sportswear, with trends inspired by motor sport and Formula 1. This Moto trend uses colour blocking, sports tipping details and high-impact primary colours for a clean, wearable casual look.”
A revived interest in accessories – quick, affordable purchases that can easily be thrown in basket or added to an online order – could help womenswear brands and retailers to drive average transaction values, argues Own the Look’s Cantillon. The trend for embellished hair clips, velvet head bands and hair scarves looks set to last throughout this year. Searches for hair clips have increased by 53% on fashion search engine Lyst over the past two months.
“We’re very much about apparel, but we’ve upped our buy of hair clips, hair bands and hosiery for spring 19,” she says. “Customers are now wearing these items every day. It’s about personalisation. Customers can add a sparkly hair slide or a pair of polka-dot tights and put their own spin, their own finishing touch, on an outfit.”
Those seeking to stand out in womenswear must give their customers a reason to shop with them above all others, Kantar Retail’s Hogan concludes: “There’s a real opportunity for retailers to make fashion more of a part of customer’s lifestyles and really reflect who they are as a person. They have to relate to the shopper and stand for something.”
Womenswear retailers overcoming the ‘challenging’ market