It's Not Just American Apparel: For Fashion Retailers,
Sex Just Isn't Selling These Days
July 1, 2014
The ouster of American Apparel APP +%’s controversial CEO Dov Charney has overshadowed the fact that the chain, with its soft-pornesque brand equity, has been striking a sour note with shoppers.
But American Apparel isn’t the only racy retailer struggling of late.Sales at teen chain Abercrombie & Fitch and fashion retailer Bebe Stores, which peddle sex one way or another, are falling, and management is in flux.
It appears that when it comes to fashion retailing, sex just isn’t selling these days.
While the retailers’ poor showing reflects a struggling teen chain sector, it points to a larger failure to appeal to shoppers who’ve become desensitized to – and offended by — one note, sex-on-steroids merchandising and marketing.
“Even during a season when the hottest fashion trends include strategically placed cutouts and short shorts, consumers don’t want to associate style with sleaze,” Susan Scafidi, law professor and founder, executive director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, told Forbes.
“From the backlash against fashion photographer Terry Richardson to the decision to pull the Lady Gaga/R. Kelly video to American Apparel’s dismissal of Dov Charney, fashion influencers are responding to a new generation of young women speaking their minds via social media. Today’s fashionista seeks to be admired and empowered, not objectified,” she said.
These retailers can also seem woefully tone deaf in the current cultural climate. Retailers that sound a socially conscious note and reflect a diversity of consumer interests and lifestyles are the brands that are striking a resonant chord with shoppers these days, experts said.
Still, It’s not that sexy is dead. It’s that all three brands are stuck in a time warp and have failed to evolve, said consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, author of Decoding The New Consumer Mind.
“They’ve been ‘cool’ too long,” Yarrow said. “There is no such thing as elder-statesperson cool – it’s just old. Young people always want to find what’s new and claim it. Once it’s been around a couple of generations, it’s a tough sell to the next generation of trendsetters.”
But something else is afoot. “Sexy clothes have limited appeal right now,” Jane Hali, vice president and director of custom research for trend forecasting service WGSN Group, told Forbes.
“The customer is telling us they want comfortable, casual apparel that they can dress-up and dress-down, whether on the street, at the gym and on a date. They want it all – and sexy is limiting.”
These one-trick pony chains have also been hurt by consumers’ post-recession mindset, Hali said. “The customer is cautious. A sexy look can be worn, what, one or two times? She just can’t afford that anymore.”
American Apparel’s Sexy-Hipster Hook Loses Steam
Retail store sales for American Apparel were essentially flat in 2013, nudging a mere 0.7% after growing 10.9% in 2012, according to data from market research firm eMarketer.
The company made a name for itself selling hipster t-shirts and sportswear with a young, explicitly sexy edge. Its signature ads featured adolescent-looking models in suggestive poses. But that posturing has grown stale with its core audience of Millennials, shoppers in their late teens through early thirties, according to daily consumer research service YouGov BrandIndex.
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