When New Look announced, at the beginning of this month, its menswear was going online only, it solidified what we already knew; high-street fashion is struggling, badly. It was only a few years ago, when the ‘dapper’ three-piece skinny suit was at its zenith and pocket squares were furnishing top pockets, that the good times were rolling and Britain’s high-street menswear retailers were expanding.
Left - Momager Kris Jenner loving an adidas tracksuit but with a Gucci bag or Fendi keyring
Back in 2016, New Look was busy rolling out menswear stores in university towns, appealing to those on a budget wanting fast fashion. New Look was fairly late to the menswear party, following in the footsteps of brands like Topman, River Island and Moss Bros, but it had lofty ambitions. They opened 22 menswear stores in places such as Shrewsbury, Exeter, Maidstone, Derby and Nottingham. They are all now closed, wth New Look saying in a recent statement, “New Look is removing menswear from its UK and Ireland stores but will continue to sell the range online and on third party platforms,” such as ASOS and Zalando.
So, what happened? Sportswear happened. Branded sportswear has been the main fashion story for the past few years. From trainers to tracksuits, sportswear is everywhere and on everybody.
Recent results from sportswear behemoth, JD Sports, illustrates its growth and dominance. JD Sports, which is now more than three times bigger than arch rival Sports Direct, almost-doubled revenue in its latest results for the 52 weeks to February 2, 2019. Revenue was up an incredible 49.2 percent to £4.7 billion for the period compared to the year before, with profit before tax increasing by 15.4 percent to £339.9 million pounds.
JD Sports’ results includes its acquisition of the Finish Line business in America. The brand was bought for around £400 million in June 2018, and saw JD Sports take ownership of Finish Line’s 600 stores in the US.
JD Sports executive chairman, Peter Cowgill, said in a statement: "We believe that our acquisition of the Finish Line business in the United States, the largest market for sport lifestyle footwear and apparel and the home to many of the global sportswear brands, will have positive consequences for our long-term brand engagement whilst significantly extending the group's global reach. We maintain our belief that Finish Line is capable of delivering improved levels of profitability.” JD Sports said it stayed clear of reactive discounting while offering a point of difference in the goods it sold.
This American dominance, particularly of the internet and social media channels, has helped grow this market. When American football is coming to Wembley and there’s even talk of baseball making inroads into this country, then you know the power of the American online world we now live in. When you see Kris Jenner wearing a full adidas tracksuit on multiple episodes of the Kardashians, instead of the luxury labels she used to be wearing, it really illustrates how far this trend has come and it’s global.
JD Sports is now in 10 countries in mainland Europe with its first store in Austria at Mariahilfer Strasse in Vienna opening in the next few months. The JD fascia saw a net increase of 39 stores in the period with new stores in all of the retailer’s existing territories as well as its first two stores in Finland. In Asia, JD Sports has opened its first stores in Singapore, Thailand and South Korea with its local partner Shoemarker Inc, and now has 16 JD stores, including 14 conversions of the multibrand Hot-T fascia which was acquired in the previous year.
New Look recently closed all of their stores in China, Belgium and Poland, 85 stores in the UK and, potentially, those in France and Portugal too. It has returned to profit after its underlying operating profit came in at £38.5 million to Dec 2018, compared to an underlying operating loss of £5.1 million for the same year-to-date period the year prior, but like-for-like sales are still falling, they’ve just slowed.
These woes aren't just restricted to New Look. The fall in the value of these high-street companies is illustrated by Arcadia recently buying a 25 per cent stake in retailers Topshop and Topman back from US investor Leonard Green for $1 or 76p. It was rumoured the US private equity firm bought the 25 per cent stake from Sir Philip Green’s Arcadia in 2012 for £350 million. That’s some devaluation.
Another British high-street brand suffering from the dominance of sportswear is Moss Bros. The menswear retailer recorded a £4.2 million loss for the 52-week period ending January 26, 2019, compared to a profit of £6.7 million the year prior. Revenues were down 2.1 per cent to £129 million and like-for-like sales dropped 4.3 per cent. Interestingly, full-year figures showed that like-for-like hire sales plummeted by 9.3 per cent. People aren’t even renting formalwear now?! Moss Bros chief executive, Brian Brick, said it was an “extremely challenging” year. “We suffered from a combination of a significant stock shortage and extremes of weather, alongside sporting distraction in the first half, which impacted footfall into our stores,” he said. That “sporting distraction” was the World Cup with people no doubt wearing yet more sportswear.
“Looking forward, in common with many UK retailers, we continue to anticipate an extremely challenging retail landscape, particularly within our physical stores, as a result of reduced footfall and rising costs.” he said.
This sportswear as a fashion trend is slowing, but sportswear is beyond a trend, now, and it’s a lifestyle and ease of dressing that is resonating around the world and to every age group. These once dominant British high-street stars are contracting and they are cutting off limbs (menswear) to save the vital organs. Karl Lagerfeld once said, “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants.” He couldn't be more wrong.
The simple narrative of big shops are dying, department stores are dinosaurs and physical retail is on its knees just doesn’t ring true. Primark is bucking the trend, and, to really the ram the point home, has just opened not only the world’s biggest Primark in Birmingham, but also officially the largest fashion retail store in the world according to the Guinness World Records. Move over Topshop!
Spread over 5 floors, and 160,100 sq ft in size, the new store boasts womenswear, menswear, kidswear and homeware, plus the largest ever Duck & Dry beauty studio, the first in-store barbers salon from Joe Mills, and 3 dining experiences, including a Disney Café. If it sold washing machines it would be classed as a department store.
Left - Primark's new Birmingham mega-sized store
While nobody seems to know what is going on at Debenhams, and Mike Ashley is hoovering up brands like a hyperactive Dyson - we’re still not sure what he is going to do with all these companies - Primark is an illustration of very large physical stores still opening and doing well.
With no e-tail presence, Primark is where all the other department stores’ physical customers have gone, not to mention Marks & Spencer’s and Next’s. Primark’s Adjusted Operating Profit was £843m in 2018, with revenue of £7.477b, up from £7.053b the year before.
According to local press, Birmingham Mail, “The new Primark megastore Birmingham has been jam packed for four days in a row. Crowds of people flooded into the 160,000 square foot shopopolis when Primark opened its doors 15 minutes early at 9.45am on Thursday, April 11. Ever since our live Primark updates began, the five-floor giant has been packed from the basement to the roof with shoppers - and diners - keen to see what all the fuss is about.”
Primark needs large stores to make its business model of pile-it-high-and-sell-it-cheap work. Only this week, another Primark opens in Milton Keynes. centre:mk see its new 75,000 sq ft store open in the heart of the shopping centre and is the largest new store to open in centre:mk in the last 25 years. Over 3 floors, Primark was the most requested brand by the centre’s 25 million visitors in exit surveys over a number of years.
Kevin Duffy, Centre Director at centre:mk, said “We are thrilled to announce that Primark will be open on the 16th April and joining our fantastic selection of fashion and beauty brands at centre:mk. This is a key moment for us – the new flagship store will be the single biggest store since we introduced Marks & Spencer to centre:mk nearly 25 years ago. Primark is a firm fashion favourite, and so we look forward to attracting more visitors by expanding the centre’s fashion retail mix.”
Primark are expanding into Slovenia, this year, and continuing to grow in America. Primark currently has 9 US stores clustered in the north eastern corner, but plan to open a store in Florida in late 2019. While its expansion has been slow and steady, it was ranked in the top spot on a list of the 100 fastest-growing retailers in America by the National Retail Federation's Stores magazine, which used sales data from Kantar Consulting. In the US, specifically, Primark sales were up 103% year-on-year.
Urban Outfitters is another brand looking to expand with larger stores. Planning to open 15-20 new stores annually for the next five years, the US-based retailer has 50 stores in Europe, including 28 in the UK and Ireland. Emma Wisden, European Managing Director, said the retailer has identified several key markets of interest within Europe that it is underexposed in, which it will be pursuing imminently. Speaking to Drapers, she said, “Urban Outfitters is in the fortunate position of being one of the ‘disruptor’ brands in fashion at the moment. We are opening stores, not closing them, unlike so many of our neighbours on the high street. Ecommerce is, of course, increasingly important, so it is crucial to constantly evolve omnichannel shopping. However, bricks-and-mortar retailing isn’t going anywhere soon.”
Right - Primark's Duck & Dry Beauty Studio in Birmingham
Urban Outfitters has increased its European store portfolio by more than 30% over the past 12 months with new stores in Vienna, Milan, Paris, Eilat and Düsseldorf.
These two retailers illustrate the polarisation of physical retail. Bad, boring retail is dead, and while people are attracted to Primark for the prices, by adding hairdressers and restaurants, they are giving people more reasons to visit and stay longer. Primark’s phenomenal success is allowing them to think beyond cheap clothes and their tie-ups with Harry Potter and Disney at pocket money prices is a guaranteed success.
Urban Outfitters is clearly riding the retro, sportswear trend, but being a shop of discovery and fresh ideas and brands allows a chance for constant change if the buy is right.
Many retailers with large stores are finding it hard to balance business rates, rents and falling footfall, but Primark and Urban Outfitters are proving, clearly, that people still want to leave the house.
Returns cost money, lots of money. Free delivery and no quibble returns are starting to become a strain on online retailers and it seems ASOS has had enough. The British fast-fashion giant recently announced it was cracking down on ‘serial returners’. An extension in its returns policy - items can be returned up to 45 days after purchase with a cash refund up to 28 days and credit thereafter - was also issued with a threat to investigate and ‘take action’ if it notices anything unusual with people returning more items than usual. If it suspects someone is wearing and returning goods, or ordering and returning ‘loads’, it may deactivate the account.
Left - ASOS' returns are costing them dearly
ASOS is one of the world’s largest online retailers, particularly amongst younger demographics, and its ease of ordering and returning is, arguably, part of the their success and growth story.
Becky, 29, says “I think it’s against the whole nature of online shopping. When you go into a shop you can take 10 items into the changing room and not like any of them, e-retailers need to expect the same thing to happen with their sites and customers should be able to return the items they don’t want.
"I buy a lot from ASOS and return a lot simply because it doesn’t fit right or because it doesn’t look how I expected it to when I bought it.” she says. “If it starts impacting how quickly refunds come through – or if I start having refund requests declined – then it definitely would discourage me. I love ASOS though – majority of my wardrobe is from ASOS, now, where they host so many brands – so I’m intrigued to see what happens!”
This issue is experienced by many retailers. Research conducted by resource planning platform Brightpearl, who surveyed 200 retailers across the UK, found more than a third of shops have seen an increase in serial returns over the last year. As a result, 45 per cent of retailers, including ASOS and Harrods, said they were planning to blacklist repeat offenders. It can cost double the amount for a product to be returned into the supply chain as it does to deliver it and in the UK, it can pass through seven pairs of hands before it is listed for resale. This all takes time and money.
Meli, 26, says “I’m glad that this prevents people returning used items as I’ve had something sent to me from ASOS before that was definitely used. However I’d hate to be blacklisted for genuinely returning items that don’t fit/I don’t like!
“I often order in bulk with multiple options and different sizes then do a try on at home to see what I like best, and return the rest. I think the real problem is sizing as ASOS stocks so many different brands, it’s hard to rely on standard sizing to be the same across all.” she says. “If I was blacklisted then it would certainly drive me to other online retailers or just shop directly with the brands that ASOS stocks. For now, it will make me think more carefully about exactly what I’d be likely to keep if it did fit.” says Meli.
Earlier this year, Zalando started a trial in which it would attach very big clothing labels to items to make it more difficult to ‘wear and return’ or post on Instagram. That label reads: “Dear customer, feel free to fit this article and try it, but if this label is removed, it will not to be accepted as a return by Zalando.”
Retailers have somewhat encouraged some of this behaviour with their ‘try-before-you-buy’ options. Consumers can order what they like and then just pay for what they keep. This encourages over ordering and a large number of returns. Amazon currently restricts this service to between 3 and 8 items.
Research from Barclaycard found that almost 1 in 10 UK shoppers have bought clothes online with the intent to wear them for social media and then return them. Surprisingly, it was the older demographic, men and women aged 35 to 44, with 17 per cent, revealing that they are guilty of shopping only for their #OOTD. The research also found that is was men who were more inclined to shop and return as they are more ‘socially self-conscious’ than women - with 12 per cent admitting to posting a clothing or accessory item on social media and returning it to the retailer afterwards.
Right - Zalando taking on the 'Serial Returners'' with their large tags
Lois Spencer-Tracey, fashion blogger, says, “Must confess, I'm a bit annoyed by this. I probably send back 80-100% of an order I receive purely because of their sizing and my body shape. Nothing to do with my Instagram or blog.”
Last year, Next announced it would start to charge customers a £1 fee for returns they make through a courier or through a Hermes Parcel Shop. The collection charge will be applied for each collection, regardless of the number of items collected. Returning items at any of Next’s retail or clearance stores in the UK remains free.
ASOS are playing the fashion police by admitting had resorted to checking people’s social media accounts in a bid to catch out consumers who wear clothes before sending them back, and falsely claim they have not received items bought online.
“I’m a massive online shopper. I find it so much easier to just order clothes in and try them on at home because then you can try on a full outfit, matching with the shoes and accessories you want. It’s so much easier to do in your own home rather than in a squished changing room. And usually returns are easy with things like collect+ which is much better than working out when you’ll next be in town to take clothes back to a store.” says Becky.
This is a difficult line for online brands to tread. On the one hand they don’t want to discourage consumers from ordering or being frightened to return things, and, on the other hand, they need to let excessive returners or people who are wearing things and returning them, know they are being monitored. It's definitely easier to return something into a faceless plastic bag than been quizzed by a sales assistant. This is probably an empty threat from ASOS, but does illustrate how serious this issue is becoming for fashion e-tailers. Rather than look at the volume of returns, maybe look at the conversion percentages of sales from shoppers. You don’t want to alienate active and engaged consumers, but neither do you want to service those costing the company dearly.
Read more ChicGeek expert comments - here
These were some of my favourite pieces from the SS19 trade shows. First seen at Pitti in Florence and then later in Copenhagen on the Barena, the Venice-based fashion brand, stand, they hadn’t disappeared out of my head and I was itching for them to drop.
Featuring a stunning print of Venice, one of the most beautiful and individual cities in the world, they are stylish, oversized linen garments which you could wear separately or all together for that complete Peggy Guggenheim look.
Left & Below - Barena - BERMUDA (Shorts) AGRO SCHIAVON UNICO - €195, CAMICIA (Shirt) SOLANA MARTINO UNICO - €235
The style world can never have enough fancy candles and blankets, it gives us #FashionWankers a break from the clothes. Along with Luke Edward Hall, John Booth is one of the artists du jour of the fashion set. This, his second collaboration with Scottish textile maker, Begg & Co, I’ll admit, I missed the first one, features John Booth’s famous FA Cup eared male portrait found on many of his pottery and artworks.
Made from a special blend of lambswool and cashmere yarns, the Valatzu's supersoft style has contrast blanket stitching – a traditional finish used on bound-edge blankets. All proudly made in Scotland.
Veganism has caught the public’s attention. The combination of environmental and health benefits has made huge numbers of people switch to a plant based diet. According to The Vegan Society, the number of vegans in Great Britain quadrupled between 2014 and 2018. Today, there are 600,000 vegans in Great Britain, or 1.16% of the population; 276,000 (0.46%) in 2016; and 150,000 (0.25%) in 2014 and this growth doesn’t show any signs of slowing.
Left - Watson & Wolfe - Vegan leather - Slim Credit Card Case - £30, Wallet With Coin Pocket - £65
It’s not just vegans who are buying into this growing market. Many people are cutting down their meat consumption and opting for meals without animal products. It’s cool to buy ‘vegan’, right now, whether you are one or not.
The vegan trend has continued into beauty with 82% of all new vegan items launched in the UK last year belonging to the beauty category. And, now, it’s the turn of the fashion business. Brands are seeing pound signs from consumers wanting a complete vegan lifestyle, or an alternative to products using animal skins or products. The anti-fur/exotic skins movement has seen many brands drop ranges from their collections and replace them with items labelled as vegan.
While the reduction in carbon emissions and environmental benefits is clear by switching from meat to plant-based food, is switching from leather to non-leather substitutes, usual plastics, that beneficial? Isn’t vegan fashion just more plastic in the world?
Helen Farr-Leander, Founder, Watson & Wolfe, www.watsonwolfe.com a new vegan, PETA approved British men’s accessorises business, says, “For me, vegan fashion encourages us to think about our future and our responsibility – being sustainable and environmentally-friendly and cruelty free.”
“Our intention was originally to work in the leather industry, which is where our experience lies, but our research into starting the business uncovered some facts that we didn’t like and we realised the true cost of the industry. The level of cruelty I witnessed and the impact on the planet of industrial farming for leather and the pollution from the chemical processes of tanning led me to transition to veganism and this was the turning point.” she says.
Watson & Wolfe’s ‘eco-leather’ is a giant stride towards fully sustainable leather. Rather than being 100% polyurethane, the base material is made with more than 50% bio plant material, that does not divert resources necessary for food farms or animal feed. This bio content comes entirely from renewable sources and is carbon neutral, so the production of the material has a substantially lower impact on the environment. The recycled linings are made from 100% post-consumer plastic bottles which are recycled into a PET yarn and the gift boxes and tissue papers are also made from high quality recycled materials which are biodegradable and recyclable.
Right - Billy Tannery 'Gote'' Tote - £395
“In the case of the leather industry, projections indicate that the industry will need to supply 430 million cows annually by 2025, a staggering statistic that is at odds with the 360% rise in vegetarianism and veganism over the past decade. We are focused on providing a more responsible, environmentally friendly product and we continue to seek material which avoids the use of animal-based components and that continually improves the sustainability of our collection.” says Farr-Leander. “This is not the case with all vegan fashion, and consumers should always do their research before buying anything.” she says.
The V&A’s exhibition ‘Fashioned From Nature’, last year, featured materials such as ‘Vegea’ which uses grape waste from the wine industry to form a leather-substitute, as well as a Ferragamo piece made from ‘Orange Fiber’ derived from waste from the Italian citrus industry. There is leather also made from apple skins used by new ‘sustainable’ designer labels such as Zilver.
These materials are often more expensive than traditional leather and aren’t available in the quantities many brands desire. For the ethical cynics, there are some brands labelling plastic as vegan to jump on the ethical band wagon. Some consumers are also skeptical about these new leathers being as durable and tough as traditional leathers, especially for things like bags and shoes.
Jack Millington, Co-Founder of Billy Tannery, a new British tannery using goat leather from the food industry, says, “There are lots of so-called vegan alternatives to leather, but the vast majority are plastic products like PVC or PU which are being re-labeled as vegan. If we are comparing plastic with artisan leather created from a by-product, then I don't think there can be any confusion as to which is better for the environment. Even with recycled plastic materials, there needs to be more research done into the micro-plastics that these materials could be emitting.”
“There are a few plant fibre materials that are also touted as "vegan leather", but in our experience these are more similar to cardboard in performance than leather, so end up being coated in a layer of plastic anyway.” says Millington.
Left - Billy Tannery founders Jack Millington and Rory Hawker
Billy Tannery's goat leather is produced using goatskins sourced from the British food industry that were previously going to waste. Before they started nearly all of these goatskins were being destroyed, so they take this waste product and turn it into a functional material in their own micro-tannery in the Midlands, between Leicester and Northampton. Their signature ‘Gote’ tote bag is £395 and is made in Somerset or Leicestershire.
“We believe that ours is one of the most environmentally friendly leathers available today. Our unique tanning process not only uses bark extracts instead of the usual metal salts, but it recycles 90% of the water used and turns much of the waste into compost. Also, when compared to most industrially tanned leather which circles the globe to be tanned as cheaply as possible, our supply chain is kept in the UK which drastically reduces the "leather miles" and in turn the carbon footprint.” he says.
Like all environmental labelling, it’s good to read behind the lines. Just because something is ‘organic’, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t been flown halfway around the world and just because something is labelled ‘vegan’, it doesn’t mean it’s any better for the environment. It’s important for consumers to ask questions, do their research and buy from brands taking us in the right direction with or without animal products.
Read more ChicGeek expert comments - here
From miniskirts and hot pants to vibrant tights and makeup, discover how Mary Quant launched a fashion revolution on the British high street, with over 200 garments and accessories, including unseen pieces from the designer's personal archive.
Left - Vidal Sassoon cutting Mary Quant's famous haircut
TheChicGeek says, “The V&A does love a Baby-Boomer focused exhibition. They do have all the time and money afterall, so why not?
Mary Quant is one of the biggest fashion names of the 1960s and despite her business shrinking to almost nothing, today, many people still know her name.
Mary Quant was great at branding herself and her ‘Bazaar’ brand, and the names of the designs like ‘Banana Split’, for a zip up dress, are of their time, but, dare I say it, the majority of the designs felt dowdy and quite boring.
Right - Model with a Mary Quant 'Bazaar' bag
The Mary Quant brand wasn’t cheap, and while she had a cheaper ‘Ginger Group’ line, this isn’t fast fashion like we know it, though some of the stitching says otherwise…
I left the exhibition feeling that the cool girls of the 1960s probably weren’t wearing Mary Quant. 'Swinging London' doesn’t look quite as colourful through Quant’s eyes, and the designs often look quite basic as opposed to chic. The exhibition is well put together and her talent for licensing is to be admired, but it would be good to have known what happens after the mid-70s where the exhibition tails off.
Left - The upstairs portion of the V&A's Mary Quant exhibition
The daisy branding could have been as big as any make-up brand and the power of the name and that Vidal Sassoon haircut is the epitome of 1960s cool. I was just surprised how pedestrian a lot of the designs were, but I liked the personal touches of saying where people bought their items from, pictures of them wearing it, and the inclusive call out - #WeWantQuant - the V&A did to fill gaps in their collection for this exhibition.
Try and see this while you're at the V&A - Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams, it's really good.
Right - Mary Quant and models at the launch of the 'quantafoot' collection