Today a home with a walk-in closet is a dream come true for the American consumer. Both men and women have more clothes and accessories than ever before. But it was only a few decades ago that this paradigm began to evolve. In this article we’ll explore how fashion has evolved into big business, how it is sustained and where it is going.
Anyone who has ever lived in or has loved an older home knows that closets, prior to the late 1990s, have been on the small side. Also that in pre-war (that would be WII) dwellings, as this author can personally attest, closets are downright microscopic.The fact is, our foremothers made do. The majority of women did not work outside of the home, and left it only to walk to the market (i.e. the grocery or supermarket). They needed clothing for staying at home and keeping house (cleaning), a Sunday best outfit (singular) and rarely, a special occasion dress, usually in black. Our social scopes were not broad. We familied and we churched. This started to change in the 1950s when the building explosion spawned suburban tract subdivisions and neighborhoods began to socialize. Commerce boomed and this new-found middle class wealth was supported by women who furnished these homes and sparked increased demand for consumer products on all levels.
Enter the 1980s, when women as a whole began to work outside the home, although most of us remained the discretionary income. For this we required both transportation and more expansive wardrobing choices. It ushered in an era of plenty and with it elevated roles for women’s fashion in the concept to consumer models. For example, in the hands of a shrewd designer and marketer, Diane Von Furstenberg, the once lowly baggy dungaree became the form-fitted designer jean complete with embroidered pockets that accentuated the derriere. The price point for this phenom also jumped from under $20 to an exorbitant $200 back in the day when the average annual household income was about $17K! Other clothing items followed suit with financiers the world ‘round getting on board to satisfy the female consumer.
It did not take long for investors on Wall Street and elsewhere to recognize this new trend and to capitalize on it. Excess was encouraged; to quote Gordon Gecko, a fictional character from the popular 1980s film, Wall Street, “Greed is good.” Here is the current state of the fashion industry and where it is headed next:
In fashion, major design houses create lines of new clothing for every season. This provides temptation as well as an incentive to buy. While most of us do not wear designer clothing, the trickle down effect from the runway to the retail store means that these designs will be copied and translated into more affordable clothing for consumers. As a result, we buy more clothes. Lots of them. As previously mentioned, women play more roles today, have more interests, business, social, and recreational, outside the home than ever before. For this we need walk-in closets and more wardrobing choices.
Few realize, however, that the fashion industry has been male dominated for decades. Slowly, that is changing. Partly due to social media, women as cultural influencers is on the rise. We now live in a world where Tiger Woods struggles to regain his titles and earning power while Kylie Jenner, model and fashion designer under age 30, has become a billionaire. Yes: B. I. L. L. I. O. N. A. I. R. E. Gaining investment capital for woman-driven, concept-to-consumer goods has also increased markedly, and now big business wants in on the multi-billion dollar opportunities that female consumers represent. There is a simple message for undecided investors: “get on board or lose market share.”
Perhaps the biggest reason why women’s fashion continues to have currency and respect on the Dow Jones is the fact that it has sustained growth over the past 40 years. The U.S. apparel market projection for 2025 is $390 billion dollars. The in-store retail market value for apparel and footwear trails at $292 billion dollars, but is still a very healthy figure and a major contributor to the GNP.
Not to be a spoiler but the bubble has to burst at some point. This is partly because the boomer generation that initially fueled this industry has aged and most of us are retired or thinking about it. When we downsize our lives, our homes, our cars, we downsize our wardrobes also. There is less need for more clothing choices. Also, there is less need for more clothes for younger workers in certain professions. For example a large percentage of Millennials who either work in professions such as healthcare which requires them to wear uniforms, or in offices where the concept of casual Friday has spread to the entire workweek. Just about no one buys pantyhose anymore!
This is where investors have to become flexible and to follow the lifespan of the goods that are manufactured. Styles change, we find the handbag and shoes that we coveted are spending more time in the closet than on our bodies. The solution is resale. Even the luxury goods market, which has always been beyond the reach of most working women, has a silver lining. Online secondhand stores abound and just about anyone can afford to buy a gently used Hermes, Chloe, or Prada handbag for a fraction of its original worth.
Now that big business has initiated a binge/purge cycle by American consumers, online thrift shops and venues where secondhand goods are offered such as ThredUp and eBay, do a brisk business. Wardrobe items that are being jettisoned are sold and these sites offer plentiful options to buy someone else’s used clothing, footwear, and luxury items as well. ThredUp’s creed is to ‘buy used’ and elaborates how this responsible choice benefits mankind from less waste clogging landfills, to the option to fill those walk-in closets! Whatever the category, generally a cycle of excess is followed by a period of readjustment.
Going forward more of us will embrace the credo, “Less is more.” Rather than maintain what is essentially a vault in our homes where we cache clothing, we’ll carefully curate and pare down our apparel choices to just what we really use and nothing more. The result will be clothing we wear more often and replace only as needed. By that time some big, woman-run business will have anticipated our needs and already fulfilled them.
Today’s fashion industry is flourishing because more influencers and decision-makers are women. If they are not at the helm then they represent in the boardroom. This shift towards females determining women’s fashion outcomes is an example of success breeding continued success. And that paradigm is fashion’s commercial future.