Fashion for the Over 40s Holds Opportunity in Apparel

“Age is just a number,” and “You’re as young as you feel,” are two common phrases that encapsulate society’s changing attitude towards growing old. And in developed markets the world over, society is growing old.

The global population has aged visibly in the last five years, with the over 65s accounting for a share of almost 8% in 2011. In North America, 13% of the population is now aged over 65, while in Western Europe the figure is 16%, the highest percentage globally.

A neglected group with much potential

In the US, the 40-60-year-old age group, often known as baby-boomers, is itself booming. This age group accounts for 29% of the population in the US, the largest of any age group.  Baby-boomers were the first generation raised on consumer culture and are more used to indulging themselves; many are still working and as a rule have every intention of living life to the full. In addition, this group, although not unaffected by the global economic downturn, is also relatively financially resilient.

There is no doubt that the 40-60 age bracket represents an opportunity for value growth for apparel manufacturers, yet this group remains relatively neglected by fashion retailers and fast fashion brands in particular, which continue to focus much of their efforts on young people. Given the difficult economic environment in the US and Western Europe in which high street fashion retailers are operating, it is perhaps surprising that retailers have been relatively slow to target a group that offers a definite opportunity. Catering for this age group does, however, bring its challenges, and it is perhaps the risk of failure that has stifled development.

Age is arbitrary, so what to wear?

Perhaps the biggest challenge for apparel retailers bidding for a slice of the over 40s market is knowing just where to position their clothing. A range of overlapping influences, from celebrity culture to changing demographics, has resulted in a shift in attitude towards the ageing process in developed markets the world over. Rather than a constricting category that prescribes and defines a person’s actions and attitudes, age is increasingly perceived as arbitrary, with a person’s mental outlook playing a much more important role.

Influencing the shifting definition of middle age is celebrity culture in which older stars, both male and female, continue to be celebrated for their looks. The likes of Madonna, Goldie Hawn, Helen Mirren and George Clooney, all 50 or above, epitomise the age does not matter phenomenon. While older consumers tend not to worship celebrities in the same way as the young, they are nevertheless aware of the looks and lifestyles of glamorous figureheads within their age groups, and believe that if the stars can remain ageless, they can or should too, and as a result their fashion demands and tastes are far removed from similar age groups in generations gone by.

Shape and style take over from trends

This change in attitude presents a challenge for apparel manufacturers. Shifts in attitudes and blurring of age boundaries have made it increasingly difficult for apparel retailers to pitch their products correctly along the lines of age. For example, mothers do not think anything of shopping in the likes of Hollister with their teenage children. 40-60-year-olds are too young at heart, not to mention image-conscious, to be content with sensible clothing and comfortable shoes, and want to remain modern and fashionable.

However, the over 40s pose a challenge in that they are caught between a desire to remain young and trendy and a need for clothing that fits their changing body shape and covers up more flesh than the garments designed for teenagers – rather than ‘age appropriate’ manufacturers looking to win over consumers must think ‘shape appropriate’, something US jeans brand Not Your Daughter’s Jeans has done extremely well. Adding to the challenge of making clothes that flatter while remaining stylish is that, after years of seeing fashions come and go and perhaps experimenting with some none-too-flattering looks, these older consumers have refined their tastes. The need to look fashionable is being replaced by wanting to look stylish, and as a result cut, colour and quality rank high in importance.

Developing the right concepts for each life stage is a very current challenge for apparel retailers, many of which have to rethink their strategies to meet consumers’ changing needs. However, with regard to catering for consumers in the 40-60 age bracket, with the challenge comes opportunity, and for a high street retailer not afraid to try something new, it is certainly a challenge worth tackling head on.

Advertising presents a difficult proposition

While getting the clothing right is, of course, of prime importance, advertising must also be perfectly pitched if a brand is to make the right impression from the off. For example, a store or brand overtly marketed for the over 40s may be a difficult concept to pull off, as by positioning itself in an age bracket it instantly alienates the ‘age is a state of mind’ consumer it is trying to attract. Advertising to baby-boomers over the world over needs to walk a fine line, finding the right balance between humorous and non-patronising. Showing respect for age but portraying older consumers as attractive and young at heart is not an easy proposition by any means.

UK retailers dip their toes into the water

Given the difficulties of catering correctly for this age group, it is perhaps not surprising that the majority of retailers have so far chosen to focus their efforts on younger, more easily defined ¬– and perhaps more easily pleased – consumers. However, recent developments in the UK suggest manufacturers are coming round to at least testing the water with fashion ranges aimed at older consumers.

In 2010, department store Debenhams unveiled an advertising campaign featuring female models in their 40s, 50s and 60s, with its Deputy Chief Executive Michael Sharp claiming: “The days are long gone when hitting 50 meant dowdy cardigans and baggy knits”. More recently, two famous faces have launched lines aimed at older women. In 2011, television celebrity and retail guru Mary Portas launched a fashion range for the over 40s, retailing through the House of Fraser department store chain, while in February 2012 Twiggy announced a womenswear line for high street retailer Marks & Spencer, which launches in April 2012. The model launched the collection of 47 pieces, saying: “There are no rules, just taste,” and was careful to point out that the range is suitable for anyone aged 18 to 80 – an approach that would seem perfectly tailored to tackling some of the challenges presented by the over 40s market.

US firm already reaping rewards

Proving that a well-targeted range for the older consumer can pay dividends, in the US, Chico’s, one of the few manufacturers which focuses its attention on brands for the older consumer, recently reported that its profits rose by 21% in the quarter ending 28 January 2012. The company reported net income of US$25.1 million, up from US$20.7 million in the same period a year ago. The retailer, which was helped no end when Michelle Obama chose to wear one of its dresses on prime time television, plans to open 135 more stores in the US in 2012.

Whether the new ranges in the UK can find similar success to Chico’s remains to be seen, but what is certain is that there is certainly room in both the UK and US markets for branded retailers of stylish apparel for the over 40s market, with a little creative thinking potentially bringing big rewards to their bottom line.