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Would Hannah Montana wear it?

 

Suzanne C. Ryan

Boston Globe
January 10, 2008

 

After months of speculation in the fashion world, Abercrombie & Fitch, the popular clothing retailer, unveils its latest concept store at the Natick Collection Jan. 21. Called Gilly Hicks Sydney, it's an intimate apparel store aimed at teens and young adults.

Abercrombie & Fitch is just the latest retailer to jump into the booming business of loungewear for young buyers. Over the past four years, Victoria's Secret has gained momentum with Pink, its line of brightly colored hoodies, sweats, undergarments, and accessories. The clothing, which often has the word "Pink" stamped across the back, is designed for college students (the Pink website has its own "On Campus" link) but younger teens and tweens wear it, too. While Victoria's Secret is aimed at an older, more sophisticated customer, the Pink line is sporty and approachable - more girl next door than sultry-eyed supermodel.

Pink has generated a whopping $900 million in sales since it launched, according to spokeswoman Sara Tervo, and now the company is experimenting with stand-alone Pink stores. To date, four have opened across the country, in California, Alabama, Michigan, and Virginia.

Its success hasn't gone unnoticed. Abercrombie will open four other Gilly Hicks Sydney stores following the Natick launch, and teen retail favorite American Eagle has rolled out a new chain of loungewear stores called Aerie.

"Right now, every retailer is looking for growth opportunities," said Marshal Cohen, chief analyst for NPD Group Inc., a consumer and retail market research firm. With more young women wearing loungewear not just at home but to school and the mall, he said, a new retail category has been born.

"Pajamas are streetwear. Slippers are shoes," Cohen continued. "It's amazing how casual we've gotten. This retail segment could get very competitive."

Underwear and bras will be the primary products at the Australian-themed Gilly Hicks store, said an employee who requested anonymity because of company policy. But Abercrombie & Fitch, which did not return phone calls seeking comment, is being so secretive about its latest line even employees at the store said they had not seen the garments until recently.

"We've done jeans and sweatshirts," the employee said. "The Abercrombie girl needs something for underneath."

American Eagle has launched 32 Aerie stores nationwide since late 2006, including locations at the South Shore Plaza in Braintree, the CambridgeSide Galleria, and the Holyoke Mall. Aerie sells what the company calls "sweetly sexy" bras, underwear, loungewear, and exercise apparel for the 15- to 25-year-old set. The clothing is generally more colorful than racy. The line includes items such as windbreakers, sequined slippers, baggy dorm pants, even boxers for girls.

American Eagle has always sold loungewear in its stores. But customers were asking for more, said company spokeswoman Beth Barney.

"This is something that our girls told us they liked," Barney said. To test the waters, AE opened three stand-alone Aerie stores in 2006. "We had such a great customer response that we decided to accelerate our plans." This year, the company plans to open another 50 to 60 Aerie stores across the country.

Abercrombie & Fitch has been tight-lipped about exactly what products Gilly Hicks will carry. But the store's website, already up and running, seems to offer a clue. The site requires visitors to be at least 18 years old to view a short film that features young women swimming topless and frolicking in lace bras, thongs, boxers, and underwear. In one scene, a young woman and young man giggle and flirt as they stand, almost entirely in the buff, in a yard of some sort, near a beach. The young man helpfully hangs the young woman's bra on a clothesline to dry. Other lingerie sways in the breeze.

Provocative advertising is nothing new for Abercrombie & Fitch, which has courted controversy for years. In 1998, a group of Boston-area parents protested at the Atrium in Chestnut Hill because the company's catalog featured images of naked teens. That same year, Mothers Against Drunk Driving protested a binge drinking reference in a catalog. The National Organization for Women was upset about naked images in a 2001 catalog. The next year, a Christian group called the American Family Association protested the company's decision to sell thong underwear to 7- to 14-year olds, some of it with phrases like "eye candy" and "wink wink" on it.

Such PR dust-ups haven't slowed the growth of the company, which now boasts five brands: Abercrombie & Fitch (targeting 18- to 22-year olds), abercrombie (for 7- to 14-year-olds), the popular Hollister Co. brand (14- to 18-year-olds), Ruehl No. 925 (post college), and, soon, Gilly Hicks.

While flannel pajama bottoms and fuzzy slippers have been popular as outerwear for a while, conspicuous lingerie - in the form of lacy camisoles peeking out under V-neck tops, or low-slung jeans revealing what's underneath - is also an established fashion trend among teens and college kids. But such suggestive styles can bring up thorny issues for parents about whether kids are simply growing up too fast.

When 12-year-old Kendall Hall opened a birthday present from Victoria's Secret this fall, her mother, Meredith, watched intently - even though the birthday present, blue paisley flannel pajama bottoms, was harmless.

"Lingerie has become fashionable for kids," the Milton mom said. "It's sad that girls aren't learning to have a little more respect for themselves. Instead, they're allowing the market to drive this look."

In fact, teens are often the ones doing the buying - and they have plenty of money to spend. According to a survey by Teenage Research Unlimited, an Illinois-based market research firm that tracks youth trends, teens spent an average of about $100 a week on personal purchases in 2006. Clothing was the most popular category. Total teen spending in 2006 was about $179 billion.

"Parents are giving them money or credit cards and children make most of the decisions about whatever purchases are made for them, whether it's toiletries, a bedspread or undergarments," said James McNeal, a former professor of marketing at Texas A&M University and author of "Kids as Customers: A Handbook of Marketing to Children."

"If you talk to young girls, you'll find they are looking in the window of Victoria's Secret and then going to [girls' clothing chain] Limited Too and wondering where their size is," he said.

Retailers are jumping into the loungewear category because the market is wide open and because teenagers generally want a shopping experience tailored just for them, said Todd D. Slater, a retail consumer analyst and managing director at financial advisory firm Lazard Ltd.

"There's only one success story at the mall so far - Pink," Slater said. "Aerie is looking to be number 2. Ultimately, malls can handle up to two or three competing brands. There's room for more."

The reason? Teens don't want to buy loungewear and intimate apparel at department stores, he said.

"First of all, their parents shop there," Slater said. "They don't want to be in a dressing room next to a 40-year-old mother."

Just shopping for loungewear and at teen-targeted stores can be a rite of passage for some girls. Chantel O'Bryant, a 17-year-old Dorchester resident, always shopped with her family for brands at Wal-Mart and Sears, until recently when she was introduced to the more stylish Pink line.

"As I got older," she said, "I saw I needed to buy more fashionable things."

And who could resist? Teen and tween consumers are no more immune to the influence of popular culture than anyone else. When girls see pop star Miley Cyrus pictured in a lacy camisole, or "High School Musical" star Ashley Tisdale gyrating in a mini skirt for a sneaker ad, they want the look, too.

"We have to recognize that today's teens are mature," said Michael Wood, vice president at research firm TRU. "They are 15 going on 25. They have the money and the interest in shopping. There's a newness to this category. It's something very appealing to them."

"It's a lifestyle message," NPD's Cohen said of retailers looking to solidify brand loyalty with consumers as early as they can. "[Brands are saying] I am going to provide you with a product that fits into your life, makes you smarter, more confident. It will transform your life. This is what marketing to the teenage consumer is about. It's about providing an image, trendiness, a status."

 

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