New York Fashion Week, known for avant-guard styles such as feathered crop tops and safari-inspired evening gowns, is attracting a more button-down crowd.
Banana Republic, J. Crew and other mainstream brands are increasing their presence at Fashion Week this year, shifting the tone of an event known for experimental clothing that few ordinary consumers could afford, or even want. Banana Republic, owned by Gap Inc., will hold a presentation of its fall-winter line on Saturday, marking its first-ever appearance at the show. J. Crew, which is returning to the event, is touting its latest designs Tuesday.
Both brands are coming to Fashion Week with something to prove. Banana Republic looks to build on a return to growth: It posted a 2 percent gain in same-store sales last month, compared with a 10 percent drop in the year-earlier period. J. Crew is working on an overseas expansion and may eventually go public again, following a buyout by private-equity firms in 2011.
Specialty-apparel chains also face more pressure to be hip than before. E-commerce sites and fast-fashion chains, popular with millennial shoppers, can embrace the latest fads much faster than traditional retailers.
“The specialty brands are trying to be just as competitive as the fast-fashion brands, and they’re trying to convey a rich story with a unique product,” said Tom Julian, men’s fashion director at the Doneger Group, a New York-based research firm. An appearance at Fashion Week also helps build buzz, he said. “There are brands who have tried to use it as a calling card, a marketing platform or a media headline.”
Banana Republic is best known for its “desk to dinner” styling – clothes that can be worn straight from work to a restaurant. The chain is currently getting a makeover from creative director Marissa Webb and promoting itself with the hashtag “#thenewBR.”
“It’s important for Banana Republic to be present and participating in big fashion moments like New York Fashion Week,” said Liz Nunan, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco- based brand. The brand wants to present its new direction to media and “fashion influencers” from around the world, she said.
Mainstream brands come to Fashion Week with different goals than haute-couture designers, who are often hoping to catch the eyes of the Vogue editors or high-end boutiques. A chain like Banana Republic or J. Crew is trying to demonstrate that it can respond to and even set trends, Julian said.
If it works, a fashion show can be cost-effective marketing. A seasonal presentation is less expensive than a television marketing campaign, Julian said. And it may produce similar results if the collection resonates with media and guests, he said.
The difficulty is getting noticed in a crowded field.
“The success has to be proven alongside some other fashionable brands,” said Simeon Siegel, an analyst at Nomura Securities in New York. “Sometimes they succeed wildly; sometimes they don’t.”
The two companies also are up against a broader challenge: Many Americans are wearing more sports clothing as street wear - - a clothing category known as “athleisure.” While Gap’s Old Navy has benefited from the shift, it hasn’t been good news for Banana Republic. And J. Crew Chief Executive Officer Mickey Drexler has said his company will mostly sit out the trend.
At the same time, Banana Republic’s parent company is in flux. Gap elevated executive Art Peck to the CEO job on Feb. 1 and has named new brand presidents to both the flagship chain and Banana Republic unit. The company also is shutting down the online Piperlime brand and eliminating Gap’s creative director role.
The job of creating a new look for Banana Republic falls to Webb, who joined the chain in April 2014. Webb, a former head of womenswear at J. Crew who also has her own clothing line, favors black-and-white designs and plaid patterns.
“Hiring Marissa Webb is all about recapturing that design credibility that would make women say, ‘I have to go to Banana Republic because they have something no one else is offering me and they’re offering it at accessible prices,’” said Dorothy Lakner, a New York-based analyst at Topeka Capital Markets.
Banana Republic has tried to elevate its fashion game before, using collaborations with well-known designers such as Roland Mouret, Marimekko and Trina Turk. The brand also capitalized on the trends sparked by popular television with a “Mad Men” collection, based on the styles of the AMC show. Still, it has struggled to keep sales growing in recent years.
At J. Crew, a pileup in inventory contributed to a $536 million writedown in the most recently reported quarter – a sign its recent designs haven’t been flying off shelves. Same- store sales declined 2 percent in the period.
The company, which is marking its ninth appearance at Fashion Week, is increasingly looking overseas for growth. It’s opening stores in London, Hong Kong, Canada and Paris. J. Crew also is expanding its offshoot Madewell brand.
Banana Republic and J. Crew aren’t the only big brands to show at Fashion Week this season, though they may be the most mainstream. Lacoste, best known for its collared shirts and crocodile logo, will present a line at Lincoln Center.
The stars of the event remain designers such as Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Donna Karan, who typically show their high-end work – pieces that will ultimately fetch thousands of dollars – as well as more downscale lines that are sold in department stores.
While Banana Republic may not have a well-known designer name or a couture line, the presentation Saturday night will be closely watched by followers of the brand, Lakner said.
“It’s legitimate for Banana Republic to be there, but what they need – and hopefully what Marissa Webb can deliver – is some of the excitement that’s been missing,” she said.