'Direct' Isn't Enough To Make Us Love Clothes Again

Summer is winding down, and women everywhere know what that means. Many of us prop up our flip-flopped feet and start turning pages, either in print mags or the online equivalent. Our style wheels spin with a special September-issue energy, offering the year’s biggest burst of possibility. I will wear heels. I’ll reject black and embrace chartreuse. I can pull off a romantic neckline. 

As your D2C columnist, I should be celebrating all the ways direct-to-consumer thinking is making this season better, reinventing the industry that lets people reinvent themselves. Just last week, for example, Women’s Wear Daily reported that Bloomingdale's is diving into the fashion rental market with My List, which allows for renting up to four items per month for $149. 

And Farfetch, the massive technology platform for the luxury fashion industry, announced it’s buying New Guards Group, which licenses Virgil Abloh's Off-White brand, for $675 million, expanding its offerings as well as its losses. (He’s the red-hot minimalist designer who collaborates with Serena Williams and Nike.) And thanks to its ever-improving predictive analytics, Stitch Fix keeps reporting growing numbers of customers, revenues and profits (a word that doesn’t get much attention in D2C land.)

And yet.

These more focused ways to shop can’t quite paper over the truth. America has been losing interest in fashion — and in fact, in clothing — for more than a decade. Most of us will waltz into fall wearing the same old leggings, jeans and hoodies. In May, for example, retail sales of clothing fell 24%, the worst month since the recession of 2008. 

We’re even getting bored with the athleisure trend, with NPD reporting a mid-single-digit fall in athletic footwear, and single-digit declines in every major category of activewear in the most recent quarter.

It’s easy to focus on brands that are doing well, whether it’s pricey Lululemon or Target. But the big picture is that we’re just not that into our closets anymore. 

None of this is news, and we’ve all read about every single trend: In casual-dress America, fewer people need separate work wardrobes. Dry cleaners are vanishing. Fast-fashion chains have taught us we can find everything cheaper somewhere else. Millennials would rather spend money on experiences than fashion. We’re shamefaced about fashion’s environmental impact. 

And, our smartphones say more about us than shoes: Since 2010, we’ve been spending more annually on personal electronics than on apparel. 

In its latest Future of Apparel report, NPD predicts sales will continue to decline and experience a rebound in 2021. The gains it forecasts aren’t in fashion-driven categories (except for dresses), but in “sweats, swimwear and… sleepwear.”

Yep. Put your PJs on, because the fashion business isn’t waking up from its nap any time soon.

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