Boomer Women Steal Spotlight During Fashion Week

It's Fashion Week, when retail conversation normally runs to leggy 19-year-olds sailing down the runway. This year, however, everyone from Women's Wear Daily to Vogue is talking about older women, like 48-year-old Sharon Stone, who just bumped the 20-year-old Olsen twins as the spokesmodel for designer Badgley Mischka, or 47-year-old Madonna's ads for hip retailer H&M.

That makes it a great week for Forth & Towne, the Gap chain aimed at 35-plus women, to introduce its new ad campaign, "The Chic Revolution Begins." The print ads, done by New York-based agency AR, support the 14 Forth & Towne stores opening this fall in Atlanta, Houston, Seattle, and throughout California. (The chain already has locations in Illinois and New York.)

At first glance, it might seem that targeting older women is a slam-dunk. For one thing, there are 41 million Baby Boomer women in the United States. Plus, clothes aimed at this segment have been a hit: In addition to Eileen Fisher and J. Jill (now part of Talbots), Chico's and Coldwater Creek are among retail's biggest success stories. Women also respond to age-based appeals, which is why marketers are signing up older spokespeople, like Christie Brinkley, 52, for Cover Girl; Diane Keaton, 60, for L'Oreal; and Stone, who also pitches Christian Dior's skin-care line.



By skewing slightly younger, Forth & Towne is hoping to dodge the dowdiness factor associated with some of the shops aimed at older women, and a fit factor many women dismiss as "pajamatization"--elastic waistbands, "generous" seats, and long, boxy jackets. And the ads, which will run in fashion-oriented magazines like More and Elle, play up the new chain's style.

But not everyone expects Forth & Towne to do well. "Gap was too tentative in their market selection," says Marti Barletta, president of The TrendSight Group, Winnetka, Ill., which specializes in marketing to women. By focusing on women in the 35-plus range, she says, "they have not made enough of a commitment to Baby Boomer women."

The issue, Barletta says, is that the over-50 segment of the market is a very different demographic than the youngest Boomers, who are 42--and even more different than the 35-year-olds that Gap is trying to reach. "At 35, a woman has much more in common with a 25-year-old than with someone who is 45," says Barletta, who is also the author of the forthcoming Prime Time Women: How to Win the Hearts, Minds and Business of Boomer Big Spenders.

"In their 40s, women are going through all kinds of angst about their age, and about wanting to look younger. But by the time they turn 50, women are much happier with who they are," she says. Chains like Chico's and Coldwater Creek have been so successful, she says, because they appeal to that older woman's stronger sense of authenticity.

Forth & Towne's offerings, while more high-fashion, are also less distinctive, Barletta maintains. "This woman knows who she is, and wants to look interesting," she says. "She's not going to buy ruffles or ruching because they are in this year."

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