NEW YORK TIMES | ELIZABETH A. HARRIS
All of a sudden, Ugg boots were everywhere. Knee-high Hunter rain boots also seemed to sprout from the ground directly onto millions of American feet. And last year, denim in the colors of Skittles candies, like green and red, were inescapable.
So what is the must-have item in apparel this year that beckons last-minute gift shoppers, the trend that is hotter than all others?
Unfortunately for retailers, there isn’t one.
“Every year there seems to be something, but I would say, this year, there’s not one standout thing,” said Eva Chen, editor in chief of Lucky magazine. “It’s the culmination of an entire year of personalization and smaller microtrends.”
Retailers have been girding for a difficult holiday shopping season this year, with wages stagnant and consumers wary. A major fashion trend can offer companies a traffic boost and can draw attention to their clothes.
But so far, no such luck. Perhaps it’s a marketing miss or overall consumer apathy. Some even suggest that the ubiquity of gift and fashion showcases on the Internet makes it difficult for one item to shine.
“Periodically you’ll see it with a particular demographic, like teens, but I can’t remember a time when it was quite this clear-cut, and quite so much across the board,” said John D. Morris, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets. “Merchants would say you can’t know when it starts, when it ends, or how long it lasts,” he said of major trends, “but you know it when you’re in it — or when you’re not.”
Plenty of items are fashionable and trendy. Leather is very popular, for example, and even Uggs are still plentiful in stores. Macy’s, which announced strong earnings for its third quarter this year, says its shoppers have spread their interest across a variety of categories, including sweaters, boots, coats and fragrances.
While there are many smaller trends, retail analysts and fashion experts say that a truly dominant trend, available across a spectrum of prices and appealing to various demographic groups, is something different.
“It makes it easier to buy, to market, and to sell when there’s a very defined theme or trend, and even easier when there is a must-have item,” said Robert Burke, a former fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman and a prominent industry consultant.
Analysts and fashion editors say that traffic and sales can get a modest boost when an item catches fire, as skinny jeans did for men some years ago, perhaps because there is more excitement in the air, or because consumers don’t have to spend as much time trying to figure out what they want to buy.
In some cases, a powerful trend can be even be like the tide that lifts all boats. Richard E. Jaffe, an analyst at Stifel, said the brightly colored denim trend had a “pervasive effect” on apparel last year and the year before.
“If you had bright jeans, you couldn’t wear the same top in muted earth tones,” he said. “And the reality is you need two tops for every bottom, and if you’re wearing skinny jeans you need new shoes.”
“Now, that doesn’t exist,” Mr. Jaffe said. “So what’s on the top of the gift list for your family and friends? Chocolate?”
Mr. Burke said the “billion dollar question” was why some trends raced to the head of the pack, while others just puttered along.
“As much as you want to push trends and push a must-have item, they tend to have a life of their own,” he said.
Mr. Morris of BMO Capital Markets said the lack of a cohesive trend this year might be traceable to the economy. Making a big bet on a particular item entails some risk, and in a shaky economy retailers are often unwilling to do so. Some in the fashion world say consumers have been gravitating toward more individual style this year, like monogrammed items, for example, which is a trend in itself.
Others point instead to the Internet.
Today, a trend can zip around the world on the back of blog posts or a Twitter message, so items can flare up and spread — and burn out, some say — far more quickly than in the past.
Melissa Davis, the general manager of ShopStyle.com, said that the Internet had also made the message of what’s hot much more diffuse, so it is more difficult for one item to stand out.
“Traditionally, you would open up a magazine or walk into a well-merchandised store and you knew what the hot item was,” Ms. Davis said. Now, instead of a handful of publications and a few personalities, people can find fashion on countless blogs, and even sites like Pinterest.com. “Discovery is everywhere,” she said.
Not everybody in fashion agrees that “there is no hit-you-over-the-head item,” as Mr. Burke put it. Ken Downing, fashion director at Neiman Marcus, said biker jackets had been a huge seller this year. Joyann King, digital director at Harper’s Bazaar, said that leather leggings, both real and fake, were the item of the moment.
“There’s always got to be one,” Ms. King said. “Even if people disagree.”
There have also been memorable duds. “Retailers have been trying to jump-start corduroys” for years, said Mr. Morris of BMO Capital Markets. “They haven’t.”
Erika Serow, who will take over as head of Bain & Company’s North America retail practice, cautioned that the lack of one unforgettable item this year doesn’t prophesy a long-term trend. And not everyone is discontented by the absence of a hit.
“When there’s one big thing, people are a little bit on autopilot,” said Ms. Chen of Lucky magazine. “Isn’t it better to get what you want, and not what everybody wants?”