Uniqlo, don’t lose your edge by appealing to the suburban market like Gap did

An overview of Uniqlo suggests it would do well to avoid becoming the wear of suburban families:

Uniqlo isn’t in the business of chasing trends. Its staples—versatile black pants, reliable oxfords, crisp cotton socks—are available month after month, year after year. A more apt analogue would be the Gap. In its 1990s heyday, the Gap revolutionized American retailing by making basics cool. But the company eventually became a victim of its own success. “When [the Gap] tried to go from having a certain cachet to being in every single mall in every single town in America, the brand lost its edge,” Steve Rowen, a managing partner at Retail Systems Research, told me. Gap clothing became the uniform of suburban moms and dads. Despite the company’s efforts to make its khakis less baggy and its shirts slimmer, no one wants to fall into the Gap anymore—especially when you can get cheaper basics with cleaner lines at Uniqlo…

That could be an opportunity to make a good first impression. But as Uniqlo learned when it arrived on American shores, first impressions can be hard to manage. The three original U.S. stores were in New Jersey malls, where the company soon encountered several hurdles, including fit. (American customers, on average, are taller and fleshier than Japanese shoppers.) It closed the stores within a year.

Uniqlo has continued to struggle in suburban markets. Rowen, of Retail Systems Research, said he thinks the company should hew closely to cities, where it has found its greatest success, because that’s where its core customers are. This would also help it avoid the fate of the Gap, which traded its sense of self for growth.

This could be a simply story of a company being cautioned to avoid the mass market because doing so would lessen is cool factor. But, it is interesting that this is cast primarily in suburban/urban terms. The dilemma appears to be choosing between these two points:

  1. The majority of Americans live in suburbs. If a company wants to hit it big, the American people are in the suburbs. Furthermore, there is a lot of money to tap in the suburbs as well as future generations of loyal brand adherents in the form of suburban children.
  2. Being associated with the suburbs – shopping malls, parents, the mass market – will change the brand and eventually render it obsolete.

It is also worth considering numerous other brands that have appealed to suburbanites and survived. Is the clothing market that different than the smartphone and tech industry? In other words, does Apple suffer because so many suburbanites have an iPhone or are they the rare example of a company that has kept its cool factor even while becoming ubiquitous?

If this were an American company, I might guess that they would eventually go for the suburbs with all its money and potential buyers.

Americans dress more casually…because they can

A historian explain how and why American clothing styles have changed toward the casual:

It wasn’t always this way. For much of the 20th century, Americans didn’t dress casually all the time. There were dress codes and customs. Men wore suits and hats, women wore dresses. Jeans and t-shirts were for laborers, not professionals.

“Casual is the sweet spot between looking like every middle class American and being an individual in the massive wash of options,” Clemente told the Post.

She says we now find meaning in the way we dress, in a way we didn’t in the early 20th century, when people dressed more aspirationally. They wanted to look as though they had higher social status than they actually did.

As it turns out, historians can point to two major periods in the 20th century that changed the way we dress today: the 1920s, when women started breaking away from dresses and fewer men attending college wore full suits; and World War II, when women cared more about their work in the factories and the victory gardens than what they were wearing on the particular day.

While the goals of choosing certain clothes have changed (from projecting a higher social standing which is now viewed as gauche since we are all middle class to individualization), clothing is still intended to present a message to others. Arguably, that individualization is still about status but a different kind. Instead of pointing to traditional markers of class such as money and wealth, individualization points to creative status and taste. Perhaps we have shifted the symbolic boundaries of clothing from socioeconomic boundaries to cultural boundaries (to use the terms laid out by sociologist of culture Michele Lamont) where the aesthetic choices we make now matter more.

Selecting “The Most Overexposed Chicago Design Trends”

Curbed Chicago identified six Chicago-specific design trends that they think are now passé.

Stylized Chicago neighborhood maps [I have a t-shirt version but not a poster]

Reclaimed wood Chicago flags [Odd – no]

Stolen ‘L’ maps [A version of the stolen street sign…don’t have one]

Chicago World’s Fair prints [No – but have one of the better South Shore Line posters]

Generic Chicago skyline poster [Sort of – a real matted photograph but a similar image]

The nothing-but-a-black-leather-sofa-and-flat-screen-TV look [No]

I want to know whether these are real patterns or not: how many Chicago area residents have these features? How does this compare to residents of other cities? Someone could create a bot to scan real estate listing photos or the list could have emerged from a set of in-the-know interior designers. Alas, we have no idea what methodology Curbed Chicago employed which perhaps indicates that it wasn’t very rigorous.

All of this hints that decor trends are driven more by “feel” than hard data. What’s “in” these days could be tracked in a variety of ways yet it often seems that a class of gatekeepers – professionals, the media, corporations – gets to dictate when these trends begin and end. For example, are we past the era of stainless steel appliances and granite countertops? The average resident or seller is looking to others to signal the latest trend.

Zara devotes its full marketing budget to leasing expensive retail space near high-status brands

Here is a way retailers can take advantage of space: locate near high-status stores.

How about advertising? Basically, Zara doesn’t do it. There is no ad budget. Instead, the company spends ungodly amounts of money buying storefronts next to luxury brands to own the label of affordable luxury:

“The high street is really divided according to brand value,” says [Masoud Golsorkhi, the editor of Tank, a London magazine about culture and fashion], who is also a consultant for fashion brands. “Prada wants to be next to Gucci, Gucci wants to be next to Prada. The retail strategy for luxury brands is to try to keep as far away from the likes of Zara. Zara’s strategy is to get as close to them as possible.”…

Zara stores cozy up to the most famous brands in the world to sing their luxury ambitions even as they profit off a brilliant, cheap, short supply chain that delivers similar fashion at a much lower price.

In this case, proximity matters. By being located near prestigious brands, Zara is pulled up more to their level. Additionally, shoppers willing to wander into the really high-status stores might then also wander into Zara. This seems to be the strategy of the shopping mall as well: utilize several important anchor stores (or anchor facilities/restaurants in “lifestyle centers“) to help bring in more customers who will then also visit other stores along the way.

I wonder: are there any streets or malls where retailers have found ways to expressly disallow stores like Zara? Imagine a high-end outlet mall where there are only high-end retailers and no middle-brow stores or aspiring stores are allowed. Leasing prices is one way to do this but this article makes it sound like firms like Zara can do an end run by paying those big sums and then not spend money on traditional marketing.

The changing standards in dress for NBA players and its impact on social norms

One writer suggests that the current clothing styles of NBA stars is related to social norms for black men:

When David Stern imposed the league’s reductive dress code six years ago, all this role-playing, reinvention, and experimentation didn’t seem a likely outcome. We all feared Today’s Man. But the players — and the stylists — were being challenged to think creatively about dismantling Stern’s black-male stereotyping. The upside of all this intentionality is that these guys are trying stuff out to see what works. Which can be exciting. No sport has undergone such a radical shift of self-expression and self-understanding, wearing the clothes of both the boys it once mocked and the men it desires to be.

It’s not a complete transformation. Being Carlton wasn’t just code for nerd, it was code for gay, and the homophobia these clothes provoked still persists, even from their wearers. Once last year, Dwight Howard, of the Orlando Magic, wore a blue-and-black cardigan over a whitish tie and pink shirt to a press conference. When a male reporter told him it was a good color on him, instead of asking the reporter “Which color?,” Howard spent many seconds performing disgusted disbelief: Whoa, whoa. A moment like that demonstrated how hopelessly superficial all this style can be. The sport can change its clothes, but, even with Dan Savage looking over its shoulder, will it ever change its attitude? If Howard thinks compliments about his cardigan are gay, he probably shouldn’t wear one.

Still, something’s changed in a sport that used to be afraid of any deviations from normal. That fear allowed Dennis Rodman to thrive. Now Rodman just seems like a severe side effect of the league’s black-male monoculture. The Los Angeles Lakers officially recognize the man who was involved in one of the most notorious fights in sports history as “Metta World Peace.” Baron Davis, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, spent the summer in a lockout beard that made him look like a Fort Greene lumberjack. And Kevin Durant wears a safety-strapped backpack. If Stern was hoping to restore a sense of normalcy to the NBA, he only exploded it. There no longer is a normal.

Summary of the argument: in a big shift, it is now acceptable, and perhaps even cool, to be a wealthy black athlete who dresses like a nerd.

I could imagine several interpretations of this trend (and these would likely come from different groups of people):

1. A Marxist approach. David Stern has succeeded in pushing black stars to dress like preppy whites in order to further the economic interests of the NBA. This isn’t about allowing these stars to express themselves; it is about making them palatable to a white audience that buys tickets, corporate sponsorships, and drives TV ratings.

2. The clothes may have changed but there is not exactly overwhelming support for gay athletes or perhaps even for having more “feminine” traits.

3. There is a broader “star culture” or “celebrity culture” that transcends basketball and unites the broader entertainment industry. Star athletes today are not just physically unique; they are cultural celebrities and need to dress the part to fit in with their reference group.

4. Athletes today care too much about things like clothes and not enough about winning.

5. Black male culture was never that homogeneous. Using “The Fresh Prince” as the primary cultural example in this article is a limited perspective. The media and society might have one image but it is not necessarily accurate.

6. Is examining how stars dress like nerds continuing a negative stereotype about nerds and the importance of education? Does the way LeBron James dresses change the culture’s views of nerds or does his celebrity still push a macho image tied to basketball competition and physical prowess or perhaps a stylish, sophisticated, and wealthy image?

In the end, the intersections here between athletes, race, gender, and fashion are fascinating to consider.

“America’s next top sociologist”?

I highlighted this story recently and now Salon.com has a longer piece about the research of sociology Ph.D. student Ashley Mears provocatively titled “America’s Next Top Sociologist.”

When I first saw this headline, I thought perhaps it was a piece about identifying an up and coming sociologist, not a play on the title of the TV show America’s Next Top Model. If sociologists were asked about who the next top sociologists are, what would they say?

Additionally, do sociologists think that the current system, made up of universities and colleges, foundations, government agencies, and some other actors, help promising sociologists rise to the top or is it more oriented toward letting those at the top serve as tough gatekeepers?

A sociology PhD student is studying changing women’s clothing sizes while also not looking in the mirror before her wedding

This story has now been going around for a few days: a bride-to-be decided 6 months before her wedding to not look at herself in the mirror for the next year, blog about the experience, and draw attention to how women think about beauty and their bodies. What perhaps has gotten lost in this story is that this is being undertaken by a sociology PhD student who is writing a dissertation about women’s clothing sizes:

When Kjerstin Gruys got engaged to her longtime boyfriend, the former fashion merchandiser turned sociologist feared she would relapse into an eating disorder as she hunted for the perfect wedding dress. She was fiercely committed to researching her sociology Ph.D. on beauty and inequality, but was overwhelmed by the pressure of having a picturesque wedding. Her values and behavior were at odds, and she knew had to do something — and quick.

Instead of becoming engulfed in a vanity obsession, she committed to a year without mirrors — and launched the blog Mirror Mirror…OFF The Wall six months before her wedding date…

For her Ph.D. research, Gruys has moved on from body image and started examining vanity size — when clothing that was once, say, a size 8, becomes a size 6 so that women feel better about themselves, she said. By analyzing Sears catalogs from the past 100 years, Gruys said she’s seen drastic changes in clothing size over time. “I think the most interesting thing I’ve found so far is simply that clothing sizes have changed so dramatically, especially for women, and in the direction of getting away from having the clothing size and clothing measurements having any relationship to each other.”

“When we think of standards we think of things that make our lives more standard and more efficient,” she said. But clothing size standards are different across every fashion firm and even across brands within a firm. “We attach so much emotion to body size, women especially and companies want us to feel good when we are trying on their clothes.”

Both projects sound interesting and studying women’s clothing sizes from a sociology of culture perspective is something I wrote about recently.

It is also intriguing to think how this PhD candidate is mixing more traditional forms of research with blogging. This particular mirrors project is not simply being undertaken by someone like AJ Jacobs, a writer who has tackled some odd activities and then written about them (my favorite: The Year of Living Biblically). Rather, this is an academic who has a background in fashion who is also researching topics in the same subfield. The blog could function as more of a personal outlet but I assume it would be informed by sociological insights. I suspect we will see more of this in the future as academics would benefit quite a bit from blog side projects that draw attention to noteworthy issues as well as highlight their research.

A final thought: what would be an equivalent project that a man could undertake?