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Why mainstream fashion brands are targeting midlife women

Tom Bottomley
15 November 2021

While so many women’s fashion retailers over the years have made the mistake of taking their brand down a route targeting younger customers to try to make themselves more "relevant", there’s others such as Freemans’ own brand Kaleidoscope and N Brown Group’s JD Williams brand who are very much geared towards women over 45, who often have higher disposable income than their younger counterparts, and who still very much have a desire to look stylish and fashionable.

TV celebrities over 45 are also the faces of such brands, with JD Williams now launching its third campaign with Amanda Holden (50) and Davina McCall (53), and Kaleidoscope selecting Lisa Snowdon (49) to front its AW21 campaign, the first of its new "Circa 50" series. Even House of Fraser has Strictly Come Dancing presenter Tess Daly (52) as the star of its Biba collections.

According to a recent survey by Research Without Barriers, commissioned by Kaleidoscope, a whopping 85% of women over 45 said they didn’t feel fully represented by brands, on the catwalks, or across the fashion media.

Ann Steer, Chief Executive Officer of Freemans (FGH), said: “As this customer is clearly very close to our hearts, and as someone of a similar age, we felt that it was important to find out how she views herself at what is a pivotal life stage. Children are growing up, things like the menopause are being widely talked about and, for many, they are beginning to redefine or reframe the meaning of ‘self’.

“We are seeing more use of different types of models, be it age, ethnicity, gender, disabled and so on, but we wanted a view from our customers to see if they felt if this had gone far enough, or if more actually needed doing. The resounding response was 'yes' - more needed to be done, and they were lacking affinity. The common denominator was that they still felt ignored. Add to that, more than eight in 10 women think there is a stigma in society that pressures women of a certain age to dress a certain way, yet 91% of women over 45 do not feel that when hitting the age of 40 they should have to dress more modestly.

“However, almost a quarter of women (23%) admit they have changed their outfit because of a friend or family member telling them that they are not dressed age appropriately.”

Selecting Lisa Snowdon to front the first of Kaleidoscope’s new "Circa 50" campaigns for this season was therefore very in tune with the brand message, and it’s already proving a real hit with Kaleidoscope’s customers.

Lisa Snowdon for Kaleidoscope

“Lisa’s honest, relatable, and her celebratory approach to age is exactly what our customers are asking and looking for. It’s perfectly aligned to what the Kaleidoscope brand is all about,” said Steer.

“'Circa 50' women also have larger disposable incomes than their younger counterparts, and clearly from the research they are crying out for a relationship with a retailer that understands them on their terms and, as such, communicates in the way that shows they understand both from a product perspective and life stage. With so many of these women feeling ignored by the high street, get this right and the opportunity is huge.”

Steer also references research carried out by Saga in 2016 that showed the over 50’s market is one of the most rapidly growing sectors, and the "grey pound" is worth a staggering £320 billion a year, accounting for around 47% of all consumer spending.

It’s very evident that this customer continues to feel ignored by an industry that focusses somewhat on youth, said Steer. “The perception by some that this woman is still ‘rocking’ a twin set and pearls is misguided.”

The survey also cited that representation should be done in an honest and authentic way. By that, the women meant that imagery of their age, while it should be aspirational, should also celebrate and recognise life’s "perfect imperfections", like laughter lines and wrinkles. “Overly airbrushed and retouched images are in fact a turn off, meaning they didn’t trust or relate to the brand,” Steer added.

"For too long women have been ‘told’ what is acceptable to wear at a certain age and given set parameters."

Kenyatte Nelson, N Brown Group

Kenyatte Nelson, Chief Brand Officer at N Brown Group, owner of the JD Williams brand, is of the view that restrictions for older women and what they wear is not in tune with the times.

He said: “We believe that women should feel empowered to wear the clothes they want to wear without being held back by the societal constraints of ageism. For too long women have been ‘told’ what is acceptable to wear at a certain age and given set parameters. We offer a range of styles for all grown women, those who are more confident and experimental and also for the more conservative too.

“The JD Williams customer is a grown woman, she is in her prime and she’s at an age where she wants fashion choices that reflect her own individual style. She wants to stay up to date with fashion in a way that feels true to her and be inspired by new ideas and the latest looks, as we often say, ‘you’ve not seen the best of her yet’.”

Davina McCall and Amanda Holden for JD Williams

Amanda Holden and Davina McCall were drafted in to front a relaunch of the JD Williams brand in the summer, and images for the new ‘Womankind’ festive campaign, with partywear dressing at the fore, have just been released.

Nelson commented: “We’re delighted to have both Amanda and Davina on-board at what is such a pivotal time for JD Williams following the recent relaunch. In line with our customers, both of our ambassadors are truly modern women who inspire womankind with their different strengths, attitudes, fashion and home style.

“Grown women are certainly underrepresented among high street retailers, we know this from research we carried out in 2018 that told us that 54% want ‘more shops that cater to women of my age’.

“We hope that Davina and Amanda will appeal to existing customers and will also attract new customers who maybe previously have not considered shopping at JD Williams before. We have recently carried out a new ‘Womankind’ report which explores the attitudes of women aged 45-plus on topics covering body confidence, career and fashion to make sure we are really listening to this market which is forgotten by so many retailers.”

Though Holden and McCall weren’t involved in the design process, they have had a lot of input into their fashion edits, and they selected what they wore in the campaign shots. Nelson pointed out that in order to produce an authentic successful campaign, they wanted to make sure both women were wearing and promoting products that “they would truly pick for themselves.”

Like Steer at Freemans, Nelson is also of the opinion that they are really on to something that other retailers have failed to address, or have only touched on. He said: “There is definite a gap in the market for this age group. As our recent ‘Womankind’ survey revealed, 70% of women aged 45-plus do not feel understood or valued by fashion retailers.

“We know many retailers are trying to appeal to all age groups, but we prefer to be single minded in our approach, delighting our audience with our lifestyle relevant offer. We are investing in continuous customer research with style interested 45-plus women, so we are able to demonstrate our continued commitment to owning an area of the market that no other UK retailer is.

It’s also a fact that over 50’s have more disposable income than the younger generations, which is why it doesn’t make sense that they are ignored by so many fashion retailers. The research we carried out in 2018 showed us that 60% of woman aged 45-plus had more money to spend on fashion now than they did in their 20’s. More recently, women are telling us that once the kids leave for university, they have more disposable income to invest on themselves and style for their home.”

Tess Daly for House of Fraser's BIBA

With regard to product, there are obviously different elements to be considered when designing for older women, as Steer is well aware of. Within the Kaleidoscope business they talk of being "Different by Design".

She said: “Someone who is 50 and a size 12 for example simply isn’t the same shape as someone who is size 12 and 18 years-old. Things like gravity, perhaps having children and just the ageing process means body shapes are different.  So, it’s essential to take this into consideration and for it be reflected in the garments we produce.

“It’s also about adapting trends to offer stylish solutions to their fashion requirements.  Great fitting, flattering product at great prices. Our ‘Feel Good Denim’ is a perfect example of what we have talked about when it comes to understanding this customer.

“We launched it at the start of the season, and it goes from a size six to 32, all at £39, in short, regular, and long length options. All complimented by a variety of styles, including, skinny, straight leg, boot cut and our ‘weekend jean’ in a variety of different colourways.

“It’s using things like four-way, multi-stretch fabric, meaning the jeans are comfortable to wear with a range of design features including double waistbands and stitched seams, as well as shape enhancing features such as angled pockets, that show we understand this customer.”

When it comes down to it, Steer believes dressing for women over 45 is all about confidence, and what they are focussing on as a business in instilling that confidence for their customers to wear what they really want, not what they are being told they ‘should’ by others.

She concludes: “It’s all about individual style and interpretation. Our job as a retailer is to make that easier for them using age-appropriate models and edited stylish clothing, that takes into consideration things like life stage.

“Confidence, to be honest, I think is the only limitation. What are the rules for dressing for women over 45? The rule is there is no rule.”

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