Floral & Gingham (+ Updated Infinite Style by Ann Taylor Rant)

 

I ranted at length about Infinite Style by Ann Taylor last year, and then made a bold prediction: it’s doomed (if not to oblivion then, at a minimum, to irrelevance). While my feelings about Infinite Style haven’t changed, an update is warranted as new information have come to light.

What I didn’t realize when I wrote my original post was that Infinite Style is powered by Gwynnie Bee, and its back end–from shipping to dry-cleaning–is managed by GB. With the experiment’s (relatively) low overhead, and immediate free publicity–however fleeting, I can understand why Ann Taylor signed on. Sure, there might be repercussions down the road if retail loyalists jump ship and become exclusive subscribers, but that possibility is easy to ignore in the name of modernizing. (Though I am sure Ann Taylor is wary of that possibility, as it’s only sent six emails to its retail customers in the six months since the program’s launch–four of those in October of 2017.)

The contradiction inherent to subscription-based clothing rental service is this: the styles that rent well will be trendy, which will require more durable construction so that it can endure repeated trips through cleaning processes. I can’t see this boding well for mid-range labels, like J. Crew and its rivals, who have, in an effort to compete against fast fashion retailers, cut corners on manufacturing. As a brand, how do you market and manufacture for two opposing standards/goals? With affordable but lower-quality basics on one side, and trendy but more durable (i.e., higher-cost) styles on the other.

Or maybe the calculation is different: perhaps the life cycle of a piece on rental is meant to be short, just enough to cover expenses and generate some profit. Could it be possible, as the team behind GB wants us to believe, that subscription will help retailers move “fashion-forward clothes that don’t sell” and open “a new channel for the distribution of product.” Novelty might draw people in initially but, in the long run, would people really pay ($95 a month) to rent clothes that might otherwise linger for weeks in a retail store?

But I can see how even a glimmer of hope–that rental will help uncover residual value in unwanted merchandise–will compel retailers to hop aboard the subscription train. There are few scenarios more terrifying for retailers than a warehouse filled with past season goods (how H&M’s CEO ever gets sleep at night is a mystery to me).

That possibility, however remote, probably seems most attractive to a struggling retailer. And with recent reports that seem ready to sound the death knell for Ascena Retail Group, parent company of Ann Taylor and LOFT (acquired in 2015), it’s hardly surprising that Ann Taylor is considering a change in course, if it provides temporary relief from a declining top line.

But if the subscription box craze hasn’t reached saturation point, it will soon. With Amazon set to unleash “Prime Wardrobe” (granted it’s more StitchFix and less Gwynnie Bee), will any other players survive?

And as bleak as Ascena’s prospects are, I think Ann Taylor the brand will survive (as will LOFT, which seems to be doing okay relative to other brands in Ascena’s portfolio). That is happy news because (as an enthusiastic Ann Taylor shopper) I think Ann Taylor has the potential to grow its business even in current retail climates. Workwear is a bread-and-butter category, and if you can capture the shopper’s imagination or interest, you have a reliable revenue stream.

On that note, I am going to go shop Ann Taylor‘s newest sale: take 40% off 3+ full-price items (or 30% off 2+ full-price items or 20% off 1 full-price item) with code YOUPICK. Or, if you are shopping the sale section, the dress featured in this post is now on sale and an extra 40% off (no code needed).

My picks:

Happy shopping!

Plaid Coat (+ Rant: Infinite Style by Ann Taylor)

Ann Taylor launched “Infinite Style” earlier this month with little fanfare. And while I would normally avoid forecasting a venture’s future this early on, I am already 75% confident that Infinite Style will undergo this life cycle: continue to garner little attention, with subscription numbers that peter out, and eventually fold quietly.

I thought about presenting my argument in a more mathematically rigorous way, because ultimately it will fail because the numbers (i.e., limited selection that’s too expensive with too much competition) don’t add up, but I think its faults are in plain view and actually require no painstaking analysis.

The basics: Infinite Style is a paid subscription service, allowing members to rent up to 3 boxes–each containing up to 3 pieces from Ann Taylor’s current collectiona month. Members pay $95 a month for this service, and are billed monthly, with no cancellation penalties.

The Clothes: dresses, tops, and bottoms (no coats or accessories), which normally run $50-$180. But those who shop Ann Taylor know that store-wide promotions are frequent and most shoppers have come to expect 40% to 50% off events at least 1-2 times a month. Items are usually further marked down within six weeks of becoming available, and can usually be bought for 60-80% off their original price tags.

The (direct) competitors: Rent the Runway Unlimited ($159/month. 2000+ pieces; 4 pieces at a time; no cap on total number of shipments); Le Tote (5 plans, from $59-$79/month; 3-5 pieces in every “tote,” with no cap on total number of shipments);  Gwynnie Bee ($49-95/month; 1-3 items at a time, with no cap on total number of shipments).

The (indirect) competitors: fast fashion (Forever 21, Zara, H&M, etc.–price ranges vary but are typically affordable enough on even on an allowance) and personal styling subscription services (Stitch Fix; Trunk Club; Prime Wardrobe; and so many others).

There is a remote possibility that Ann Taylor has a huge fan base who currently buy 1-3 new items (if they buy more from AT right now, Ascena is surely losing money by converting retail customers into subscribers) from the retailer every month and only wear those items 3-5 times before tiring of and discarding/donating them; who subscribe to the newfangled belief that the concept of ownership is passé and who also delight in the idea of a subscription service that will allow them to enjoy new clothes without necessarily owning them. I combed through Ann Taylor’s last few quarterly and annual reports and couldn’t find information about the average order value, nevermind information about its average customer or superfan and their shopping habits. I am prepared to be proven dead wrong in my prediction (I just can’t imagine a large enough group of shoppers who would subscribe to this service, like those who chimed in on this reddit post, but maybe the overhead on this new project is low enough that even a few hundred subscribers could justify its existence?), but I would be very surprised if Infinite Style becomes a leader in clothing rental services.

The cynic in me just assumes that Ann Taylor launched Infinite Style to generate investor interest (because subscription services are buzzier than traditional retail atm), as one of its goals in 2017 was to “reinvent” itself to “create a sustainable business model for the future.

Ann Taylor Plaid Funnel Neck Coat in Scarlet Lily (size XXSP) || Gap Stripe Boatneck Sweater in Red Stripe (size XS; past season) || J. Crew Martie Pant in Bi-Stretch Wool in Navy (size 00; past season) || Chanel Jumbo Flap || Kate Spade Lydia Jewel Heels (reviewed here)

/rant.

While Infinite Style doesn’t appeal to me personally, I am a big fan of Ann Taylor, and will probably remain content just buying things outright rather than having to rent them. One of my favorite new finds is the plaid coat pictured in this post. It’s more flamboyant than most things you’ll find on Ann Taylor’s racks, but the classic color combo will ensure that you already own understated pieces to wear it with.

And the sales continue: Everything is 50% off at Ann Taylor with code HAPPYTUESDAY until the end of today. Some picks:

Express Style Trial Rant (Here We Go Again)

I have made no secret of my skepticism about mid-market clothing rental services (see my rants about Infinite Style by Ann Taylor here and here). And I unsurprisingly gave news of the launch of Express Style Trial side-eye, as I feel Express is even less suited for the rental model than Ann Taylor.

Why a meaningful number of people would pay $69.95 a month to rent three Express items at a time is beyond my comprehension*, as most items at Express top out at a little over $100, and 40% (or 50%) off store-wide promotions are frequent.

* Not that the cost is out of line relative to other rental services, but just run a basic cost-benefit analysis and most people probably couldn’t justify the subscription after accounting for routine issues like fit and figuring in swap time. I would be surprised if a quarter of subscribers swap more than twice. 

Like Ann Taylor and New York & Company‘s rental programs, Express Style Trial is run on the CaaStle (Clothing as a Service) platform, built by the Gwynnie Bee team. To my surprise, and I am taking this information with a grain of salt, the CEO of Gwynnie Bee said in an interview that CaaStle has “helped Ann Taylor and New York & Co. increase new customer sales by 50 percent and expand their appeal among the 28-to-40 age demographic.” If this is true, then I am extremely surprised by the lack of mention of new channel growths in Ann Inc.’s Q4 earnings call.

While I am excited about the marriage of the sharing economy and fashion, as–like many of you–I crave novelty in fashion, and the concept of a “rotating” wardrobe is appealing. But this model (considering the abysmal margins) doesn’t seem to translate naturally for mid-market or fast fashion retailers, as their prime demographic will most likely end up spending retail dollars on rental services instead, and in making that switch, might become even more disinclined to buy outright (the available data are scant, but I will update if I can find numbers to share). In the long run, I don’t see how this trade-off can be sustainable, especially when their services don’t have a distinct price advantage relative to a more premium product like the RTR Update (which starts at $89 a month).

The need for innovation and change is pressing for struggling mass market retailers, but dabbling in rental is hardly a long-term solution. And I’ll quote Les Wexner here again because I really do think it merits propagation: “it’s the merchandise, stupid.” If retailers are struggling to put out merchandise that customers want to buy and the only breakthroughs they’ve borne are mere gimmicks, then I think there is a need for further consolidation (or closure) in the space.

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On a more cheerful note, one of my travel favorites, the Express Mid Rise Jersey Sash Pant is now 40% off online in six colors. For the price of a one-month subscription to Express Style Trial, you can buy two of these outright.

With how often I wear these pants, the cost per wear will be down to pennies by the end of their service life. And they machine-wash surprisingly well and require little special handling. These are clothes worth owning.

Weekend Link Roundup

 

Topshop Chuck On Blazer // US2 // Chartreuse

▪ For those looking for a drapey blazer, I recently picked up this Topshop jacket which comes in four colors (I am partial to the chartreuse). Topshop generally runs a size small but this style is loose-fitting so you can size down back to your normal size if you want a more tailored fit. The material is lightweight, but not wrinkle-prone. It’s a piece that leans casual–a cross between a cardigan and a blazer–but works well for business casual work environments or for the weekend.

Modest Dressing, as a Virtue (The New York Times): “Modest fashion might come across as a humblebrag: You have to be a pretty stylish, pretty good-looking woman to claim ownership of such radical dowdiness … It can also sometimes seem like an elitist project of sociocultural self-positioning: By embracing the covered-up look, you declare yourself part of a particular psychographic tribe, one whose members don’t just dress for other women, but for a particular subset of other women — those who get it, who are sophisticated enough to understand that opting out of conventional beauty standards makes for its own kind of conceptual, better-than-thou fashion.

▪ (My System 1 answer is no, but I plan to explore this new AT venture in more depth in a future post.) Would You Pay $95 to Rent Ann Taylor? (Racked): “Last month, Infinite Style quietly launched on an independent website. For a monthly fee, including shipping and exchanges, members can rent three pieces of clothing at a time from Ann Taylor’s current season. Jewelry, accessories, Loft, and Lou & Grey aren’t included, but there is an option to buy what you want to keep…

Christopher Bailey, Burberry Chief Creative Officer, Is Leaving and Burberry Parts Ways With Bailey as New CEO Refashions Brand (The New York Times): “The decision marks a major turning point for Burberry, Britain’s largest luxury brand by sales, which in March reported annual revenues of 2.8 billion pounds ($3.7 billion) … Mr. Bailey will be the seventh major designer to leave a prominent fashion job since 2015 … Mr. Bailey’s decision to step away from Burberry, a brand with which he was almost synonymous, underscores a new belief in the fashion world that it is no longer expected, or even desirable, for a designer to remain at a house for a long period of time. And it further redefines that role as less of an aesthetic alchemist and more of an employee with a transferable skill set … Burberry has made no announcement about a possible successor to Mr. Bailey, and would not commit to a timeline. The questions now become, will the company choose a relative unknown, and will the next stage involve a continuum, or a turnaround?

Life Inside the RVs of Silicon Valley (Topic): “… a long line of 21st-century covered wagons, all of which are symptoms of some sort of dysfunction: decades of shortsighted NIMBY housing policy in the Bay Area, the long tail of the recession, personal battles, or wages too low to buy space indoors. The innovation capital of the world hasn’t yet solved how to build affordable housing.

A Very Old Man for a Wolf (Outside Online): “OR4’s ancestors didn’t ask to be relocated to the lower 48. And while gray wolves have arguably restored a lost component to western ecosystems, they returned to a place much changed—a place full of people, of fat hornless cattle, of snack-sized sheep, of rubber bullets and range riders and firecrackers and helicopters and tranquilizers and traps and collars and GPS signals and government regulations. OR4 never failed as a wolf. He broke human rules. And in the 21st century, being a competent wolf isn’t enough to stay alive. You must also—impossibly—know your place.

▪ Take 50% off regular-priced items at Banana Republic with code BRCARD50. BR cardholders can use code BRCARD for an extra 10% off. My picks: Italian Superloft Turtleneck Midi Sweater Dress, Suede Trench Shift Dress, Button-Sleeve Top, Feather Touch Ruffle-Cuff Turtleneck, Button-Front Ribbed Sweater Dress, Bow-Neck Ponte Sheath Dress, and Italian Superloft Bow-Cuff Crew.

Americans Are Officially Freaking Out (Bloomberg): “Almost two-thirds of Americans, or 63 percent, report being stressed about the future of the nation … A majority of the more than 3,400 Americans polled, 59 percent, said ‘they consider this to to be the lowest point in our nation’s history that they can remember.’ That sentiment spanned generations, including those that lived through World War II, the Vietnam War, and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

Promethea Unbound (Atavist): “The Americans with Disabilities Act doesn’t cover prodigies, and the rationale seems obvious: These children are overequipped for normal achievement. Yet their unique requirements for learning and the extraordinary burdens placed on their families make prodigies resplendent doppelgängers to developmentally challenged children. They can be just as ill-suited to systems meticulously constructed for normalcy, misfits forced to invent their own vermiculate paths to accommodate the demands of brilliance.

A Pill to Make Exercise Obsolete (The New Yorker): “The F.D.A. doesn’t currently recognize metabolic syndrome, let alone lack of exercise, as a disease. Anyone who wants to market an exercise pill must therefore get it approved as a treatment for a disease that does meet the F.D.A.’s criteria, in the hope that, once it is on the market, its use will spread to encompass a wider range of conditions … Although 516 has not been approved as a drug, plenty of people are taking it. Once the structure of a new compound has been published, chemical-supply laboratories are free to synthesize it for sale … 516 is easy and relatively cheap to make, and it is readily available online. The earliest adopters were élite athletes looking for an edge. The World Anti-Doping Agency added 516 to its list of prohibited substances in 2009, and testing for it is now routine. Since then, at least six professional cyclists have been suspended after being caught taking the drug. More recently, 516 has become popular among the kind of men—and they are almost all men—who frequent messages boards with names like ‘Think Steroids,’ ‘Swol HQ,’ and ‘Juiced Muscle.’

Department Stores Have One Thing Left to Sell: Real Estate (Racked): “… only one way forward for department stores, and that’s reducing their footprints. The US is overstored in general; the number of stores in this country outpaced the demand for them around the year 2000, according to Bloomberg, and yet stores incessantly opened more doors. This, in part with changing shopping behaviors, has created the retail real estate crisis … it’s imperative for department stores to start seeing the writing on the wall.

We Tried Really Hard To Beat Face ID — And Failed (So Far) (Wired): “‘The face of a person is a lot like a key. Just like the ridges of a key in a keyhole, each feature has to fit just so, or you have to accommodate them,’ Caragan says. ‘As long as things are smaller or fit the same, you can get the eyes right behind the mask. If not, they won’t line up.’

How the Humble Hospital Scrub Became a $10 Billion Business (Bloomberg): “The humble hospital scrub, ever saggy and often scratchy, is never in style—or out of it, for that matter. Rather, it’s beyond sartorial judgment. Instantly recognizable, it’s simply a given for most of America’s 19 million health-care workers, as essential as latex gloves and bitter cantina coffee. At the moment, almost one in seven U.S. workers falls into the scrub-set, a metric that’s expanding quickly as baby boomers fade into their hip-replacement years … most of the folks who wear scrubs have to buy their own, despite the fact the job typically requires them, be it a hospital, doctor’s, dentist’s, or veterinarian’s office. Apparel makers can line up discounts and distribution deals, but ultimately the consumer can buy whatever uniform he or she wants, provided it’s the specified color. This little wrinkle in the market, it turns out, presented an opportunity.

▪ Take an extra 25% off clearance styles at Bloomingdale’s (offer is online only), no code needed; qualifying styles are flagged with a yellow tag. My picks: Milly Bow Sleeve Mod Dress, Lauren Ralph Lauren Plaid Jacquard Knit Ruana, Kate Spade James Street Sparrow Satchel, Loeffler Randall Satchel Medium Rider, Salvatore Ferragamo Varina Ballet Flats, and Michael Kors Studio Mercer Convertible Large Leather Tote (extra percentage discount does not apply, but the sale color is pretty enough to consider).

What Boredom Does to You (Nautilus): “Boredom is the gateway to mind-wandering, which helps our brains create those new connections that can solve anything from planning dinner to a breakthrough in combating global warming. Researchers have only recently begun to understand the phenomenon of mind-wandering, the activity our brains engage in when we’re doing something boring, or doing nothing at all. Most of the studies on the neuroscience of daydreaming have only been done within the past 10 years. With modern brain-imaging technology, discoveries are emerging every day about what our brains are doing not only when we are deeply engaged in an activity but also when we space out … When we lose focus on the outside world and drift inward, we’re not shutting down. We’re tapping into a vast trove of memories, imagining future possibilities, dissecting our interactions with other people, and reflecting on who we are. It feels like we are wasting time when we wait for the longest red light in the world to turn green, but the brain is putting ideas and events into perspective … This gets to the heart of why mind-wandering or daydreaming is different from other forms of cognition. Rather than experiencing, organizing, and understanding things based on how they come to us from the outside world, we do it from within our own cognitive system. That allows for reflection and the ability for greater understanding after the heat of the moment.

What It’s Like to Learn You’re Going to Die (The Atlantic): “… for most, figuring out how to adapt to living with a life-threatening disease is a difficult but necessary cognitive process … When patients do emerge on the other side of the existential crisis … many are better off because of it. These patients are more likely to have a deeper compassion for others and a greater appreciation for the life that remains.

Boko Haram Strapped Suicide Bombs to Them. Somehow These  Teenage Girls Survived. (The New York Times): “According to Unicef, more than 110 children have been used as suicide bombers since the start of the year – at least 76 of them girls. Most were under 15 years old. One girl blew herself up along with a baby strapped to her back … Far from having been willing participants, the girls described being kidnapped and held hostage, with family members killed during their capture.

This Land Is No Longer Your Land (Bloomberg): “A debate is taking place across the country over preserving land for recreational public use, but most of the attention is focused on vast swaths of historically or scientifically significant terrain … These disputed trails leading into the Crazy Mountains represent another front in the escalating battle over control of federal territory, and the fighting here is just as contentious as over the monuments. Historic settlement patterns in the American West created a checkerboard pattern of landownership: Public properties are often broken-up plots, resulting in numerous access disputes. According to a 2013 study by the Center for Western Priorities, that dynamic has effectively locked the public out of about 4 million acres of land in Western states; almost half of that blocked public land, or about 2 million acres, is in Montana, according to the study. The push to end public thoroughfare is either an overdue reassertion of private property rights or an openly cynical land snatch, depending which side of the gate you’re standing on.

I Love Spoilers (The Outline): “There has been some research into why certain people like to spoil things for themselves … spoilers had an ‘enhancing’ effect on a subject’s enjoyment of a particular story.

DNAinfo and Gothamist Are Shut Down After Vote to Unionize (The New York Times): “… in the financially daunting era of digital journalism, there has been no tougher nut to crack than making local news profitable … For DNAinfo and Gothamist, the staff’s vote to join the Writers Guild of America East was just part of the decision to close the company … the decision puts 115 people out of work, both at the New York operations that unionized and at those in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington that did not.

▪ Recently purchased: Express Lace Puff Sleeve Tee, Halogen Pocket Sweater, J.Crew Mason Convertible Sweater Cape (not the best reviewed, but this was a keeper for me), Ann Taylor Plaid Funnel Neck Coat, ASOS ASOS Knitted Dress with Crew Neck in Fluffy Yarn, and J.Crew Perfect Winter Parka.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

Clothing Rental In the Time of Coronavirus

While I’ve always been skeptical of the sustainability of Clothing as a Service (CaaS) for mall brands, COVID-19 and the new reality it created have further exposed the weakness of this business model.

Because, as much as fashion rental services try to frame their business as one based on software, big data, and technology-driven logistics, they are ultimately defined by fashion. And there’s no question that fashion’s recovery will be a difficult one as long as the novel coronavirus is a threat, and as long as people avoid mass gatherings and other opportunities to show off new wares.

As companies extend their work-from-home timelines, and schools postpone school openings (or re-imagine the classroom experience), the customers who subscribe to Rent the Runway or Le Tote or Gwynnie Bee have a new calculation to make amid a deepening recession: one that may result in the unsubscribing of non-essential services. (Tangent: but certain segments of the subscription box market, like beauty boxes, are thriving.)

Rent the Runway, the industry leader, has avoided bankruptcy (so far) by quickly making deep cuts (slashed the company’s costs by 51%, and furloughed or laid off half the workforce), raising new financing, and changing some aspects of its business model (pivot to a revenue-sharing consignment model from the old wholesale model that requires big capital outlays with no guaranteed payback and the company will make it easier for subscribers to buy lightly used clothes through its app and website. That will be expanded for nonsubscribers down the road); these are all steps that have proven prudent in hindsight, and places RtR ahead of its counterparts in traditional retail. However, no amount of cost reduction can save a company when the industry is in freefall, so the next year will be a crucible for the RtR brand.

Another major player in the space, CaaStle, which counts retailers–Ann Taylor, Express, American Eagle, Bloomingdale’s, Banana Republic, etc.–as customers, has been relatively silent, leaving outsiders to speculate about its health. It last raised $100 million in a 2015 Series A round, and has seemed financially prudent or at least cost flexible. Further, unlike Rent the Runway or its clients, CaaStle is business-to-business so its survival hinges more on its ability to retain existing accounts (assuming these retailers survive COVID19) or to expand beyond fashion (which was always the goal). I also stalked the (public) Twitter account of its CEO and she has been regularly (re)tweeting lighthearted items so I will guess irresponsibly that things are not that dire at CaaStle.

Le Tote, on the other hand, seems to be faring… less well; it “instituted significant company-wide layoffs” in April and sued Urban Outfitters at the end of June for breaching an NDA signed when UO entered into discussion to acquire Le Tote in 2018. AND the deal Le Tote signed at the end of last year to acquire Lord & Taylor is looking less lush against the abysmal retail landscape.

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Once seen as the future of fashion, rental services in the near term will struggle alongside traditional retail, and will be subject to massive culling. Ultimately, what separates companies that survive from those that don’t comes down to the flexibility of their cost structure and the amount of short-term debt they hold. Most companies that filed for bankruptcy protection during this downturn were already facing hardship before COVID-19, and the virus accelerated the decline rather than produce it.

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Do/did you rent fashion? If you stopped, what will bring you back to the fold?


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