Fashion Retail Trend: Spotlight on Ann Taylor LOFT

A look from Ann Taylor LOFT Fall 2010

If we had to give an award for Best Retailer Reinvention of this past decade, it would undoubtedly go to J.Crew, whose CEO

Models at the Ann Taylor LOFT party at Chateau Marmont

Millard “Mickey” Drexler has taken his intuitive knack for turnarounds and elevated a specialty retail concept into fashion cult status.

But Fashion Trends Daily is watching the turnaround of Ann Taylor’s LOFT concept closely, as its fresh, fashion-focused merchandise and marketing of its stable of stylists is making it an intriguing brand on our list. And, more importantly, its clothes are starting to work their way back into our heart and closet.

Ann Taylor was really one of the first contemporary retail concepts (coincidentally also Drexler’s first turnaround success in the ‘80s before his almost 20-year run at The Gap). And I have had a long and intimate relationship with the brand, beginning in Chicago, where I grew up.

As a kid I was forced to sit in the Joan & David shoe section while my mom painstakingly matched shoes to outfits. But Ann and I became fast friends in high school, when I started pilfering from my mom’s wardrobe to look more sophisticated so I could sneak into dance clubs. Eventually, Ann was no longer cool. And I no longer wanted to look 10 years older. But the romance started to heat up again this summer when its LOFT division – in the ultimate declaration of Hollywood hipness — held a re-launch party at Chateau Marmont in Hollywood to showcase their new fall 2010 collection.

Kristen Bell, Austyn Zung and Emmannuelle Chriqui

In the peony-filled penthouse, the young Hollywood set — including Kristen Bell and Emmanuelle Chriqui in LOFT— gathered to preview fall looks: A chic little tweed jacket that resembles a beloved Prada one I have from many seasons ago; a faux-fur bolero and fur vests; chunky, vintage-inspired accessories; fabulous floral tops and those silky cargos that Chriqui was wearing, which we —admittedly — can’t wait to get our mitts on this fall.

“It’s definitely more of a West Coast sensibility, more eclectic,” said Alia Ahmed-Yahia, Senior Fashion Director/Stylist for LOFT, who has been instrumental in conveying a younger, fresher presence for the brand. “I think people are surprised.”

Yup. We were. And it wasn’t just the kir royales we had been sipping, either. During the week after the LOFT event at Chateau, Fashion Trends Daily spotted the necklace and cuff that were in the gift bag being worn by some of the party goers at several other events around town.

LOFT group: Senior Fashion director Alia Ahmed-Yahia, Design Direcotr Austyn Zung, President Gary Muto and stylist Nicole Chavez

At the helm of the brand is LOFT president Gary Muto, another former Gap alum. Austyn Zung (Gap-er, too) is design director. The brand, which Muto said targets the 28-40 demographic, has been smart about marketing not only Ahmed-Yahia (who came from editorial stints at Vanity Fair and Elle), but other notable, hand-plucked stylists which Ahmed-Yahia has brought in to help shoppers connect with the brand. Stylist Nicole Chavez was on hand at the event in L.A.

“I don’t care what coast you’re on, it’s all about hi-low [dressing] now,” said Muto, of the fashion philosophy of mixing, designer, contemporary and fast-fashion pieces into one’s wardrobe. “And it’s all about versatility and incredible pricing. Seventy percent of the apparel is under $100 and the jewelry is under $50.”

While it’s going to take some time for shoppers to begin to associate the brand with a more fashion-forward sensibility, the company’s efforts as a whole are showing promise, despite recent mixed financial results.

Ann Taylor recently reported fiscal 2010 second-quarter results, and has been showing good signs of growth overall. With respect to the individual brands, same-store sales have remained flat for the LOFT division, but they have risen 15.2% at Ann Taylor. During the quarter, the company’s overall net sales grew 2.8% to $483.5 million from $470.2 in the second quarter of fiscal 2009. The growth was primarily driven by a 6.1% growth in same-store sales for the company, which was partially offset by the net closure of 39 stores in the last year. Ann Taylor operates 510 LOFT stores.

Management attributed the growth to better merchandise and inventory management as well as its marketing efforts. For the LOFT brand, in particular, Ann Taylor President and Chief Executive Officer Kay Krill commented that LOFT’s e-commerce and outlet channels “delivered strong top-line performance” for the second quarter.

Indeed, its online marketing is strong and the company has been smart to tap into not only young Hollywood, but a crop of respected, young stylists who are giving a hipper face to the brand. (Witness the incredible success J. Crew has had in promoting executive creative director Jenna Lyons as the aspirational face behind the brand.) That personal connection with a brand is essential now as retailers compete for differentiation and respond to customers’ desire to have a dialogue with brands through channels such as social media. (Incidentally, Muto said that Ivanka Trump’s vigorous tweets this past summer about her love of the brand was not prompted by the company.)

On the LOFT site now for fall 2010 are videos featuring style tips and how-tos from not only Senior Fashion Director Ahmed-Yahia, but stylists Joanne Blades, Tina Chai and Kate Young. (www.anntaylorloft.com)

This approach may be one of the keys to tapping into this elusive 28-40 demographic of women, which retailers have been trying unsuccessfully to capture for years. The problem until now: Retailers assumed that this career-aged woman didn’t want real fashion. Martin & Osa launched to capture her and didn’t quite hit its stride until too late, and Gap’s now shuttered Forth & Towne concept (also once helmed by Muto) set to snag the 35-plus woman also missed the mark. But, presumably, it also led Muto to a better understanding of what this woman wants: style.

“It’s not a cookie cutter look,” said Ahmed-Yahia. And the outfits the stylists showcase on the LOFT site convey the zeitgeist of today’s wabi-sabi sartorial mood: feminine but a touch edgy; chic but not contrived. And importantly,  affordable.

“You don’t have to spend a lot of money to look good,” said Muto.

Indeed. And now I think I’ll march my young daughter off to LOFT with me, and pass the torch. Perhaps she, too, will forge an unlikely bond while she waits, exasperatingly, for me try on all of my favorite fall finds.

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Author:Michelle Dalton Tyree

Fashion Trends Daily is the brainchild of Michelle Dalton Tyree. She is the former West Coast Retail Editor for Women’s Wear Daily, Fashion Editor for The Japan Times, and founder of former L.A. luxury boutique Iconology. Michelle is frequently quoted about fashion retail trends in major media outlets such as NPR, KPCC, The Inside Source and the New York Times. She has developed content for many luxury brands and retailers and has written for Allure, Worth Global Style Network, Footwear News and other media outlets.