Birth of an apparel brand with LinkedIn as the midwife?

Fab at fifty – and absolutely ignored by the apparel industry.
Fab at fifty – and absolutely ignored by the apparel industry.

I have ranted for years about marketing that is aimed at the 50+ market, but features images of retouched, ultra beautiful Twenty Something males and female models. Nothing highlights this better than my experience a few years back at the Ibersotar Grand in Jamaica.

So imagine this. I am at the resort on the very same day a TV crew is shooting beautiful Twenty Somethings in the usual cliché ways, yet just a few feet away are actual Iberostar guests, including me and my wife, and not a one looks even vaguely like the beautiful Twenty Somethings in the TV commercial. The youngest guests are Forty Somethings and most are 50+. A total disconnect.

Which brings me to my participation in a fascinating LinkedIn group discussion that addresses a similar issue: how does a clothing apparel maker target clothing for 50+ women and make the 50+ women feel "hip"?

Being married to a 50+ woman and having a daughter who is under 30, I know something about this subject and I helped launch the discussion with this comment: 50+ women don't want to be hip, especially if "hip" is just code for "I want to look young." Women in and around the age of 50 want clothes that look great and respects the fact that they have a different body shape than a Twenty Something. They also mentioned that they wanted "age appropriate" clothing, but that didn't mean they wanted to dress like their grandmothers.

Many women complained that they have had a hard time finding clothing. It might look good, but not fit or the garment fit but was unattractive. This is puzzling when you consider that many 50+ women are affluent boomers with a lot of disposable income. Yet there is almost nobody chasing this market in Canada and just one (Chico's) in the U.S.

You can see the frustration in the following comments:

Pamela: I think women 45+ and possibly even younger would be interested in fashionable clothing that really fits adult women. I don't want to wear leggings or skin tight clothing that is too short, but I don't want to wear my mother's clothes either. And I sure don't want to wear 'mom pants,' or clothing that looks dated. I like fashionable clothing and often see 'hip' clothing that I'd like to wear, but it's way too short and clingy.

Elizabeth: I have zero interest in being 'hip'. I'll leave that to the 20-30-somethings. What I want is clothes that fit, are comfortable, and express my personal style, including the fact that I am over 50. Skin tight stretchy anything is POISON!

Lynn: I'm over 50 and I want fashionable, well-fitted clothes, just as I did when I was young. I don't care about being hip; I live in south Orange County and see plenty of women in their 40s and 50s branding themselves as old by wearing outfits 20-somethings probably wouldn't wear. Please make them fit! And no models in their 20s and 30s, either. Also, not all of us are fat although one's proportions do change. I still have to have most clothes taken in. I would be so delighted to see a brand I know I can count on for flattering age-appropriate clothes.

Lisa: I've been patiently waiting for someone to come out with a line of women's clothing (and make them available in Canada) that offers options for work, home and for casual and formal outings. In addition to that I would want the clothes modeled by real women regardless of the advertising medium - not size 0 models.

Terry: I find there are too many stores that only cater to the young without thought of the "baby Boomers" out here who out number them.

Sara, a marketing whiz, chipped in with this: This stance by the apparel industry is absurd, considering the vast amount of Baby Boomer disposable income/wealth. If you look at the actual stats --especially social media growth, where Boomers are among the fastest growing segments on Facebook (51% in 2010 had profiles) --it's clear that viewing us as 'invisible women' is fiscally foolhardy.

I agree with Sara, but I also see a contradiction in the following comment, which was made in one way or another by many women: "I'm 50 and I'm beautiful, but I don't want to be labeled as being 50 and beautiful." Isn't this just reaffirming the prevalent, and totally unfair, belief that a woman can't be 50 and beautiful and she must therefore be, like Plus Sized women once were, invisible?

  Illusion before
     This is the illusion, click the photo to see the reality.


Think about it. Not long ago there were no Plus Sized women, just overweight women and in media terms they were (like the 50+ woman today) invisible. After all, who wanted to be known as being overweight?

Then somebody noticed what should have been obvious. There were a lot of non-skinny women – and they had money to spend on clothing, but nowhere to spend it (sound familiar?). They didn't want to be labeled "fat" or overweight, so a little repositioning magic was applied and a new, more friendly category (Plus Sized) was created. Bingo. Clothing lines started appearing for Plus Sized women and they were no longer invisible. In fact, you can now see Plus Sized women on runways, top-rated talk shows, sitcoms and ultra popular shows such as Glee.

So here is my question: why can't the same happen for the 50ish women? Why do they have to hide their age and remain in the invisible soft middle – not young and beautiful, not old and matronly? And most of all, why don't the major clothing retailers, including the many who are starving for sales and having a tough time establishing any clear product differentiation, go after the 50+ apparel segment? It wouldn't be that hard.

Go to Europe if necessary to find clothing lines that make the 50+ women look fabulous or throw the challenge to some young talented domestic designers. Then create brands that celebrate the look and fit desired by 50+ women, not the age of the 50+ women. You don't see a sign at The Gap instructing customers that this outlet is only for people under 30. So why put any kind of age positioning on a brand or store for 50+ women? Create clothing that appeals to the eye of the 50+ women and they will come.

Note to retailers: there is a big market here in Toronto, Canada. Open a store for 50+ women's apparel and my wife will be first in line, followed by her 50+ best friend who lives just down the street, followed by my hair stylist, who just turned 50 and is so frustrated by the offerings of Toronto clothing for women that she only shops in Italy or a few select U.S. outlets.

Wolfgang Franke is President & Creative Director of Words at Work Advertising & Marketing, a full service communications company established in 1988. Our growing list of valued clients are found throughout our local market, Markham and the Greater Toronto area, across Canada in cities such as London, Ontario, and Edmonton, Alberta, and an expanding list of international locations ranging from The Big Apple in New York to Kanturk, Ireland.

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