How the UK orchestrated the slow death of fashion’s American Dream.
Barely three years since coming to the UK, American Eagle Outfitters has decided to call it quits.
The US denim brand, best known Stateside for its laid-back Sol Cal vibe, has ceased trading at its shiny megastores in Westfield London, Westfield Stratford and Bluewater, while simultaneously pulling the plug on its British website.
The dramatic decision to abandon its UK business comes less than three years after the American chain stated its intention to open between 20 and 30 stores in Britain, adding to a global portfolio spanning more than 1,000 stores in the US, Canada, Mexico, China and Hong Kong.
It is safe to say that American Eagle’s failure to crack the UK market, while embarrassing for the company, will have little impact on the average British consumer. The US retailer failed on its ambition to take its brand of teen denim any further than the capital and South East.
However, the rejection of the American Eagle aesthetic, by a country as fashion savvy as the UK, is the latest blow for companies that trade in quintessentially preppy American style.
To set the scene, we need to go back to the autumn of 2016. In November news broke that the UK business of high street retailer American Apparel had gone into administration, resulting in the closure of its 13 British stores.
Known for its collegiate style, mixed with a lurid dash of Studio 54 glamour, the LA-based retailer was a shameless proponent of the the old adage “sex sells”. The fashion chain became synonymous with its sexualised advertising, the majority of which featured young, scantily clad female staff members.
American Apparel’s reputation was further tainted by its association with controversial founder Dov Charney. Fired by the company’s board in 2014, Charney was embroiled in a number of sex scandals, including allegations that he masturbated in front of a female journalist.
The brand’s downfall in the UK can be traced back to a number of factors. Whereas once American Apparel held a degree of fascination amongst UK consumers, the brand’s sleazy glamour rapidly began to lose its shine. As did the price. No longer were Brits prepared to pay over £30 for a plain T-shirt just because it was made in America.
The chain had failed to keep pace with changing consumer tastes or recognise that, to cut it in an ultra-competitive market like the UK, you need to offer shoppers more bang for their buck. The downfall of American Apparel epitomised the fact that being synonymous with effortless American style was no longer enough to inspire the millennial market.
Preppy loses its shine
Another high profile casualty of Britain’s faltering love affair with all things Americana is Abercrombie & Fitch.
Long gone are the days when British teens would queue outside these temples to East Coast cool, hoping to get a glimpse of a blonde haired, blue eyed male model dancing topless at the doorway. Dark and heavily scented with a thumping electro soundtrack, the interior of an Abercrombie & Fitch store had the overwhelming feeling of being in an overcrowded club full of frosty staff with perfectly straight teeth.
The epitome of preppy style from its polo shirts and cable knit jumpers to its slogan varsity tops, Abercrombie failed to evolve with its consumers who as a consequence fell out of love with its deliberately elitist aesthetic. Couple that with the fact that the retailer expects shoppers to pay £64 for a logo hoodie and it is hardly surprising that the US chain has hit a rocky patch.
In May Abercrombie reported a 4% drop in sales for the first quarter of 2017 and an operating loss of $70m. Just two months later a rumoured acquisition by none other than American Eagle was abandoned.
Instead, the US fashion chain decided to opt for a “rigorous execution” of its business plan, committing to take “aggressive action” in a bid to revitalise the performance of the Abercrombie brand. But is it all too little, too late? Could the steady decline of Abercrombie & Fitch be yet another sign that consumers are “over” Americana?
The new breed
Whereas once American heavyweights dominated the high street, dressing British teenagers like extras from the cast of The OC, the balance of consumer spending has shifted towards a new wave of homegrown talent.
The US imports have been outmanoeuvred by the fast fashion players of Manchester’s thriving e-tail scene. From market leaders Missguided and Boohoo, to smaller players like Pretty Little Thing, Want That Trend and In the Style, these online fashion retailers have captured both the imagination and spending power of the millennial market with their aggressively low prices and lightening fast supply chain.
It is these nimble supply chains, sourcing in large part in lower cost manufacturing bases in Asia, that enable brands like Boohoo and Missguided to jump on the latest trends that hit social media. These retailers are savvy enough to know that photographing a pretty girl with flowing golden locks in a cute dress on a Californian beach is no longer aspirational – something the likes of Abercrombie failed to realise.
Take Boohoo, which has released a festival-ready collection with Stella Hudgens, the 21-year-old actress and sister of Vanessa Hudgens, who incidentally has over one million followers on Instagram. And then there is Missguided’s tie-up with supermodel Jourdan Dunn, who proudly posts pictures of herself modelling the collection to her over two million Instagram devotees.
To keep themselves top of mind, this new breed of fashion retailers are also known for their near identikit TV adverts, showing models cavorting in ripped jeans, hot pants and sequin dresses to an autotune dance soundtrack. The adverts are usually aired during high-profile shows like Love Island and The Only Way is Essex that score highly with their target millennial demographic.
The winning combination of flash sales, prominent TV ad campaigns, celebrity tie-ups and the ability to leverage a devoted social media following, make these etailers more than a match for the American fashion giants.
What’s more, they are beating them at their own game when it comes to bricks and mortar retail.
In November Missguided opened its first standalone store in London’s Westfield Stratford, the same shopping centre American Eagle pulled out of just last week. Missguided’s ability to capitalise on the latest fashion trends, combined with a price point that starts at £8 for a pair of jeans, shows why cumbersome traditional retailers like American Eagle don’t really a stand a chance.
While there will always be exceptions, such as premium fashion label Michael Kors which has struck a chord amongst UK consumers with its classy take on LA chic, the proponents of preppy Americana continue to fall by the wayside.
That brand of elitist, Ivy League style with a heavy dash of Californian cool, which once proved so aspirational for British teenagers, has been replaced by a new breed of social media-friendly fashion with a firmly global identity. And so, for now at least, America’s high street fashion dreams for the UK appear to be over.