"I hope this will start a trend to convince other retailers and other department store brands to invest in this consumer again," says Bogan, of retail consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates. "There's some real pent-up demand."
Leslie Fox, 43, of New Albany, Ohio, used to shop at Talbots but felt its styles had become too conservative. She was always surprised that no matter how low the waist got on pants at other stores, Talbots' pants never seemed to budge. Of Talbots' new selections, she'd now consider buying several dresses and at least one suit.
Fox thinks Chico's apparel seems even more unflattering than what Talbots used to be and perceives Ann Taylor as overemphasizing formal styles that most working women no longer need.
"Things have changed in the workplace now," she says. "More environments are more casual."
That's something Ann Taylor is trying to address with the recent addition of more casual clothing, which analyst Black says is a "wise choice … as lifestyle seems to be such a driving force in apparel choices."
"We are highly focused on evolving and modernizing the Ann Taylor brand," CEO Kay Krill said last month.
Still, Black and other analysts say that new merchandise coming into stores last month was being marked down almost as fast as it was being stocked.
Chico's, for its part, has acknowledged it wasn't updating its apparel often enough. It told analysts earlier this year that it was working to improve its styles and the fit of its clothing, especially denim. Black says Chico's is "still a work in progress" but thinks the fall merchandise is somewhat improved.
No turning back
Talbots' Sullivan knows she may alienate some traditional buyers with more contemporary fashions. Of the hundreds of e-mails she's received since she made her e-mail address public, about 30% were complaints. They included laments that there were no corduroy jumpers and flannel nightgowns to be found. But Sullivan says there's no turning back to styles that just last year included a sweater with a Santa on skis.
That sweater alone, she says with a laugh, was almost enough to kill the deals she cut with some of the designers and marketers she lured to Talbots.
While Talbots and some other stores have sometimes been viewed as skewing too old, those who shop too young are committing an offense that Teitell calls "DUI": dressing under the influence — of a teenage daughter.
Shelley Seff, a Baltimore fitness director, says that in her house, it's the other way around.
"I tend to dress trendy even when going out socially but have found it confusing for me because, at 58, the Oprah fashion experts say, 'Do not dress like your daughter,' " she says. "Yet my 181/2-year-old will borrow my clothes, so I would probably give the (O, The Oprah magazine) editors something to talk about."
Daughter teaches Mom a lesson
Yet Seff's daughter, Jamie, says she once hid her mother's hot pink Juicy Couture sweat suit because it didn't seem age appropriate and notes that her mom was wearing both pieces together, which was simply too much.