Retailers widen options, including more modest clothes

Modesty in young women's clothing is getting a boost from the dismal economy.

When consumer spending was in overdrive, retailers could sell to the masses and ignore the more muted voices asking for, say, a decent supply of sleeved shirts or prom dresses that show more fabric than skin.

Now, however, it's the rare retailer who's willing to take the chance of turning off any possible customer. Luxury-store clerks can no longer afford to look down at scruffy shoppers, and store owners of every sort are recognizing the one-size-fits-all approach to retail buying no longer works.

Whether it's more of a fiscal or moral shift, understated girls' clothing may indeed be making a comeback.

Even flashy Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld declared "bling is over" and noted the economy is prompting a "new modesty," in an interview with the International Herald Tribune this year.

Retail consultant Ken Nisch says the trend is more moderation than modesty, but the effect may be the same.

"It's not because of a moral revival but about sensibility," says Nisch, chairman of retail brand and design firm JGA. "What's provocative has often been ultra trendy, and it just doesn't make sense to buy things you can't wear for a lot of occasions anymore."

The evidence is found everywhere, from the baggy and shapeless "boyfriend" jeans that are replacing skin tight ones for many young women to the basic fashions seen all over New York these days, says Meredith Barnett, CEO of retail boutique website StoreAdore.com.

"People want to be more comfortable and more covered," says Barnett. "You're not seeing nearly as much risk taking."

The trend is forcing a shift in the way retailers do business. Just as teen retailers have come to target the gothic girl, the diva and the street-wear aficionado, they now must recognize that skin is simply not always in. For every girl who embraces strapless tops and micro-mini dresses, there might be one who is trying to abide by either a school or moral dress code. Modest fashion typically calls for covered shoulders, thighs and cleavage but is hardly the definition of frumpy that the term often calls to mind.

"For those groups who want to be a little more reserved, (stores) must understand what their needs are and offer them what they want," says retail strategist Cari Bunch of consulting firm Kurt Salmon Associates. "It's essential for survival."

When he explained the chain's new local approach to investors last month, Macy's CEO Terry Lundgren cited the chain's ability to offer clothing to working women in Pittsburgh and St. Louis seeking "covered sleeves and more traditional silhouettes."

Too provocative

Finding a bit more coverage in their clothing may be a goal of many adult women, but finding fashion that wouldn't be considered "sexy" can be an obsession for mothers of tween and teenage girls. When consumer insights firm BIGresearch polled 5,000 consumers last fall, 64% of those 18 and older agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "Fashions for young people have gotten too provocative."

Brenda Sharman, who became national founder of the teen girl group Pure Fashion in 2006, already knew public sentiment was starting to lean in favor of her modesty mission. However, she didn't think there would be much concern about low necklines and high hemlines in a time of staggering economic pressure and spiraling unemployment. But now, she believes the economy has become a boon.

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