That prompted the company to add a "modest" category on its website. Although the designation was later dropped because there weren't enough people using "modest" as a search term, White says the chain did make sure to keep modest selections, which are available depending on demand in different regions of the country.
Macy's new "localization" strategy tailors apparel and other products by store and will include all Macy's by June. Spokesman Jim Sluzewski says, "In those stores where a more modest apparel assortment is expected by the customer, that's what we're working to deliver."
Modest or not, young people tend to prefer specialty stores over department stores, and that trend was evident during recent "mall missions" conducted by Pure Fashion. During these trips, groups of girls who are 14 to 18 years old fanned out across shopping areas to rate retailers on their apparel and atmosphere. They awarded Pure Fashion seals of approval to those that passed muster on at least seven out of 10 areas on their checklist, which includes appropriate apparel, mannequins and music.
American Eagle, Anthropologie and Banana Republic got the Washington, D.C., group's highest ratings, while Delia's, J. Crew and Ann Taylor all got the Pure Fashion thumbs up elsewhere.
"J. Crew is my favorite store, " says Ashley Nowak, a 14-year-old Pure Fashion member from Alpharetta, Ga. "Almost all of the other stores today have booty shorts and tube tops, that are not only revealing, but also set an inaccurate image of what beauty is supposed to look like."
Elsa Rose Hoffmann, who leads Pure Fashion in the D.C. area, says most stores were "very receptive" during a recent outing in Georgetown: Store managers would ask, "What can we do to improve?"
No lack of material
Preparing to address a group of teen girls at a Pure Fashion camp last year, Sharman had props ready to convince them just how far into the gutter fashion — and our culture — have gone.
There was an 8-inch-long skirt from Abercrombie & Fitch, one of the store's shopping bags with a near-naked man on it and a "Bling Bling Barbie," who looked suspiciously like a prostitute. Sharman also showed a camisole that's now sold as a top but was considered lingerie at the time Sharman modeled it in the 1990s, when she says bras and underwear "were more full coverage."
Sharman didn't have to go any farther than her local mall to collect her examples. A floor-to-ceiling photo graphic of a young man with his pants unzipped has greeted many visitors to Abercrombie & Fitch stores. The home page for the chain's lingerie line, Gilly Hicks, has seven men with bare behinds posing with a young model in a bra and underwear. American Apparel's website home page recently featured a topless model wearing see-through leggings.
Still, the stores' sales suggest sex does often sell. Although Abercrombie's sales have plunged with the economy — February's sales dropped a record 30% from Februrary 2008 — it's widely attributed to the chain's resistance to discounting, not a conservative backlash. And along with sister store Hollister, Abercrombie remains one of the stores teens most often list as favorites.
American Apparel, which sells basic cotton tees and other casual wear, had a 9% sales increase in February and is often cited as one of the retail success stories of the downturn. Abercrombie & Fitch declined to comment. American Apparel says its ads are all done in-house and feature employees.