From the rise of influencers and "see now, buy now," to the never-ending game of designer musical chairs and the changing face of department stores, 2016 brought big shifts throughout the fashion and retail industries. As online and mobile shopping options increased and improved, fast-fashion companies expanded their store fleets, millennials' spending power increased and shopping behaviors evolved, many of the world's biggest apparel companies began to flounder, and were forced to rethink everything from product to marketing to supply-chain organization to stay afloat.
In terms of revenue, 2016 was actually the worst year for the global fashion industry since the 2009 economic recession. While the industry has typically grown by about 5.5 percent per year over the past decade, it only grew about 2 percent in 2016 according to a joint report by McKinsey and the Business of Fashion. However, it's expected to rebound somewhat in 2017, thanks in part to the restructuring efforts many brands made this year — from mall retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap, to luxury labels like Gucci and Burberry, to all-American lifestyle brands like Coach and Ralph Lauren.
Since it's hard to keep track of all of their ups and downs and quarterly earnings reports and bankruptcies, we decided to break down each of the year's biggest rebrands in one simple guide. Read on for a primer on what nine brands — some of which you probably loved at one point or another before it "went downhill" — did to turn themselves around this year; and whether or not they succeeded.
Abercrombie & Fitch
Teen retailers’ collective downfall began long before 2016, but this was the year in which some of them turned a corner. After hiring a new executive leadership team in 2015, Abercrombie & Fitch went full speed ahead with its rebranding efforts: hiring a marketing creative director from J.Crew; debuting a more diverse and playful branding aesthetic; hiring new design leadership to update its outdated, logo-heavy product; and modernizing stores. The goal? To be seen as an "iconic American casual luxury brand" for 20-somethings. The retailer’s executives insist it is on the right track, even if sales haven’t quite bounced back yet — Abercrombie & Fitch, which also owns Hollister, saw sales decline in every quarter since the beginning of the year. Turnarounds take time to resonate with shoppers, and in our opinion, the brand's offering has never looked better.
Alessandro Michele debuted his first full collection for the Kering-owned Italian fashion house in 2015 after being promoted by new CEO Marco Bizzarri, but it wasn't until this year that we saw the first "tangible" results of the new image. In addition to presenting a new, pretty much universally adored, vintage-inspired aesthetic, Gucci redesigned many of its flagship stores and ramped up its digital strategy, from e-commerce site updates to social-media initiatives. In addition to landing countless editorial and celebrity red-carpet placements and being named the year’s most digitally savvy luxury brand (dethroning usual winner Burberry), by L2, Gucci began to see steady sales growth, with revenue up 3.1, 7 and 17.8 percent percent over the past three consecutive quarters. Lifts in wholesale orders and e-commerce sales contributed significantly to those numbers.
Gap's CEO of almost two years, Art Peck, has blamed a number of factors for Gap's repeated periods of declining sales: low foot traffic in malls, weather, competition from fast fashion and the existence of a creative director (he opted to eliminate that role last year), to name a few. But from our perspective, Gap has had a bit of an identity crisis lately — wavering between wanting to keep up with trends and provide timeless, good-quality basics, all the while lacking any unique creative vision.
Lately, Peck has focused on steering the retailer towards a "data-driven" strategy that mimics the approach of fast-fashion companies, wherein the supply chain is nimble enough to allow for the rapid production of styles based on real-time trends and performance in stores. We'll see in 2017 if that strategy translates to revenue growth, but we don't expect it will ever translate to interesting clothes — unless more collaborations with cool creatives like Heron Preston are in the pipeline.
After a dismal 2015, J.Crew has worked to move away from a very Jenna Lyons-influenced, overly fashion-forward image and brought on former Madewell Creative Director Somsack Sikhounmuong, whose first designs for the retailer hit stores this fall. (Madewell has long outpaced J.Crew in terms of growth.) It also launched its first proper activewear collection with New Balance and made its first foray into brick-and-mortar wholesale with Nordstrom, while discontinuing the bridal segment of its business. Complaints of a drop in quality have continued to plague the retailer, however.
On the marketing front, J.Crew has jumped on the inclusivity bandwagon by experimenting with casting "real people" as models: For its spring 2017 presentation, the company's friends, family and employees wore the new collection; and four "real," fitness-minded women starred in the New Balance campaign. As far as numbers go, we haven’t yet seen a significant improvement in sales: Most recently, the brand's revenue was down 7 percent in the third quarter of 2016 and it's still in debt. In fact, there have been reports that the company might restructure its debt and place its intellectual property into a separate entity.
In March, in the wake of a disappointing financial year, Burberry and then-CEO Christopher Bailey laid out a series of measures to streamline the business and return to positive sales growth: reducing product assortment to focus on core items (like the always-successful scarves and outerwear), ramping up leather goods, opening fewer stores while improving existing ones and relaunching e-commerce are a few examples. Shortly thereafter, Burberry announced that Bailey would be stepping down from the CEO role, remaining president and chief creative officer, and to be replaced as CEO by Marco Gobbetti, formerly of Céline, in 2017. The consolidated branding announced last year is now fully in place and the label’s first "see-now, buy-now" runway show occurred in September — to a positive response. The company is still struggling financially, due to a few issues that have plagued it for a while: the repurchasing of its licenses and declines in wholesale orders, for which ailing department stores are to blame.
After a year of plummeting sales and lackluster product, Urban Outfitters was on a mission this year to win back its core customers — young millennials with a proclivity for irony and Coachella — who had eschewed the affordable, trendy retailer for more affordable and trendy fast-fashion retailers. And by all accounts, it's succeeded. From its online visuals to the actual product, everything feels right on-trend now: The retailer's nostalgic collaborations with brands like Adidas, Wrangler and Calvin Klein have proven to be particularly successful in getting core customers back into stores shopping at full price, along with a Justin Bieber merch drop earlier this year and rapidly expanding offering of minimally packaged beauty products. Comparable sales have been up in the single digits for the past three quarters.
The other Store I Shopped At In College, American Apparel, hasn't fared as well. Long story short, its founder, Dov Charney, was ousted at the end of 2014; Paula Schneider was made CEO, and her attempts to turn the company around last year proved unsuccessful; it declared bankruptcy last October and began exploring a sale this year; Schneider left this September and was replaced by Chelsea Grayson; in November, AA filed for bankruptcy yet again and also found a buyer: Gildan Activewear, who intends to put in a $66 million bid for its intellectual property in January. The retailer is now in the process of closing many more of its stores and announced that it may be forced to lay off up to 3,500 employees. Everything on its website is currently 40 percent off. The future of American Apparel as we knew it remains uncertain.
Coach might be one of 2016's biggest turnaround success stories. The multipronged plan CEO Victor Luis put into effect in 2013 to reposition the brand — which involved the hiring of Creative Director Stuart Vevers to ramp up ready-to-wear, a presence at New York Fashion Week, fashion-forward ad campaigns, cutting back on promotions, limiting department store presence and more — began to bear fruit this year. The American brand saw a return to sales growth in the third quarter of fiscal 2016; Vevers' collections have been embraced by the industry and are resonating with customers; Coach opened a massive Fifth Avenue flagship in November and put on an equally massive runway show/75th anniversary party a few weeks later that was such a hit, we began to wonder if Coach had suddenly become New York's coolest fashion brand. That may be a slight exaggeration, but the mere fact that a Coach event was one of the hottest tickets in town is a strong marker of the brand's transformation. Next up? A collaboration with Selena Gomez.
Often times, with a new CEO comes a new turnaround plan, and that's been the case for Stefan Larsson, who replaced Ralph Lauren in the role last fall. This past June, after the company saw declining sales in fiscal 2016 (ended this March), he revealed his "Way Forward" plan to investors. It sounds a lot like what Burberry's doing and involves closing stores, eliminating unnecessary jobs, streamlining the supply chain, consolidating its various brands, refocusing on desirable core product and getting closer to consumers. The latter was achieved in September when the brand showed its first "see-now, buy-now" collection at NYFW. For Ralph Lauren, this turnaround is still in its early stages; in 2017, we'll see it more fully take shape, and find out whether or not sales bounce back.