The decline and fall of British Home Stores will come as no surprise to anyone who’s visited one of their provincial stores lately and noticed the worrying absence of customers, staff and stuff one would be seen dead in. It also speaks volumes about how the landscape of clothes retailing has changed.
The people who will probably mourn BHS most are a certain sort of older lady, the kind of person my mother-in-law was, looking for affordable basics that don’t change much from year to year. A swimsuit that fits, a pair of comfy slippers. Someone who, crucially, isn’t comfortable doing their shopping on the Internet. The kind of person who regards clothes as equipment rather than a statement of lifestyle.
But the show has moved on, often somewhat more quickly than the retailers. John Lewis stocks very little interesting stuff above a UK size 18. Marks and Spencer patronises the older woman with its hideous Classic range, dominated by swathes of what used to be called man-made fibres in inoffensive pastel shades. Laura Ashley hangs on in tourist hotspots where its iconic Englishness attracts well-heeled overseas tourists.
I hear that Austin Reed is in trouble as well. The last time I bought a Country Casuals outfit – the kind where everything matches – the bag, the shoes, the silly little hat, was for my son’s first graduation ceremony, and I felt embarrassingly overdressed. The ladies I meet for lunch – when they aren’t out at work – show up at quite nice places in sweatshirts and are as likely to carry rucksacks as handbags. People just don’t do formalities any more.
It embarrasses me to admit this, but when I recall doing my MA in Shakespeare Studies in Stratford-upon-Avon, I have almost as many fond memories of clothes shopping as I do of seminal theatre productions. That’s a mere five years ago, but when I went back there recently several of the places I used to mooch happily around had closed and others were under threat. Now if I want the luxury of a flagship store, my best bet is probably Covent Garden.
The need to “kick tyres”, as my husband puts it, hasn’t entirely vanished from clothes shopping. I find that the Internet is great for anything above the waist, but trousers are a much riskier business, often involving several trips to the Post Office with returns. Brand loyalty becomes more significant – if you know that Dash trousers are always comfortable, you are much more likely to stick with them, at least for the basics.
Capturing the boomer market is the key to survival in today’s retail landscape. Outlets for the younger woman proliferate and expire like mayflies, as they always have. But by the time I turned 50, I already had the distinct sense that I was being put in a beige box. Then – on the Internet, naturally – I discovered Gudrun Sjoden and fell in love. At last, a retailer that happily put plus-size and grey-haired mature models on its website, and sold clothes for them in the kind of colours that made my daughter roll her eyes and say, “You’re not going out looking like that, are you, Mum?” If I want to age colourfully, then I damn well will (though I admit the loud cerise leggings were probably a step too far, and they languish in the wardrobe). The message is as loud and clear as a Gudrun tunic – if you pigeonhole us, we’ll go somewhere else, and who cares what damn country they come from. It will take more than fond memories of the first set of bedding we bought when we got married, or BHS lunch in-store as a childhood treat, to get us through your revolving doors. Retail giants ignore the sixty-something woman at their peril.