Looking to the edge for the hipness quotient

Until recently, Zara sold cheap chic to the moderately cool, but it’s moved on up

Kristen Henderson, a fashion blogger, wears a Zara outfit. Clothes from Zara are an increasingly common sight on fashion industry tastemakers in their daily routine. photograph: yana paskova/the new york times

Kristen Henderson, a fashion blogger, wears a Zara outfit. Clothes from Zara are an increasingly common sight on fashion industry tastemakers in their daily routine. photograph: yana paskova/the new york times

 

When they are not tending clients or updating inventory at the Albright Fashion Library, a supplier of fresh-from-the-runway-looks to stylists, socialites and film companies, Lindsay Carr and Yael Quint like to poke around the internet for credible approximations of their favourite high-end labels. Their jobs afford them plenty of chances to beg, borrow or buy at a discount any number of lust-worthy items from the likes of Balenciaga, Givenchy or Céline.

But on a recent spring morning, Carr was turned out top to toe in Zara.

Quint sat alongside her wearing a filmy top, Céline sandals and a pair of billowing trousers. Their provenance: Zara.

“Stylists who visit here are constantly asking, ‘Are you wearing Céline, are you wearing Givenchy?’” Quint said, adding with a hoot, “We like to tell them, ‘No, we’re wearing Zalenciaga or we’re wearing Zéline.’”

If that sounds smug, it may be because Carr and Quint are pleased to claim membership in an expanding coterie of fashion insiders – magazine editors, stylists, bloggers and street-style divas – to tap Zara routinely, and repeatedly, for timely, decently priced approximations of the runways’ greatest hits.

Among tastemakers, the zeal is infectious. “We all aspire, regardless of age, height, weight and colour, to be the girls on the runway,” said Kristen Henderson, a fashion blogger in Atlanta. “I feel like Zara puts you there.”

It was not always so. Only a couple of years ago, Zara, with its midprice interpretations of runway trends, was a leading purveyor of cheap chic to the budget-conscious crowd, offering well-constructed, moderately stylish wares that, for the most part, steered clear of the cutting edge.

A retail division of the Spanish global giant Inditex, with some 1,900 stores in 87 countries, the company does not advertise. Unlike its competition, fast-fashion chains including Topshop and H&M, it has eschewed collaborations with upscale designer labels; nor has it flooded the internet with a barrage of tweets and social media shoutouts.

Apparently it saw no need. The company, which had close to $15 billion (€11bn) in sales for 2013, does not grant interviews or discuss retail and marketing strategies. Yet in the last 18-20 months, it has clearly sought to reposition itself as a fashion front-runner with a definable point of view.

Not by any stretch a design innovator, Zara has nonetheless passed muster with the style-obsessed. “These days, Zara feels like a fashion brand,” said Hannah Weil, a blogger with the Pop Sugar website, who turns to the store and its website for wardrobe refreshers – “a little crop top,” she said, “or a piece that will give your look a little edge”.

She is part of a wider audience the company has courted, according to Dana Telsey of the Telsey Advisory Group, a stock research firm. “In the past year, they’ve been expanding their customer base toward more influential consumers,” she said. “That they can go up and down the ladder helps them to gain awareness and build market share.”

The company relies largely on word of mouth and a high-lustre website, introduced in the US in 2011, to create a hunger for its wares.

The site, which vies these days in slick production and of- the-moment looks with those of many fashion magazines, arrived at a time when any lingering stigma attached to buying copies had all but evaporated, even among the most stubborn designer-label purists.

Segmented into men’s, women’s and children’s offerings, the site includes a separate Studio classification aimed at the vanguard and a Zara Lookbook, a magazine-like feature featuring the company’s more advanced items, among them a short-sleeve jumpsuit with flared lapels and a double-breasted, gold-button navy blazer (each $139/€102). Offerings with a slightly broader appeal include a stretch-cotton leaf print blazer ($99.90/€73.2), a floral print calf-length skirt ($79€58), a fringed imitation-suede top ($69.90/€51.2) and a modish selection of platform sandals and bucket bags.

Zara shares with some magazines and online fashion sites a strategy of enlisting style- world luminaries to boost its hipness quotient. Fashion media stars including Taylor Tomasi Hill, a contributor to the Gwyneth Paltrow blog, Goop, and Amanda Brooks, a former fashion director of Barneys New York, have modeled in its Web pages.

As pertinent, although Zara declines to confirm it, the company has engaged a handful of influential fashion stylists as “consultants,” to rework or adapt – in a word, copy – the most heat-generating runway looks for its increasingly savvy audience.

To hear from shoppers, its strategy has paid off. “In my office, Zara has become the center of so many conversations,” Weil said. “Probably because they have stepped up what they’re doing.”

Henderson voiced a growing consensus. “Whatever is out there in the marketplace, whatever is going on, Zara is right there on point,” she said. “It’s a place where women of all age ranges can shop.”

So ardent is she, one might suspect that Zara had offered incentives to feature the label on her blog. Not so, Henderson said. Zara would be one of the last brands to reach out to bloggers, she said. The fashion set’s devotion is, she maintained, spontaneous and unsolicited.

Indeed, industry professionals count themselves as among the brand’s chief boosters. “Zara has completely opened up the world to fashion people,” Quint said. “Stylists who never shopped there before are shopping there now.”

– (© 2014 New York Times News Service)

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