Fashion is growing up.
"Women in their 30s are more like what women in their 20s used to be like," says Lois Joy Johnson, beauty and fashion director for More magazine.
And so, designers and retailers, having to keep pace, are moving away from the trendy, style-setting 18- to-24 year-olds market group into a more mature, and more loyal, 25 and older - in some cases, much older - set.
"This consumer is young and hip, and she still wants to be sexy," Johnson says. "She works on her body. She goes to the gym. She pays attention to her diet. She pays attention to her skin. She gets a cool haircut. She looks amazing. And she wants to dress in a way that is ... contemporary."
Retailers and designers have taken notice of this contemporary woman, fashion observers say, and are producing more grown-up, sophisticated - and more forgiving - clothes. They're changing the way they market themselves, too, looking past the ubiquitous teenage waif to adults like Madonna to sell their clothes.
"It's been really miserable for me over the past couple of years just even trying to find a pair of jeans that look so fantastic on all these teenagers," says Mandi Moore, editor-in-chief of SHOP Etc., which picked up on the subtle maturation of fashion in an article this month called "The New Shopping Clout of the 30+ Babe."
"I've had two kids! These women such as myself, huge segments of the population, we have money to spend, and we want to spend it. We're affluent; we're not in our first jobs. I think that finally those retailers and designers, for them, the light bulb has just gone off."
Stores such as Gap, J. Crew and Abercrombie & Fitch, as well as brands like Esprit, Levi's and Marciano (a grown-up Guess line), and more upscale, designer lines are now selling clothes that fashion observers call "more generous." Slacks with more stretch and jeans with slightly higher rises. Skirts and dresses that are sexy, not skimpy, and jackets that are comfortably flattering, but not frumpy.
"There's definitely been a shift in the way that clothes are being designed, the way that they are being cut," Moore says. "The fabrications of the clothing are so much more appealing to someone that doesn't have the body of a 12-year-old."
High-end womenswear designer Julie Chaiken - whose fashion-forward clothes have been lauded on New York's runways - says she has been cognizant of the particular needs of the 30-plus woman since she came out with the sexy, but comfortable, Chaiken pant in 1995. Now, others seem to be catching on, she adds.
"My core customer is in her late 20s and early 30s. She's a woman who didn't have kids and then give up on being fashionable. I think that clothing manufacturers had given up on her. But I am very aware that she still exists. All I have to do is look at my friends," says Chaiken, who is in her late 30s and is a new mother. "I think people are starting to understand that this customer is contemporary and she is fashion forward, but she isn't going to wear jeans every day. She's going to wear real clothes. And these women are still in fantastic shape. We're not the mothers of a generation ago ... when becoming a mother was an excuse to forget about fashion."
More's Johnson says, "There's so many designers of contemporary brands who are 40, like Tracy Reese or Cynthia Steffe, Donna Karan, Vera Wang. These are women who are in their 40s so they're really aware of the concerns that women have."
She adds, "They're making easier cuts, looser-fitting things, fuller-cut skirts, empire dresses, coats with everything, tailored looks, a lot of jackets and suits. Even T-shirt companies are cutting their T-shirts lean, but longer. So even if you wear low-slung pants or jeans, you don't have to worry about your belly sticking out."
What makes this older, more sophisticated woman so attractive to retailers and designers? Money, for one thing.
According to trends analysts The NPD Group, a marketing information company, women between ages 25 and 34 spent $27.8 billion on apparel last year, slightly more than their 18- to-24-year-old counterparts, who spent $27.6 billion. And women 35 to 55 add about $30 billion more each year to the coffers.
"Thirtysomething women are more likely to spend $700 on a coat and expect it to last them three or four years if not longer, whereas a teenager will probably not spend $700 on a coat, and the idea that they would still be wearing the same coat in three years is completely foreign to them," Moore, of SHOP Etc., says. "So we have a different value system than teenagers, and I think that's important to retailers who are more serious about staying alive."
Loyalty is another reason retailers are targeting the over-30 shopper.
"In interviewing retailers and talking to designers, they want to lower their risks, and I think the teenaged market is quite a risky business to be in," Moore says. "What they find cool one minute is not cool, literally, 60 seconds later."
In another powerful sign about the importance of these older buyers, Gap - known for its youthful casual wear - is planning to launch Forth & Towne in the fall. The new chain - Gap's first in more than a decade - will target the hip and fashionable shopper who is over 35. Gap will unveil more details about the new stores and its lines this summer.
"Gap is being very secretive, but there's a buzz. They're starting very small, targeting women who fall into this over-35, over-40 age group that's not as conservative," says Natalie R. Weathers, assistant professor in the Fashion Industry Management Department at Philadelphia University's School of Textiles. "Their competitors are a Talbots, which is conservative, or a Chico's, which tries to have a funky organic look - which sometimes it succeeds at that, sometimes it fails. Or an Ann Taylor or Eileen Fisher. They're after the women who aren't quite getting what they want at Chico's, but don't want to pay the prices at an Eileen Fisher."
Weathers, who is 35, has gotten weary of the low-rise, ultra-tight reign of teenage clothes in the world of fashion, and says she has resorted to shopping in high-end boutiques for chic, but age-appropriate, clothes.
"I really think it's smart for the Gap to do [this]," Weathers says.
Other 30-plus women are thrilled about the shift, too, says Chaiken.
"My friends are very happy about it," Chaiken says. "In fact, we had a conversation about it just recently over dinner. And they were saying, 'Wow! I can actually find pants that fit this year that don't have a four-inch rise.'"
It's not just about fit, though. Retailers also are trying to attract the 30-to-35-plus woman with marketing: They're adjusting the ambiance in their stores and changing the way they advertise, experts say.
In pink and perky television commercials this spring, Gap had tapped mom and fashionista Sarah Jessica Parker, who turned 40 last month, to herald its latest foray into the world of khaki. While her three seasons with the company ended recently when she was replaced with teenage singer Joss Stone, Parker's endorsement deal was the longest in Gap's 36-year history. And for its 2005 spring and summer ad campaigns, Versace has been using Madonna - even with two kids and smile lines - to sell its upscale designer clothes in magazines such as Vogue and Elle.
"At J. Crew, which has gone through sort of a tremendous design revolution, they're playing Elton John and Rolling Stones, something that appeals to a slightly older demographic," says Moore, of SHOP Etc. "We're not being bombarded with Usher."
"It certainly started with the fit, but it also continues on with everything from signage to their advertising," says Andrew Greenberg, CEO of Greenberg Brand Strategy, which helps retailers better understand their customers. "I think that [designers and retailers are] waking up to the fact that, until now, they hadn't really nailed it. The money and the interest is in the 30-, 35-plus woman."