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Fashion : Going by the Book : Catalogues Are Luring a New Type of Shopper: Busy Women Interested In High Style, Quality Fabrics

Times Staff Writer

This summer, it’s possible to do all your fall shopping at the beach. Just pack a stack of fashion catalogues along with the sunscreen.

In case you haven’t looked through a mail-order catalogue lately, there are some pleasant surprises. Especially among the newer books on the market. Companies such as Tweeds, J. Crew, and Lands’ End have targeted a whole new audience: modern urbanites with more sophisticated tastes who are looking for ways to save time and cut down on the inconveniences of shopping the stores.

The best of the new breed of catalogues are crowded with clothes made from natural fibers, in updated styles. There are none of the dowdy house dresses and polyester pant suits usually associated with shopping by mail. They’ve been replaced by items such as trendy, lace-trimmed leggings and man-tailored, cotton terry-cloth robes, stylish walking-short suits and oversize T-shirts in fashionable shades like melon, strawberry and conch.

Such spirited styles, along with the higher-quality materials baby boomers are known to favor, are helping to lure in the sales. People who never thought they’d buy anything through the mail are attracted not only by the clothes but by such standard mail-order catalogue conveniences as 24-hour shopping by phone, fast delivery and hassle-free return policies. Some companies, including Spiegel, will send UPS to pick up the rejects at your door, free of charge.

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Surveys indicate that the most active catalogue customers are women ages 25 to 40, many of them professionals with little time for anything other than juggling a career and a family. They usually order $100 worth of merchandise at a time.

Southern California is considered to be a particularly fast-growing market, industry watchers report. The number of Los Angeles mail-order shoppers increased 20% in 1988 for Talbots, a preppie fashion company based in Hingham, Mass., with a catalogue as well as a retail division. Monet LeMon of Talbots reports that the company has 139 shops across the country and uses catalogue sales figures to determine where to open their next shop. There are two new Talbots stores scheduled to open in Southern California by October.

8,500 Orders a Day

“We try to be trend right, but not trendy,” said LeMon, who explained that the company will ship 70 million catalogues this year. In response, 8,500 shoppers, with an average age of 43, will call in orders each day.

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With the number of enthusiasts nationwide steadily growing, industry analysts now project that some 11 billion fashion catalogues will be delivered to mailboxes across the country this year. And the major catalogue companies anticipate phenomenal sales figures. L.L. Bean, the granddaddy of the genre, especially in the area of rugged outdoor wear, is expecting $500 million in sales. Victoria’s Secret, part of the giant The Limited operation, will bring in about the same, say Wall Street analysts. Along with sexy lingerie, the catalogue now includes cotton knit weekend wear and a selection of dressier dresses.

Lands’ End, an exclusively mail-order business with warehouse outlets but no retail stores, expects sales to hit $300 million in 1989. Like Spiegel, Lands’ End has recently changed its look, from very basic styles to snappier, updated classics.

All such efforts seem to be paying off. “The confidence in buying by mail is increasing,” said Maxwell Sroge, a Chicago-based mail-order consultant.

“I’m a catalogue addict,” said Marcy Axness with a laugh. “Every time the UPS man shows up, my husband rolls his eyes because he sees money flying out the door.”

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Axness, 33, is an ideal example of a catalogue shopper. On hiatus from her career as a television writer, Axness cares for a 23-month-old son, Ian, and is directing the remodeling of the family’s Larchmont Village home. She said she is just too busy to battle the traffic in and around the malls.

She and other devoted mail-order shoppers acknowledge that without being able to try things on, they do return quite a few items. But, shoppers say, most catalogue companies are happy to reimburse the shipping costs if you ask them to.

High Fashion, Low Price

Even fashion retailers who specialize in high-price labels say they can relate to the catalogue shopping craze. “I love Tweeds,” says Madeleine Gallay, owner of a European fashion boutique in Los Angeles that bears her name. While she wears clothes from her own shop exclusively, she encourages the stylish young women on her staff to shop by catalogue for a high-fashion look at a lower price.

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Gallay, who describes catalogue clothes as a mix of classic and funky, sees them as wardrobe basics--especially items such as roomy, cotton cardigan sweaters and lace-trimmed leggings. And she notes that her fashion standards are high.

“I really think people should buy nothing but the best,” says Gallay. “I want to sell them a $1,000 dress to wear over their $19 leggings.”

The lace-trimmed leg wear she refers to--described in the Tweeds catalogues available in shades from maple to conch--has become something of a trendy dresser’s staple in Los Angeles this summer. Women wear the lacy leggings peeking out from beneath the hem of a skirt.

Other catalogue items that seem to be in high demand among Los Angeles mail-order shoppers are summer T-shirts and cotton turtlenecks, cotton-Lycra leggings, pure cotton camisoles and wide-leg cotton shorts.

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To keep up with the competition, more and more upscale specialty stores now ship high-fashion catalogues to their customers. In recent years they have even added high-price, designer-label merchandise to the bland selection once associated with catalogues.

Growing Popularity

Industry consultant Sroge explains why: Mail-order apparel sales are growing at a rate of about 20% a year, nearly double the growth rate of retail apparel sales.

Virtually every major retailer--I. Magnin, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, Neiman-Marcus, Robinson’s, May Co., Bullock’s and Bloomingdale’s--now publishes several catalogues each year. Alvin Somers, senior vice-president of I. Magnin’s direct mail and marketing division, said publishing a catalogue is simply another way to reach store shoppers. Somers and other mail-order executives said they are aware of the growing popularity of catalogue shopping, but they denied that it cuts deeply into store sales.

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“For some people, shopping becomes a kind of walking theater and you cannot get that experience in a catalogue,” said one executive.

Given the upscale movement in the business, several prospering catalogue companies now feature European-inspired, natural-fiber fashions for men and women. In its fall book, Tweeds is showing oversize lambs’ wool cardigans, shawl-collared blouses and pleated pants, belted with textured leather in European looks. Many of its deep-hued clothes are unisex and all have a soft, comfortable look.

Tweeds president Jeff Aschkenes and company chairman Ted Pamperin formerly worked for a mail-order competitor, J. Crew. They left that family-owned company to start their own, more “fashion forward” operation.

Women who wear classic American clothes but want a little more sophistication write to J. Crew, headed by 28-year-old Emily Cinader. Cinader, a prep-school graduate who studied finance and marketing at the University of Denver, serves as president and chief designer. She recently added evening and career clothes scheduled to debut in August. But the company is known for classic weekend wear.

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Cinader’s personal preference for simple elegance is reflected in her all-black evening line. The 12 new styles, some strapless, are made up in lush fabrics including silk georgette and cashmere.

In addition to black, Cinader said, J. Crew’s fall palette includes dark and light greens, camel, ivory and a pale mauve called quartz. Her favorite accent colors are citrus, berry, mango, jade, red and lime green.

This year J. Crew projects sales of between $150 million and $200 million. In addition, the company will open its first storefronts, including in San Francisco and in Costa Mesa, next October.

Other all-American looks are available at Lands’ End, where Oxford-cloth shirts, sleek tank suits and 100% cotton terry robes are staples. A calf-length, cotton terry bathrobe in the current Lands’ End catalogue is priced at $57.50. Similar styles can range in price to well over $100 in specialty store catalogues.

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As competition heats up between companies that are primarily mail order, and those that are primarily retail, shoppers will benefit as the perks become ever more appealing. Bloomingdale’s, whose Christmas catalogue has long been considered a luxury liner among mail-order books, now allows shoppers to purchase evening gowns from the office, if they order by fax.


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