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March 13, 2009 6:10 PM

Business, Retail

Fashion and Darwin

Darwin's theory of evolution, which argues that only the fittest survive in a given environment, seems to have newfound currency in today's grisly marketplace. "It's like judgment day for us. There are just too many stores out there for all...

Darwin's theory of evolution, which argues that only the fittest survive in a given environment, seems to have newfound currency in today's grisly marketplace.


"It's like judgment day for us. There are just too many stores out there for all of us to survive this," Rick Weinstein of Searle told WWD in December. "The best will survive."


A director at a textile company echoed Darwin's ideas of natural selection in another WWD story that ran in February. "We have to endure," said Kohji Yamanaka, director of the textile department at Mitsubishi Rayon Textile Co. "Such circumstances [force] textile manufacturers to exert themselves to survive. It might be tough, but it will be worth it."



It sounds more like evolutionary warfare then retail, but the once genteel competition that typified the apparel business has become a life-or-death contest, a game where the winners take all and the losers get a pat on the back and a bill from the bankruptcy lawyers.


This is a brutal reversal from our recent past where brands and retailers, even in gamely trying to outdo one another, had the understanding that there was enough money out there for everyone, and at times seemingly anyone, who wanted a piece of the apparel pie.

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But the pie is much smaller now thanks to the subprime financial meltdown, and even veteran companies are having to duke it out for what's left.


Simon Doonan, creative director at Barneys New York, considered the mercenary nature of the times in a recent conversation. "Only the designers who have ideas and can really innovate will survive," he said.


Evolution is not a delicate thing -- just ask the dinosaurs -- and the marketplace has already seen some greats fall: Hartmarx, Gottschalks, Fortunoff, IT Holding, Mervyns and Lamberston Truex.


The good news, while not immediately consoling perhaps, is that it will end at some point; February comparable-store sales, while poor, indicated that the ice around consumer's wallets may be thawing. And the most recent stock market rally indicated there's hope out there.
After all, evolution can be gruesome but it's also well-documented that species that survive the lean times have often flourished thereafter.
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