While Europe is mired in doom and gloom, there is one success story coming out of struggling Spain. It’s Zara, the High Street fashion chain.
Its parent company, Inditex, saw net profits jump 30 per cent in the three months to April 30. Like Mulberry, much of Zara’s rise is down to the fact that the company has expanded into China, as well as more unlikely emerging territories such as Georgia, Bosnia and Ecuador.
But even when you strip the new territories from the figures, sales have risen by 6 per cent. While so many High Street stores are posting falls, how on Earth does it do it?
The first Zara store opened in Spain in 1975, and while it seems to have been around for ever, it only opened in the UK in 1998. At that time, Zara plugged a gaping hole in the market. While cheap, disposable fashion was everywhere, working women struggled to find immaculate, but affordable tailoring and fantastic knitwear.
Zara filled that gap, thank goodness, adding little black dresses for evening, and a perfect navy, brass buttoned blazer for the weekend. In just ten years, it overtook its arch rival Gap. But as well as being the first port of call for working women, it also succeeded because of one other all-important factor: speed. Its turnaround from drawing board to rail is just ten days.
It injects new items into stores every few days, more often than any other chain, which means shoppers pop in, just in case. Of course, there have been blips in this meteoric rise. Last year, the chain was investigated by Brazil’s ministry of labour after a contractor in Sao Paulo was accused of using slave labour. Much less serious, but still a gripe, is that the sales staff often seem more interested in chatting on their mobile phones than helping customers.
But, on the whole, it has been an inexorable rise for this chain store with its finger on the fashion pulse. In 2008, I loved the colourful 100 per cent silk dresses at just £69, the all-wool sweaters in every colour in the rainbow, the jackets, shirts, jeans, trousers and cocktail dresses. In August 2009, I wrote: ‘Zara is on a bit of a roll this autumn: the black suits, chunky wool pea coats and white, feathery shirts are impeccable.’
It’s a brand worn by women of all ages and incomes — from Samantha Cameron to Tess Daly and even Princess Letizia of Asturias. But when I visited in summer 2010, where once there was Merino wool and silk, there was a sea of polyester and rayon. Prices had dropped alarmingly. In 2008, a wool blazer was £89. In 2010, it was £69.99, but entirely synthetic. Prices on average had dropped by £10 an item. Had Zara sacrificed quality for profit?
Well, two years on, I think it has addressed that problem. A visit to one of its bigger branches reveals a wealth of cotton, linen and silk (I love the slouchy stone linen knit T-shirts). Yes, a lot of the stock is made in China, but lots, too, is made in Morocco. I also find the brand to be much more driven by trends than ever before, while prices are still on a par with last summer. Yes, there are howlers. The knitwear is not as strong as it once was. I like the cotton V-necks in baby pink, hot orange and leaf green, but the sizes only go up to a medium: about a 12.
A V-neck is always better if it’s sloppy, not fitted. And the majority of British women won’t fit in them at all. (A black mark, too, for so few styles available in an XL, which is only a 14 or at best a small 16.) Zara shouldn’t be making ghastly micro denim jackets, leopard spotted harem trousers, ripped and distressed jeans or teeny lace shorts.
Topshop, Forever 21, New Look et al do this type of very young fashion better, and much more cheaply. A surprise is that I find the sober black and navy tailoring for work, once Zara’s speciality, to be incredibly tired looking: jackets are way too short. There are lots of cream linen jackets, though, in different fits and prices. The sales assistants at the branch I visit in Exeter are helpful when you seek them out, but I stagger around with my arms full of clothes, dropping shoes and bags, and no one comes to my rescue, which is just not good enough, particularly as the shop isn’t busy.
But other than these few gripes, it’s all pretty marvellous. The brand has executed all the key trends extremely well. The bags are brilliant — I love a huge plain tote, £39.99, and a squidgy, fringed pouch, £39.99 — as are the shoes. When once there were rows and rows of black courts, there are myriad funky flats on offer and peep-toe platforms in hot pink and orange. The accessories beat Marks & Spencer hands down.
There are lots of thoughtful details, too, which tells me the creative director knows exactly what women want: a sheer black concertina maxi skirt has a mini skirt length of lining, so you can show off your legs, but not your knickers. There are a lot of early autumn stock in store, too — a clever move given the awful weather. I find shopping in Zara exciting, but not overwhelming. There are fewer clothes crammed on rails, so everything can breathe.
Trends are grouped well, it feels ‘cool’, and wearable: it’s not scarily ‘fashion’, but neither will you emerge looking like a double glazing saleswoman. Nothing is mumsy or over decorated. Yes, Gap does swimwear better, M&S does better undies, Banana Republic does better workwear and Cos does simple sporty separates extremely well.
But if you are looking for a few pieces to take on holiday, there are colourful kaftan shirts, drawstring silk or linen trousers, and wacky T-shirts. For work, I love the pastel trousers and linen blazers. And for a hot date, the thick elastane body con dress in white, £29.99, would look fabulous against a tan and little else.
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