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Are Festival Clothes American Eagle's Ticket to Teen Relevancy?

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It's spring 2015 at the American Eagle Outfitters showroom, and mannequins are styled in gauzy crop tops that graze printed maxi skirts, with thin knits tied around the waist and rompers layered with vaguely-Native American pendant necklaces—a look we've come to know as "festival style." (Succulents and a mini tee-pee further set the stage.) Preston Konrad, AEO's style director, confirms: "We were at Coachella this past year and it was mindblowing: The celebrity fashion was amazing, the street fashion was amazing—that's totally our girl."

Communicating with teenagers is hard. Parents know it, teachers know it, and brands are feeling it. Retailers like American Eagle that built empires on tweens, teens, and young adult shoppers have had a rough go the last few years: Abercrombie & Fitch is among the retail chains closing stores the fastest, while Wall Street experts predict struggling Aeropostale will completely shutter in 2015.

Like the nature of fashion itself, retail is ever-changing. At the mall, teens can shop stores like H&M and Forever 21, which have increased US locations boorishly in the last few years. With new deliveries multiple times per week and a lightning-quick supply chain, fast-fashion stores like these have something new—and perfectly on-trend—for the kids each and every weekend mall trip. Online, trend-focused webstores like Nasty Gal and ASOS can satisfy any style desire at an easy-to-digest price, with quick shipping to boot.

American Eagle Outfitters spring 2015 lookbook

Konrad comes to American Eagle from a decade at Ralph Lauren, and spring 2015 is his second full season for the brand. "I like that we have a grasp on trend, but it's not overly trendy," he says. "Part of why I took this position is because there's an emotional connection with the brand. You want to be a part of the brand, you want to be the girl, the guy that wears it. Forever 21, I don't know who that girl is. I know she's going in to buy a dress to wear to a party, throw up on it, and throw it out the next morning. American Eagle is one of those few brands left to have a story to tell."

Note the Adidas Stan Smith sneakers. Konrad tells us AEO is developing their own version of the sneaker, in stores by summer.

So how do they plan to win the sale over that party dress purchase, if teen shoppers today prioritize fashion over brand background? "She can't get this quality from a Forever 21," Konrad answers. "The quality for the price—we're winning by leaps and bounds." Denim is a pride point for the company and, sure enough, there's distressing and wash techniques that can't be found at the fast-fashion price point.

"Easy, aspirational, fashionable items are what the customer wants," Konrad explains, who says their core customer ranges from teens to early twenty-somethings. "[The] challenge is growing them into big trends: getting our girl into high-rise, getting our girl into crop tops. We're seeing that she wants it."

Along with shifting their product offerings, American Eagle appears to be more flexible than competitors in adapting the brand's message. In 2014, they pledged a million bucks to the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps (millennials love a "do good" mission), publicly dropped Photoshop from their Aerie lingerie ads, and released a pretty funny, super-skinny jeans video that cleverly mocks the way brands talk to teens. With a nimble attitude across the board, AEO may just be able to land the coveted spend-it-all millennial shopper.