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It has been a very bad year for mall brands. We’ve had to say goodbye to The Limited and a good chunk of BCBG stores in such a short time, not to mention see the mall “anchor” department stores suffer.
Now there’s foreboding news out of Gap’s Banana Republic. CNBC reports that Andi Owen, the global brand president of Banana Republic, is out of a job. That’s the type of thing that happens when the company you’re overseeing has comparable sales gains in only three months of the past two years.
It’s particularly tough times for a brand like Banana Republic, which has a reputation for nice but not very affordable fancy office clothing, when trends actually show that everyone’s dressing way more casually (especially in the office).
But really, stylish but safe work clothing is exactly what people need. Where Banana Republic may have gone wrong in the past few years is chasing trends when it should just be accepting what it is: work clothing for people who still have to look acceptable for the office. As Gap Inc. CEO Art Peck said in a statement about Owen’s departure, “During her time with Banana Republic, Andi led critical work improving the brand's aesthetic.” But changing the “aesthetic” may be where the whole thing went haywire.
Banana peaked with sales of $2.4 billion in the US in fiscal 2014, earnings built on the back of quote-unquote boring clothes. To liven up the clothing, the company brought on Marissa Webb, who vowed to stop being so dull. But — newsflash — turns out people want their boring clothes. They need their boring clothes. “All of these changes have really confused our customer, particularly our women right now," Owen said in a meeting with analysts in the summer of 2015. Owen eventually relieved Webb of her duties.
But despite signs that its customer wasn’t interested, Banana Republic kept experimenting with trendiness into 2016. It teamed up with the CFDA and released a capsule collection with Timo Weiland in the face of glaring evidence that the Banana customer doesn’t want these sort of collabs. The kind of collaboration that worked wasn’t a high-end designer, but rather a collection inspired by TV hit Mad Men. Meanwhile, Banana execs didn’t even bother selling the Weiland collection in more than a few stores.
With Owen now out, Banana has a chance to get it right and go hard on the quality basics it’s known for. People aren’t driving to a Banana Republic in the mall in their minivans for a Timo Weiland collab. They want sweaters. They want pants. They want something they can wear to work. The mall brand would do best by figuring out what that means in 2017.
Correction: January 25th, 2017
A previous version of this story misstated that Banana Republic was only profitable in three of the past 24 months. Banana Republic has only had positive comparable sales results in three out of the past 24 months.