When the U.S. economy started to boom in the early 1980s, fashion designers began their own business ventures, often with little to show for their hard work.
In 1982, for instance, a New York fashion house called Stella McCartney opened an office in the shadow of a Macy’s store.
And while other designers took on other roles, most stayed with their existing labels.
In addition to fashion, many designers went into retail, with a number of stores including Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger being built by these designers.
As a result, the number of designers employed in retail dropped from more than 1 million in 1982 to less than 700 in the 1990s.
The recession of the early 2000s brought about the collapse of the fashion industry, and fashion designers’ work is now largely gone.
But the trend for designers to take on new roles in retail has been on the rise, especially in the last decade, says Stephanie O’Neill, author of The New Retail Revolution: The Next 50 Years.
O’Donnell, who worked in fashion and retail for a decade before she retired in 2017, believes the trend toward designer retail is just as much about changing roles as it is changing business models.
“People want to be a creative person, and retail is a great way to do that,” she says.
The number of fashion retail stores has increased from about 100 in 1982, O’Brien says.
But today, fashion retail is only a small part of the business.
It’s still the most profitable segment, she says, and the top three retail retailers in the United States have a combined $5.5 billion in annual sales.
Retailers like Nordstrom, Forever 21 and Bloomingdale’s are doing so well because they offer unique and high-quality products that are priced right, O-Brien says, adding that there’s a need for designers like her to take those same ideas and run them differently.
“We need to be the next big trend in retail,” she adds.
O-Jenna, the fashion designer who has worked at a number in the fashion retail industry, is optimistic about the future of retail.
“It’s very, very much changing, and it’s going to continue to change,” she notes.
“You’re seeing more and more people creating things that you might have never seen before, like fashion shoes, jewelry and fashion accessories.”
O-Jeans, a line of designer footwear, has gained huge success over the last few years.
But O’Jenna sees the trend as more of a “gift” from the designer than a direct result of the recession.
The brand, which has sold more than 100 million pairs of shoes since it launched in 2016, is “more about the experience than anything else,” she explains.
“I love being a part of it.”
The fashion designers she worked with have been able to create unique items that can bring out the best in their clients, she adds, saying that in many cases, the designers are creating work that is a “perfect fit” for the client.
But for O’Connor, who has been in the business for 35 years, the most exciting thing about the retail industry is the change.
“What I love about retail is the opportunity to connect people with products they really love,” she emphasizes.
“But when I started, the idea was for fashion to be just for people who have money.”