Cold-shoulder tops are hot

WASHINGTON • If you have hit up a trendy bar on a recent Saturday night, you have probably noticed: Any place that is teeming with style-conscious women these days is also teeming with off-the-shoulder blouses.

The silhouette is seemingly everywhere and it is taking many different forms. There are Carmen Miranda- esque ruffled styles and 1990sinspired clingy ones. A variation known as the cold-shoulder top - which leaves skin bare between strap and sleeve - has also been flying off shelves. The look has been translated into dresses, jumpsuits and even bridal gowns and swimwear.

Apparel companies depend on "it" pieces to get customers excited about visiting the mall and their websites, and with the bare-shoulder look, there are signs that they have hit the mark.

In the first quarter of this year, there was a 110 per cent year-over-year increase in the number of off-the-shoulder tops and dresses arriving online, along with a 218 per cent boom in arrivals of cold-shoulder tops and dresses, according to Edited, a fashion analytics firm.

A dramatic spike in Google searches in recent months for "off the shoulder" and "cold shoulder" suggests shoppers are on the hunt. "To me, this is the best thing that's happening right now in women's apparel," said Mr Geoffrey Henning, a divisional vice-president of design and fashion at department store J.C. Penney.

The off-the- shoulder look has been translated into dresses, jumpsuits, bridal gowns and swimwear. Lily-Rose Depp wears a Chanel gown at the 69th Cannes Film Festival in France. PHOTO: REUTERS

In other words, this style is a welcome hit for an industry that is badly in need of a score.

So how did retailers turn this piece into a must-have at a time when shoppers are not spending big on clothes? And how did they scramble the jets to wring more sales out of these styles when they realised they had a hit on their hands?

For Ms Sarah Tam, the first glimmer of the bare-shoulder craze was from an unsurprising place: On the catwalk. Ms Tam, senior vice-president of merchandising and planning at Rent The Runway, an upstart site that rents designer frocks, says: "I remember after these shows turning to my buyers and saying, 'Off-the-shoulder is going to be really big.'"

Meanwhile, at J.C. Penney, Mr Henning said the garment came to the fore because it was at the nexus of a few bigger trends percolating through the fashion world. Pieces with a 1970s-era vibe have been hot for several seasons and off-the- shoulder pieces - especially flowy, diaphanous ones - fit into that.

Ms Brooke Jaffe, fashion director at department store Bloomingdale's for women's ready-to-wear, works with her team to put together an extensive trend report at the beginning of each season to guide the upscale department store's buyers. Off-the- shoulder pieces were in the No. 1 spot this season.

Why? "I don't know many women who hate their shoulders," Ms Jaffe said with a laugh.

In other words, it is a style that flatters a wide range of body types, a contrast to other recent fads such as crop tops and culottes. That was a reason not just to dip a toe in the trend by offering a few pieces, but also to really run with it.

Mr Henning of J.C. Penney echoed that sentiment, saying he realised early on that it was a look that could be adapted to appeal to nearly the full spectrum of the retailer's female customers. Teens and millennials might go for a full-fledged clavicle-baring style, while older, more traditional shoppers might like a split-sleeve iteration that shows just a sliver of tricep.

At ultra-trendy e-commerce site Shopbop, fashion director Caroline Maguire said the off-the-shoulder blouse meshed well with other trends she was trying to push, such as cropped flare jeans. By merchandising the pieces together, perhaps each trendy piece could give the other a boost.

When a trend takes off, merchants have to ask themselves: How long can this last? "I think the style is going to stick with us through fall," said Ms Katie Smith, senior retail analyst at Edited. "We haven't started to see shopper fatigue. We haven't seen heavy discounting."

Indeed, J.C. Penney expects to sell the trend in the fall, but in different fabrics and colours. Bloomingdale's plans to stick with it as well, but will try to offer different styling ideas such as adding a choker necklace.

But at Shopbop, Ms Maguire said they have moved on."We've been registering this trend so long now, we're kind of already on to the next," she said.

Yes, you read that right: The trend you just noticed is old news for a retailer that caters to women who follow every nano-shift in fashion. For that crowd, trends move even faster than they do for the rest of us. The Shopbop site is still bursting with off-the-shoulder and cold- shoulder pieces, but Ms Maguire says her shopper now thinks of them as a basic, a closet staple, rather than a trend.

Now, she and her trendspotters are going hard after the off-the-shoulder top's close aesthetic cousin: The one-shoulder top."We still love that effect," she said. "It's fun, it's flirty. But it's kind of like, 'let's give her a newer version.'"


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2016, with the headline 'Cold-shoulder tops are hot'. Print Edition | Subscribe