Mirror, Mirror: A fashion makeover for Express

Exploring its roots for today's young adult, it opens a King of Prussia flagship.

Once upon a time, before the days of Forever 21, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Urban Outfitters, Express was the mall destination for the suburban chic. What Gen Xer didn't have a pair of slim-fitting, flare-legged Editor Pants?

Somehow over time, though, Express lost its edge, and the clothes - once a perfect fit for the wardrobes of young professionals - got smaller and smaller and looked cheaper and cheaper.

I stopped shopping there.

But I predict a comeback. Earlier this month - just in time for the store's debut of transition and early-fall apparel - Express opened the first of its revamped flagship stores in King of Prussia. Taking the place of its old store, which has been closed for three months, this welcoming, 13,000-square-foot airy space was created by Japanese architect Masamichi Katayama of Wonderwall, which has designed high-end retail spots such as Dean & DeLuca and Marc Jacobs.

The new KOP Express, said company president and chief executive officer Michael Weiss, cost between $2 million and $3 million, and its second "new" store will open later this month in the company's hometown of Cincinnati. Why did executives choose King of Prussia over Manhattan's glitzier 34th Street? Because, Weiss said, Express preferred the biggest mall in the Northeast, where sales are strong and shopping is a favorite pastime.

Not only is there more room to shop and more nooks to explore, the new Express focuses on outfits more than separates - essentially, a return to its roots, Weiss said.

In the 1980s and early '90s, when Weiss was last the CEO, the store was at the height of its coolness, said Harry A. Ikenson, retail analyst and consultant to the Greenberg Group.

That's when The Limited Co.'s stores - then Lerner New York (now New York & Co.), Victoria's Secret, Bath & Body Works, and The Limited - were mall hot spots. Structure emerged as The Limited Co.'s menswear store, but eventually, when men's fashion slimmed down, it was dropped and Express for Men was born.

Then in the late 1990s, the public's fashion vocabulary expanded to include Zac Posen and Diane von Furstenberg. Mall specialty stores became passe, and we became educated in the world of high-end designers and cute boutiques.

High-fashion looks that were cheaply made - what's called fast fashion - was on the cusp of blowing up as well: Young professionals shopped the designer collections at Target and J.Crew, and teens flocked to Forever 21, Abercrombie & Fitch, and H&M.

"After success over a period of time, [Limited stores] were all using the same manufacturer, and there was a lot of sameness in the product," Ikenson said.

When you enter the Express of today, the store's initial display is filled with alabaster mannequins dressed in layers, a concept heavily introduced to shoppers last fall. But instead of silhouettes built around skinny jeans, this year's key pieces are long skirts and sparkling shorts.

That doesn't mean that jeans aren't in the mix, thus the store's Denim Lab, a room with an oak ceiling and concrete floors that physically bridges Express and Express for Men next door.

"We are trying to redirect our attention to the needs of the young adult," said Weiss. "The economy has a lot to do with it. People are feeling they want to look more professional, look a bit more put together."

Since private equity firm Golden Gate Capital purchased Express from The Limited Co. in 2007, Weiss - reappointed as the CEO - has instituted changes in the stores' design as a way to lure back the Gen X customer, its primo shopper from the '90s.

It seems to be working. The company, which went public in May of 2010, reported that net sales in the first quarter of this year were up nearly 10 percent, to $467.4 million, over the same period in 2010.

And Express is not the only hot mall spot in the midst of a fashion makeover.

In the days of value-seeking, other classic brands are repositioning themselves as well, trying to cater to shoppers who got used to designer looks in the early millennium when cash was flush. Macy's has been reporting better-than-expected results this year, as have J.C. Penney and Kohl's. New York & Co, one of my personal faves, also was enjoying better first-quarter sales.

Being a Gen Xer, I wore my vintage Express navy-blue sheath with white piping to the grand opening. The dress was circa 1995, perfect for when I started working, and a nice complement to the clothes you'll see at Express now: long skirts in easy-to-wear shades paired with jersey T-shirts, some with capped sleeves, others with voluminous Dolmans.

But there were also party dresses for twentysomethings featuring ruching, scoop-necked details, and a snug fit. Maybe I'll pass on those.

"We aren't going backwards," Weiss said. "We are acknowledging that fashion is changing and we want to include all of our customers. We want to present an upscale shopping experience."

Thank you, Express.


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Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704, ewellington@phillynews.com, or @ewellingtonphl on Twitter.