Expressing Culture -- E Style, An Afrocentric Catalog, Is The Latest Entry In The Hot `Ethnic' Market

During her research for Spiegel's newest venture, Lori Scott heard a lot of complaints about clothes that didn't fit very well and came only in unflattering colors. Not that she needed to.

"I've lived it," she says. "I'm an African-American woman."

That's one of the reasons Scott is so proud of E Style, a 64-page catalog devoted to the special fashion needs of African-American women.

Making its debut in September and done in alliance with Ebony magazine, E Style is the latest entry in the hot arena of "targeted" or "ethnic" marketing.

As more and more evidence points to the purchasing power of black consumers, major retailers are using everything from catalogs to department-store boutiques to get a slice of their $282 billion annual income. "This is an area that cannot be ignored anymore," says Ken Smikle, whose Chicago-based Target Market News just published a study called "The Buying Power of Black America."

Some companies caught on early. For the past nine years, Essence magazine has offered clothing options to its female readers through the Essence by Mail catalog. The 5-year-old Homeland Authentics catalog has fashions and accessories in a wide range of African fabrics.

And now the big names are trying to cash in on the trend, which doesn't surprise Homeland Authentic's Mhamed Diop, who gets calls daily from companies wanting to buy his African fabrics.

"The companies that used to corral us into their stores to buy

Eurocentric things are having to meet our needs," says Diop, who is from Senegal.

Among the major retailers involved are J.C. Penney, which puts out a "Fashion Influences" catalog aimed at African Americans, and Hudson's - a Midwest department store chain, which has "global bazaars" with Afrocentric items in several of its mall outlets.

"People are looking for their own culture to express," says Chris Morrisroe of Hudson's. "Our customers requested it, and we want to appeal to them on a meaningful level. That's why you're going to find a bunch of Kwanzaa cards to choose from, not two."

As Smikle's study points out, black households each year spend more than the general population in many consumer categories.

On clothing, for example, they spend an average $1,803 annually, compared with $1,735 for all households. For boys' footwear, the figure is $63 a year compared with just under $27.

Such clout has convinced Spiegel and others that the time is right for a major commitment to black consumers.

In Spiegel's case, the E Style catalog was almost two years in the making and involved interviews with thousands of African-American women. More than 1,300 female volunteers helped conduct "fit research," which measured 16 body points including waist, height and arm length.

The result, says Scott, is clothing tailored to look and feel better on African-American customers.

"We found such things as more room was needed in the rise of the pants, and that sleeve lengths needed to be readjusted," Scott notes.

"We've known for a long time that certain things don't fit. Jeans never fit black women, because in order to fit in the hips they're too big at the waist. I remember everyone in our neighborhood had darts in their jeans, because our mothers had to alter them."

Scott says the research revealed that African-American consumers prefer colors better suited to darker skin tones.

"We can wear a larger spectrum of colors than our white counterparts," she notes. "In another catalog, you won't see as much yellow or orange."

The research even turned up style preferences that Scott says are rooted in the African-American heritage.

To the E Style buyer, for example, a coordinated look may be important for deeper cultural reasons.

"Our great-great-grandparents were slaves," Scott says. "We have enough struggles being African American that we want to make a good impression. You want to look good from head to toe."

The typical woman polled also tended to like casual wear with a little more of a dressy edge.

E Style's dress and suit prices start at $99. About a million and a half catalogs will be mailed to Spiegel customers and Ebony readers. "We've had the most incredible response for requests that we've ever had," says Georgia Shonk-Simmons, Spiegel's vice-president of merchandise.

According to Smikle of Target Market News, corporate wooing of African-American buyers is good for all kinds of businesses.

"The needs of major retailers for inventory will ensure that the specialty manufacturer and importers of Afrocentric items will have a strong market to survive on," he predicts.

Or, as Spiegel's Scott puts it, "I think there's room for all of us.

"I don't think this is something that's just a trend," she adds. "I think it's something that's going to be around for a long, long time. Nobody wants to be a melting pot anymore." ------------------------------------------------------------------- To order copies of the catalogs mentioned, call: -- E Style at (800) 237-8953 -- J.C. Penney Fashion Influences at (800) 222-6161 -- Homeland Authentics at (800) 237-4226 -- Essence by Mail (800) 882-8055