French fashion designer Coco Chanel famously stated, “After 40, nobody is young, but one can be irresistible at any age.” Indeed, today’s aging female consumers are a stylish and powerful demographic – they earn double what Millennials do, and are increasingly happy to spend it to look fabulous. Yet they’re generally ignored by marketers and retailers, says Mary Chambers, chief strategic officer at McCann Worldgroup Canada, which helps brands connect to their customers.

In August, McCann published an eye-opening report in partnership with Ipsos Public Affairs called The Truth About Canadian Women – Over 50: The Untapped Opportunity, which identified and then busted myths about how women over 50 are viewed and ultimately dismissed.

“Clients have been asking us, ‘How do we talk to women today, be more meaningful and change the way we’ve engaged women in the past?’” says Chambers. After all, the mainstream market in Canada is mostly over 40 and getting older, Ipsos’s CEO, Darrel Bricker, noted in the study.

“They are half the population, their numbers are growing and they have most of the money. As Canadians age, older women are going to decide more of everything. Figure them out.”

“They are half the population, their numbers are growing and they have most of the money. As Canadians age, older women are going to decide more of everything. Figure them out,” wrote Bricker.

Chambers and her team set out to do just that, surveying 2,700 people, conducting 40 one-on-one interviews with cultural and marketing leaders across Canada – most of whom were women – and hosting consumer workshops and Game Changer dinners with women over 50 to discuss how they can help change the paradigm.

“We saw that these women feel very neglected and narrowly defined by marketers, and consequently misunderstood,” says Chambers.

Mythbusting

McCann’s study identified key myths guiding marketers’ thinking around women over 50 – namely, that they fade away and are checked out of the marketplace and are not role models for younger women. These myths, Chambers insists, get in the way of both truth and opportunity.

“Women talked to us about the ‘missing middle’ between 50 and 70, this incredible age where they’re really engaged in life. They’re starting new jobs, buying new homes, creating new companies. We’re living to an average age of 84, so we’ve got three-plus decades that we’ve been ignoring that are full of life.”

Report highlights:

  • 70 percent of women over 50 feel that older women are not represented in the media.
  • 59 percent of women feel they are living a fuller life after 50.
  • Women over 50 represent an economic powerhouse and, like any consumer, are set to use their power on their own terms.

In some of the consumer workshops, Chambers adds, participants brought in their role models: Younger women brought in older women, and older women brought in younger women.

“Women are inspired by women, period, and we really saw that come through,” says Chambers. 

The search is on… for the right fit

“There’s this attitude that women of a certain age don’t like to spend too much money, and I think that’s hogwash, because those people have disposable income and are only too happy to buy something that appeals to them,” says author and speaker Jeanne Beker, currently the style editor at The Shopping Channel.

As their bodies change during and after menopause, women may find their go-to ensembles don’t quite hang the same way or aren’t as comfortable. But that doesn’t mean Boomers need to give up on being fashionable, says Beker.

“People have to dress for their body types, but you also have to dress for your spirit,” she says.

Betsey Johnson, who is pushing 80, can rock just about anything, so it all depends on your attitude. Women don’t understand that it’s not always what you wear but how you’re wearing it: Not buying the correct size and still trying to squeeze into stuff that’s one or two sizes too small.”

But don’t chuck good quality clothing that no longer falls just right, adds Beker. Instead, find a good tailor to get your beloved pieces remodelled or repurposed. And while many older women complain about how difficult it is to find clothing, Beker feels they’re not looking hard enough or using their imaginations.

“You don’t need 15 different dresses in your wardrobe anymore; have five great ones. Do some research; don’t just run into stores and buy things haphazardly and then get rid of something two months later because it doesn’t really suit you,” says Beker.

“Take the time to make the right choices for items you won’t get tired of that are good quality and well manufactured.”

After all, she adds, today’s fabrics are forgiving and flattering, not to mention ultra-comfortable and easy-care.

“Stretch fabrics that were unheard of 50 years ago are just so ubiquitous now, and that has made dressing a lot easier,” she notes. “We all have such busy lifestyles, and we want to feel comfortable in our clothes. Nobody really wants to suffer for fashion anymore.”

Designing women

Michelle Germain in front of her Toronto store.

Indeed, several Canadian designers and smaller retailers are meeting older women on their terms. When Michelle Germain founded her Toronto boutique Shopgirls in 2007, she was determined to offer beautiful made-in-Canada clothing that felt fantastic.

“One thing you’ll never, ever find in my shop is something that’s not comfortable, so if there’s stretch or any kind of movement in a garment, that will definitely make my shortlist,” says Germain. “If I’m not willing to wear it for 12 hours a day, I’m certainly not going to bring it in for my customers.”

For example, the Yoga Jeans Germain carries – manufactured in Canada by Wazana Brothers – fly off the shelves.

“We’ve sold more than 24,000 pairs and have shipped them all over the world,” notes Germain. “That brand is universal for all women – the perfect denim that makes you feel good, is comfortable and stylish.”

Because Germain’s office shares a half-wall with the shop’s change room, she gets candid feedback from clients.

“I’d hear women berate themselves over and over again about their post-baby bodies and getting older. I’m 47, and had my children later in life, so I could very much relate,” she recalls.

“There aren’t that many options out there that speak to my demographic. These customers helped me develop my branding message: ‘Shopping your shape, not your size.’”

Germain also co-owns a clothing line, Ninety-Eight – named for the 98 percent of women who aren’t represented in the fashion industry.

Michelle Germain tells women to shop their shape, not their size.

“Part of our design process is making sure we appeal to all six body shapes, to make fashion inclusive,” she explains. “We have options that work with our changing bodies and that accentuate our best parts. We use a lot of stretch fabric in our designs, for the comfort, the practicality – and of course, it’s dry clean never. We’re trying to hit all those points we feel women of our demographic are looking for.”

Go-anywhere, do-anything fashion

When she couldn’t find versatile, flattering and easy-care clothing that was a cinch to pack and wear everywhere while travelling, Helene Clarkson designed her own line. Since opening the Helene Clarkson Shop in Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel in 2014 with mix-and-match polyester spandex jersey knits – most of which are reversible – the designer has built a loyal customer base across Canada, in the US and in Australia.

Helene Clarkson created a line of clothing specifically designed for the sophisticated traveler to pack in a carry-on suitcase.

“I felt there was a lot out there for yoga people and hikers, but not for the sophisticated urban woman travelling, going to galleries, business meetings and dinners,” says Clarkson. “I’m 54, and that’s the age range I’m designing for. It’s really important to embrace aging. I make age-appropriate clothing without people feeling like they’re being age-appropriate.”

Clarkson says her clients keep coming back because they want clothes that make them feel great about their changing bodies. She suggests finding two or three styles that work, and building a wardrobe on that.

“Dressing these women is a privilege, because they really want to look great,” says Clarkson. “I find it easy to design for these women because I am that woman.”

Seeing and celebrating ourselves

Both Germain and Clarkson make a point to feature diverse models on their websites.

“If you can’t relate to the product, then it’s a fantasy, not something that anybody can wear,” says Germain. “I don’t want to promote that, and have people think that they should aspire to that, either. I work in fashion and never quite fit the mould, and I’m not alone. We just have to flip the dialogue and focus on the good stuff. There are benefits to every body shape, so why can’t we celebrate that?”

Changing the conversation

Chambers reports that some industries and brands have recently become more inclusive, telling compelling, meaningful and inspirational stories in their campaigns about women over 50.

“Interestingly, the beauty and fashion industries have been the culprits perpetrating the stereotypes that guide our thinking, but they’re now turning those realities around faster than any other industry,” she says, citing L’Oréal’s full support of actor Helen Mirren’s refusal to participate in “anti-aging” messaging.

“It’s really exciting to see some industries embrace the complete woman,” she says. “In our report, we showcased Simons’s website, which includes diverse models over 50. Reitmans did a fantastic campaign this year with older women and women of all shapes and sizes. Emerging fashion brands are coming in with the assumption of age inclusivity, not just ethnic or orientation inclusivity.”

Momentum is growing and marketers take note: These women have money and time to spend it.

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Entrepreneur redefines adaptive clothing with comfortable, fashionable designs

In the healthcare and aging industry, most people associate innovation with new technology. But Kristine Goulet is proving that sometimes, a simple change in perspective can have a huge impact. After years spent dressing her ailing mother and dealing with frustrating and painful limitations in adaptive clothing – scratchy fabric that bunched, irritating hook-and-loop closures – Goulet was determined to find a better solution.

“I couldn’t escape the fact that there were so many people in the same position as my mother and me, so I just kept with it,” says Goulet.

After two years of development and feedback from designers, seamstresses, caregivers, professionals and patients, Germain and her colleague Pat Quinn launched the Monarch Collection last summer. The line was engineered to make dressing easier for the caregiver and very comfortable for the wearer, protecting skin while looking great.

Manufactured in Quebec and Toronto, the clothes comprise various layers featuring wrap-around designs, open backs, snap closures and comfort-band snaps around pants, making it easier to dress someone who is sitting or lying down. Soft fabrics that don’t bunch up in the back also prevent discomfort and pressure sores.

Monarch was a finalist in last fall’s AGE-WELL National Impact Challenge, which recognizes ideas and products that can improve the quality of life of older Canadians and their caregivers. And Sun Life’s newly launched eHealth platform, Lumino, featured Monarch in their aging and caregiving category.

“The greatest achievement is seeing someone who is no longer uncomfortable and unable to communicate,” says Goulet. “We’ve done such a simple thing, yet the change is so incredibly profound.”

Originally published in Issue 4 of YouAreUNLTD magazine