MADRID, Spain – At the Stradivarius store in central Madrid, crowds of shoppers navigate their way through racks of woolen jerseys, T-shirts, and capes. Most of the clothes are piled on faded white wooden shelves. Handbags and earrings sit on iron structures, glistening in the bright light. Mannequins are sparse. There's lots of wood, bricks, and mirrors, some bearing the Stradivarius logo—a treble clef. Sister brand to Zara, the store looks luxe and chic, despite the low prices. The style is a trademark of parent company Inditex's brands.
Founded in Barcelona in 1994, Stradivarius has grown into a fashion empire. It has around 900 stores in 60 countries and flagships in such fashion centers as Paris, London, and Milan. It racks up more sales than American Apparel, having hit the $1.1 billion mark in 2013. Stradivarius boasts more stores than Abercrombie & Fitch and J. Crew combined, and it has locations in more countries than Gap. The notable exception? The U.S.
European apparel retailers, including H&M, Topshop, and Primark, have flocked to the U.S. in recent years. But Stradivarius, which was purchased by retail megalith Inditex in 1999, remains an outlier. The outlet has no U.S. locations and no e-commerce website there, much to the chagrin of discerning (and budget conscious) fashionistas. “FOMO, y’all,” Bobby Schuessler, an editor at New York-based lifestyle site Refinery29 wrote after Stradivarius opened in the U.K. in June. “Our picked-last-in-gym-class feelings [have] further intensified.”
The label may conjure thoughts of antique prestige, like the 17th and 18th century violins that share its name, but Stradivarius is actually a hub of cheap chic. Aimed at 20- to 35-year-old women who are “too young to dress like their mothers but too sophisticated to dress like teenyboppers,” according to the company's website, Stradivarius sells clothes, shoes, handbags, jewelry, and accessories at much lower prices than Zara does. In the U.K., customers can snag $15 tube skirts, $44 platform wedges, and $35 midi dresses. As with Zara's inventory, the clothes at Stradivarius are led by major fashion trends. Called “fast fashion,” Zara uses its streamlined supply chain to convert runway looks into ready-to-wear garments within weeks. Stradivarius employs similar tactics but also takes a page from fashion leaders on social media to spot trends and spin up new garments.
Indeed, Stradivarius is quite active on social networks, with global followings on Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, and Twitter. A promotional editorial section on its site features a host of influential guest fashion bloggers such as Valentina Ferragni and Alexandra Pereira, along with popular models like Poppy Delevingne and Harley Viera-Newton. Over the years, Stradivarius has gone through many definitions for itself and its customers, though it maintains its fundamental premise of following major style trends. In 2007, the retailer said its clothes linked "youth and the urban spirit.” In 2008, Stradivarius was “informal yet sophisticated.” A year later, it defined “the girl behind Stradivarius" as "a young city slicker lady with her own personality and style.”
Two decades ago, Stradivarius’ lack of a U.S. presence wouldn’t be unusual. In 2015, it is. Sweden’s fashion juggernaut H&M made the move in 2000, dropping a flagship on New York’s Fifth Avenue. Topshop did the same on Broadway in 2009. Primark, the latest entrant, plans to open and operate seven U.S. stores by early 2016. The U.S. presents a particularly enticing market for European clothing stores, with more than $200 billion in clothes sold in the U.S. each year, according to data from NPD Group. A weak European economy has encouraged retailers to expand abroad as unemployment saps the strength of consumers’ wallets.
It’s unclear why Inditex has yet to launch Stradivarius in the U.S. The notoriously close-mouthed company has long kept its plans secret and would not respond to multiple requests for comment and interviews. Industry observers say the answer may come down to intense competition and continued opportunities in countries where the brand already has traction. "I'm guessing they don't want to just go in for going-in's sake," says Amanda Nicholson, a professor of retail practice at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management. "That's becoming more difficult. It's so crowded. Everyone's coming after millennial girls, from Macy's to TJ Maxx. Gap's trying to get her. J.Crew's trying to get her.” The U.S. clothing market is “phenomenally competitive,” and Inditex may be hesitant to make a move just because everyone else is doing it, she says.
Still, heading to the U.S. amounts to a “natural expansion” for many European retailers, says Roberto Ramos, senior vice president of global strategy and communications at fashion trend intelligence firm Doneger Group. The market is huge, consumers are willing to try new brands, and e-commerce has made it easier to enter new countries without massive investment, he says. Plus, there’s plenty of proof it can work—Inditex’s own Zara brand was ahead of many competitors in 1989, when it opened its first U.S. store in Manhattan. Zara now has 52 stores across the U.S. and plans to open over an additional dozen in 2015.
Back in 1999, Inditex bought Stradivarius because it had “good commercial positioning and good potential for growth” and “always focuses on the latest trends in international fashion,” the company said in 2000. Mass expansion for Stradivarius started immediately, with the opening of 25 new stores in its first year under Inditex. From 1999 to 2014, Stradivarius opened an average of nearly 60 stores per year. The latest flagship sits in Osaka’s Shinsaibashi shopping district: The two-floor, 7,750 square-foot space, with its bright lights and sleek glass façade, opened in November as the fashion brand&aposs 900th location.
Eventually, some new stores could end up in the U.S. Nicholson says Inditex has big pockets and probably wants its brand well-established in the Americas—the company has more than 30 stores across South America and Mexico—before making the leap. Until then, U.S. fashionistas will have to wait.
By: Kim Bhasin with contribution from: Rodrigo Orihuela; editor: Katie Drummond.