For the professional Washington woman, Ann Taylor is her muse

November 16, 2011

Say you need a suit.

Back up. First, say you are a woman. Then, say you need a suit. You are 32, or 38. You are out of grad school or out of the Peace Corps or returning from the maternity leave that was going to last four months and somehow lasted five years. Say you work in Washington.

Where do you go?

Don’t pretend you don’t know.

The woman in Washington wants to get it right, all of it — dressing, working, succeeding. The woman in Washington may find the sartorial portion of this success slightly tiresome. She may wish there were Garanimals for grown-ups.

And so she goes to Ann Taylor.

Is Ann Taylor Garanimals for grown-ups?

Ann Taylor is the capital of Appropriate Attire. It’s where aspiration meets motivation meets resignation, and that is why it is perfect for Washington. It represents the vision of what having a Big Job in Washington should look like — how it will involve breakfast meetings and shell tops, policy change and wide-leg trousers. Your life is about to catch fire, and when it does, you are going to be wearing a prim new pencil skirt.

Let’s go shopping, at a newly remodeled store on 13th Street NW, a new “new concept” store that smells like adulthood and tropical wool.

* * *

“This is the first time I’ve worn civilian attire in 11 years,” says Sarah Thomas, 33, flipping through tweedy pant after tweedy pant on a rack at a downtown Ann Taylor. She’s been in the military, just got to Washington, needs to look office-y.

“Back in Rhode Island, it was a mixture of beach and prep,” says Hala Furst, 29, methodically attacking a row of work-to-weekend tops. She’s been in law school, just got to Washington, needs to look office-y.

For four months, this Ann Taylor store has been closed for refurbishing. Today, a rainy weekday afternoon, is its grand reopening. It is one of the brand’s “new concept” remodels — they are updating all of their 272 stores across the country to make them peppier, more current. This is the first remodel to open in the District.

Today, the store is bustling with women on the splurge. Attractive men ferry mini-crab cakes and brownies back and forth to the crowd of purposeful shoppers.

There is no lingering here, for the lunchtime buyers of the fitted blazer. The pilgrimage to this store is not a pleasure cruise but a necessary expedition for the noble civil servant, the powerful attorney, the CPA for the NGO. The office workers of Washington have come here, to the home of their patron saint.

“I have some serious history with Ann,” says Jeannine Gibson, 44, who purchased a cobalt blue dress that exactly matches the color of her company’s logo.

The history: She moved to the District by accident 20-odd years ago. Her car broke down on Route 66 as she was stopping through on her way to grad school. By the end of the summer, she hadn’t scraped together the money to fix the car, so she decided that it was a sign: Skip grad school. Stay in Washington. Get a grown-up job. The job she found was on K Street. She needed suitable clothes. She went to Ann Taylor.

“It was a beautiful suit. Bright red with black striping,” she says of her first purchase. At her office back then, “There were a whole bunch of women — all fans of ‘Ann,’ as we would call her. I ran up I don’t know how many credit cards. That’s where I got my Washington corporate fashion sense.”

* * *

Washington has always gotten a bad fashion rap. The dreaded business-skirt-and-white-running-shoes combination. The city’s prolonged and reluctant farewell to pantyhose. The general frumpty-dumptiness surrounding L’Enfant Plaza at rush hour, where the primary purpose of clothing might be to make a statement, but that statement is merely: “My work clothes are entirely appropriate for work.” There was an old joke that when you come to Washington, everyone you meet looks like a ticket agent at an airline counter.

“I think it’s getting more interesting,” says Alison Lukes, a personal shopper who caters to the professional woman. The thing about Washingtonians is that “they’re looking for the ability to be stylish, professional and feminine — without losing respect. There’s a fine line between being too stylish in that sort of setting.”

Bless Washington, a land where overt fashion can count as a strike against you (just look at former White House social secretary Desiree Rogers, criticized for looking too designer). A land that, in the past calendar year, bought $6.2 million worth of dresses, $2.3 million worth of skirts, $3.6 million worth of sport coats and another million in suits, according to the consumer market research firm NPD Group.

“Washington, D.C.,” says Ann Taylor’s style director, Andrew Taylor, “is a very important market for us.”

The professional woman in Washington may look refined, elegant, sleek. But above all else, she will look Correct.

There are several rites of passage on the way to Correct. The exhausted jostling at Target for the precious Missoni line. The exhausted pawing through Marshall’s clearance racks, which never has the right size, no matter what your size. The exhausted excavating of one’s closet: Does 1 hand-me-down turtleneck + 1 pair of skinny black party pants from college = 1 acceptable grown-up outfit?

Ann Taylor (or Talbots, or J. Crew — really, pick your store) represents the moment at which the shopping woman has had enough. She has enough money — a sufficiently high GS salary — and she has had enough with the scrounging, and she just wants the shopping to be done with so that she can pay for her herringbone pants and stop for a Cinnabon in the food court.

* * *

About her popularity, the real Ann Taylor says . . . she says nothing, because Ann Taylor was never a person.

“Ann Taylor” was the name of a popular dress style that was sold in a New Haven boutique owned by Irving Liebeskind. When Liebeskind’s son, Richard, decided to open his own store in 1956, his father gifted him with the lucky name.

There is no Ann Taylor.

There is, however, an Andrew Taylor.

“This,” Andrew Taylor says, gesturing to the wide expanse of white-washed maple floors and headless mannequins, “is our new concept store.” As style director, Taylor has been overseeing the opening of new-concept stores across the country; he has landed here to promote the grand ta-da of the Washington refurbish.

And the “new concept” is?

“It’s a modern-looking design and aesthetic,” he says. It’s a fashion facelift. It’s the most significant evolution since the store’s founding 50 years ago. The redesign makes the whole store look like Carrie Bradshaw’s dream closet in the “Sex and the City” movie. Note the crystal chandeliers, the tufted furniture, the casually flung Marie Claire magazines. Note the walls, adorned with rows of Spanx.

Soon, all of Ann Taylor’s stores will be new-concept stores.

“We think women of all ages are approaching dressing a little differently,” Taylor says, gliding his hand over a creamy cashmere sweater. More crossover options and day-to-night wear. More everyday sequins. Ann Taylor is becoming more fashion-forward just as everyone said Washington was becoming more fashion-forward when Michelle Obama started wearing cute, affordable spring dresses on the “Today” show.

Of course, Taylor says, pointing out the blazers, trousers, button-fronts. “We still have a wonderful core suiting system.” Everything that a woman could want, when what she wants is to reach into her closet and look “put together.”

One more thing: His mother’s name is Ann.

* * *

A few days after her expedition to Ann Taylor, Gibson sends an e-mail. It turns out that, as she was leaving the store, she ran into a colleague from one of her very first jobs in Washington, whom she hadn’t seen in 15 years. That colleague was also shopping at Ann Taylor.

“Talk about full circle,” Gibson writes. Ann brought them together.

A few days after that, Isabella Philogene, a stylist in Washington, returns a call. “Oh, definitely,” she says. “D.C. is definitely an Ann Taylor city. Ann is really — I hate to say it like this — but it’s like Old Faithful.”

Related:

What makes D.C. fashionable? Send us your photos of Washington street style.

ArtsPost: Scarf-tying 101 (Video)

CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards (Photos)

Trend Report: It’s sweater time

D.C., Arlington tops for shopaholics

Stars align at Versace for H&M fashion show

Monica Hesse is a staff writer for the Post Style section. She frequently writes about culture, the Web and the intersection of the two.
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