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The problem that Gucci and Abercrombie have in common

Shoppers exit a Gucci store in Hong Kong. (Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg)
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Gucci, the purveyor of ultra-high-end handbags, sunglasses and other accessories, reported some not-so-glamorous earnings results on Thursday.

Kering, the Paris-based fashion conglomerate, said that Gucci sales dipped 1.6 percent in the third quarter, even as other luxury brands in its stable saw healthy growth.  Yves Saint Laurent, for example, saw sales soar 27.6 percent, while sales at Bottega Veneta rose 10.4 percent.

The Wall Street Journal’s Manuela Mesco wrote a story yesterday exploring why Gucci sales are flagging.  One of the key reasons, she reported, is that the brand has become so widely recognized and so prolific that women are turning away from it because it no longer feels unique or special.

It’s a familiar story, one that is playing out at numerous other high-end fashion brands.  Michael Kors stock has been sliding from record highs as the company projects its rocketing sales growth is about to slow down. Analysts have said that Kors is cooling off because it has lost its exclusivity amid rapid expansion.  Same goes for Coach:  As the luxury brand went big with outlet stores that peddled its iconic bags at cheaper prices, luxury shoppers started to abandon the brand.

There are some parallels here to the struggles encountered by the one-time kings of teen retail, Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle Outfitters and Aeropostale. Each of these brands is struggling to entice customers as the middle-school and high-school set increasingly flock to competitors such as H&M and Forever 21.  Teens have in part been attracted to the low prices and trendy styles carried by the fast-fashion retailers, but they’ve also been lured by clothing that they believe makes them stand out, not blend in.  The logoed apparel at a store such as Abercrombie, they say, lacks originality. Many teens now find it tacky to brazenly display where their clothing comes from.

And that position is not all that different from what luxury shoppers are saying about ubiquitous brands such as Gucci, Michael Kors and Coach.

For example, here’s what shopper Helen Nonini told Mesco about getting rid of her collection of Gucci bags: “I just don’t want to be categorized,” Nonini said. “I don’t want someone in the street to look at me and know right away who designed the bag I’m carrying or how much I paid for it.”

It’s a sentiment that has striking similarity to what 14-year-old Isis Corbett told The Washington Post in August about why she doesn’t like to shop at Abercrombie.

“A lot of teenage girls wear it, so everyone else has it,” Corbett, said. But “you can find more unique things here,” she added, standing among racks of jewelry in Forever 21.

So while Gucci may be hawking $3,950 python and and bamboo handbags and Abercrombie is selling $88 super-skinny jeans, their challenges aren’t all that different: Both retailers have to find a way to win back a customer that seeks a distinctive, one-of-a-kind look that won’t make them appear to simply follow the fashion pack.