Will Women's Clothes Fit the Dudes From Bonobos?

Bonobos, an e-commerce apparel darling, is expanding from lads to ladies.

The six-year-old menswear company is set to launch a separate brand for women called AYR. The new line slips into the market with two styles of jeans going on sale Nov. 13. Bonobos is working on a full spring collection—some 75 different garments—that will be available in late January or early February.

Bonobos broke into the hugely crowded apparel business with the age-old KISS strategy: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Its website was easy to navigate, shipping and returns cost nothing for shoppers, and the clothes on offer are stylish and—more important—not too numerous. Retailers love to talk about wardrobe basics that purportedly never go out of style and create inventory overhang. But Bonobos did nothing but basics, and for a while the startup sold only slacks.

These days, however, its line is much expanded, and it has quite a few products with some flair (see: Bacchanals purple chinos, $88), but the total line is still pretty lean. Most of it comprises shirts and pants that fall into one of four boxes: slim or regular, casual or dressy.

To a lot of guys this is the perfect number of choices—and the perfect number of choices is a kind of retail Holy Grail these days. Too many options can be a serious sales deterrent, a point made by Sheena Iyengar, a professor at Columbia Business School and author of The Art of Choosing. Iyengar’s research has found that not only do people tend to buy more when offered fewer products; they are typically happier with their purchases, because they aren’t left thinking about the alternatives they passed up.

But do the Bonobos dudes know enough about women to zero in on the correct number of offerings? They appear to be taking the basics route once again. AYR is an acronym for “all year round,” and Chief Executive Andy Dunn told Women’s Wear Daily the company is “focusing on elevated essentials: quality investment pieces.”

Kelly Tackett, research director at PlanetRetail, warns that making clothes for women is far more complex than cranking out men’s slacks. “There tend to be a lot more fit issues and a lot more complexity with finishing and construction,” she says. There also tends to be a lot more competition. “In the trade press, I think this is going to be big news,” Tackett says of the Bonobos expansion. “But it may be a more challenging task to break out of the pack and get recognized.”

Indeed, it’s rare for an established menswear brand to woo women—although not unheard of. Brooks Brothers has been doing it since the 1940s, and Paul Smith added a line of women’s clothes in 1994. Tom Ford also moved from menswear to women’s clothes.

Such expansions can be a bit of an awkward fit. Hugo Boss has been making dresses and skinny jeans since 1998, but womenswear accounted for only about 10 percent of sales revenue last year, increasing at half the pace of its men’s business.

Bonobos recruited two women to head up the effort: Jacqueline Cameron, previously a senior designer at J.Crew’s Madewell, and Maggie Winter, previously a senior merchant at J.Crew. No doubt Bonobos is hoping the duo brings some of their former customer base along with them.

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