It all started with an Ewok.
That’s my two-year-old daughter on Halloween. To complete the effect, I decided to dress up like Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi (her jaunty Endor speeder outfit, not the metal bikini) and went on the hunt for a sweater that would resemble her camouflage poncho but be something I’d wear again. Browsing the Nordstrom website, I discovered the Bobeau Asymmetrical Fleece Wrap Cardigan in “Heather Pinewood” and remembered I had seen it recommended on a fashion blog I follow. I ordered the sweater; it fit great and at least two people recognized me as Leia. A success!
Then something happened. I started wearing this sweater almost every day. It was the perfect layering piece for my work-at-home wardrobe while also looking refined enough to wear for errands around town, and I didn’t want to take it off.
Before long, I began noticing this sweater everywhere in my orbit. I ran into a friend at my local coffee shop and she was wearing it. I tweeted about my love for the cardigan and heard back from friends saying they had it too. I wore it over my workout clothes to my exercise studio and an instructor said not only has she seen other clients sporting it, but that she owns it in gray and brought it to a weekend getaway — only to find her friend wearing it, too, in a dusty pink. My husband spotted a woman in the cardigan at our local public library. I ordered the sweater in a second color for myself and bought two more to give to family members as Christmas presents.
As of this writing, the Bobeau Asymmetrical Fleece Wrap Cardigan has 4.5 stars from 2,385 reviews on Nordstrom’s website. Apparently I’m not the only satisfied customer, especially when you consider that the other items in the “People Who Purchased This Also Purchased” section only have a few hundred reviews. And when I sorted women’s sweaters to look at just “Featured” products, I found that most of the items on that page have zero reviews. Somehow the Bobeau Asymmetrical Fleece Wrap Cardigan, which is essentially a fancy Slanket with an awkward name, had gotten incredibly popular. And I wanted to know why.
Nordstrom’s public relations department was unsurprisingly loath to disclose details about the sweater, like how its sales compare with other women’s apparel items or whether it did any special marketing for the cardigan. Trend Request, the Los Angeles-based company that owns the Bobeau brand, was similarly reticent, although it did credit Nordstrom for popularizing the “one button,” as it referred to the cardigan. (The sweater is also sold at Dillard’s, but only in three colors online, compared with 30 plus on Nordstrom, and has no reviews on the Dillard website.)
“We can’t share specific numbers about what makes this a best-seller, but we can say that it’s very popular with customers, especially during the holiday season,” wrote a Nordstrom spokeswoman, whose colleague had told me earlier that she owns two of the sweaters herself and put another three on her wish list.
I wondered if Nordstrom had heavily promoted the Bobeau sweater among fashion bloggers, who in recent years have proved remarkably powerful in driving sales toward retailers. After all, I’d first heard about the cardigan on Extra Petite, a blog that has published Nordstrom-sponsored posts and uses affiliate links. But Jean, the writer behind Extra Petite, mentions on her site that she learned of the sweater from her friend Kat at Feather Factor, another lifestyle and fashion blog. And Kat, when I asked her about the cardigan, said she found it “randomly at Nordstrom one day wandering around,” then alerted her readers when it went on sale.
It turns out my other Bobeau-owning friends also came across the cardigan by seeing friends and co-workers wear it, or by browsing at Nordstrom like Kat. Not only that, but they were all as oddly enchanted with the sweater as I was. One friend, who owns it in four colors, wrote me five emails in rapid succession because she kept remembering more things she wanted to say, like how she also bought a black Bobeau maxi skirt because she was so impressed with the brand. Another friend, the one from the coffee shop, said she was “excited with glee” to get my email and needed time to compose her response so she could tell me her “exact feelings and love for this piece of clothing.”
There is something about this sweater that inspires women not just to buy it, but to practically stockpile it, recommend it to friends and talk about it with an almost religious fervor. What’s interesting about the Bobeau one-button is that it’s neither an example of a generalized trend like peplums nor an example of a luxury fashion item achieving “It” status like Valentino Rockstud shoes. This is a sweater that currently retails for about 40 bucks. I think about how wishy washy I am about purchases, constantly filling up virtual carts and abandoning them, and marvel at how easily this cardigan tips shoppers from “Hmm, that’s nice” to “I’ll take four and tell my mom about it.”
“So — I bought the grey version, wore it to work, and got tons of compliments,” wrote the sister of my coffee shop friend. “I immediately told my two office mates to order one each….They in turn ordered theirs, and then turned around and ordered more, after realizing the awesomeness of the Bobeau. I was also convinced to order another one, in pink….Our office laughter from Bobeau Fridays spilled out to the (small) department of women, and it caught on. After tallying it up, I think we had 12 other women order one each, some ordering two.”
Any business that aspires to make money from a product or a service — including, say, makers of project management software — dreams about this kind of natural and positive word of mouth. And as a consumer, I have no problem with this either. I seek out opinions from friends, and in turn I routinely recommend all sorts of stuff to friends, whether it’s a restaurant or a lip gloss or a thought-provoking magazine article.
And yet my devotion to the Bobeau one-button made me feel weird. With the advent of social media and targeted advertising, I’ve learned to be suspicious of word of mouth. Is it a genuinely organic process, or is it just shrewd brand management in an exceptionally cunning disguise? These days, brands want to be our friends. Brands want so desperately to be approachable and human that you get sanctimonious tweets from companies commemorating September 11 and equally sanctimonious tweets from other companies announcing that they won’t be tweeting on September 11. People throw around terms like “brand evangelist” and they are being perfectly earnest and we go along with it.
I worry sometimes that my tastes and preferences aren’t as considered as I’d like to believe. Why did I buy a Sophie the Giraffe teething toy for my daughter? Why did I binge watch True Detective? Why have I turned into a brand evangelist for the Bobeau Asymmetrical Fleece Wrap Cardigan? It’s vaguely depressing to think it was because I was in the thrall of a brand.
None of my other Bobeau-wearing friends seem to be having this consumerist crisis over whether Nordstrom subliminally — or overtly — influenced them to buy the sweater. They just really like the one-button for all sorts of reasons, many of which are echoed in the online reviews. It’s machine washable and comes in more than 30 colors. It has a pert little button. It’s cozy but not frumpy, ideal for wearing on plane rides or keeping at the office. Its drape flatters a variety of body shapes and it comes in Petite and Plus sizes. “Makes you realize how many articles of clothing DON’T fit that bill!” one friend wrote.
My coffee shop friend, who bought her first Bobeau while pregnant and now has two sweaters and two small children, said: “I feel like pregnancy and motherhood make you give up so much when it comes to fashion choices….Everything you own ends up getting stained or ruined so you can’t have anything really expensive or hard to take care of. But this is one amazing item that allows you to keep your fashion style without having to give up any of the other practical considerations.”
Maybe Bobeau and Nordstrom pulled off that rare feat of making and marketing a product that has mass appeal, and I should acknowledge that instead of acting like I was in a brand-induced fugue state when I bought my sweaters. It does feel oddly freeing, I’ve realized, to like something that thousands of other women of different sizes and shapes and lifestyles have also embraced. In an era of ever-increasing online tracking and data collection, it’s liberating to wrap myself in something whose ubiquity provides a kind of anonymity. The sweater is my invisibility cloak; marketers can’t discern anything unique about me because everyone has it. I could be a bosomy frequent flier or a lean Pilates instructor or that lady in your office who’s always cold. Or maybe I’m just a mom who started with a Princess Leia costume and ended up with a closet full of sweaters.