Accessories chain Claire’s has always kind of looked like it was going bankrupt. Even during the company’s most solvent years, Claire’s locations were stuffed with cheap jewelry, handbags, and makeup, combinations of which can usually be purchased at a discount. You’ll always find a cursory ear-piercing chair, manned by a teenager packing a piercing gun that could be confused with a hot-glue gun in the dark. Even with its predictably pink-and-purple color story, Claire’s entire aesthetic reads a bit like liquidation.
The company may soon have a status to match. Bloomberg reported last week that Claire’s Stores Inc. is preparing to file for bankruptcy, in a deal that would hand control over to lenders. Just five years after registering for an initial public offering—a registration it later withdrew—the iconic purveyor of preteen accessories has been felled by the death of the American mall. It joins retail ranks that include Toys R Us, The Limited, Wet Seal, and Payless.
Perhaps it is time for Claire’s to hang up its hat (likely a pink, sequined beanie). But let us also mourn the potential passing of an American staple, a store that speaks to the best and worst of girlhood-on-the-cusp-of-the-cusp-of-womanhood. Claire’s stores are explosions of emotion and expression in pastel and neon, featuring an array of aesthetic choices that serve as miniature stand-ins for the more sophisticated visual preferences one will form later in life. As an adult, you’ll choose between silver or gold, leather or suede, silk or linen. But for now it’s pink or purple, dogs or cats, wristlets or clutches, dangly earrings or studs, hearts or shamrocks, small notebooks of unidentifiable use or “attitude glasses” of no use at all. Claire’s is where you learn to try on personality traits, via a mercurial whirlwind of style choices—all of it for $10 or less.
Claire’s as we know it was built by Rowland Schaefer (paywall), who founded a successful wig business before buying Claire’s Boutiques in 1973. Schaefer grew the business to 1,000 stores by 1990, and 3,000 by 2006. (By then, Claire’s also owned The Icing, which appealed to a slightly older demographic.)
The company’s ascent coincided with the peak of the American shopping mall, itself a metaphor for that ambiguous period between childhood and adulthood. Malls are relatively safe, contained spaces in which one can engage with the lures of capitalism while also whispering about boys at Cinnabon. It’s a place your parents might let you hang out unchaperoned, where “unchaperoned” means they wait patiently in an armchair in the JC Penney’s shoe section until it’s time to go home. The mall is a purgatory of adolescent independence. But in the midst of adolescence, purgatory could sometimes be enough.
And in the landscape of a preteen girl’s mall visit in the 1990s and early aughts, Claire’s held a place of honor. It was a nexus of early stylistic self-expression. These choices were bigger than the flavor of ice cream you picked at the food court—this was Fashion. Which pithy-saying T-shirt reflected the depths of your budding personality? Which dangly pompom earrings spoke to the joie de vivre you were sending out into the universe? Could you rock a pink feather boa? Claire’s also happened to be the headquarters of a teenage rite of passage: ear-piercing, the first aesthetic choice you could make that came with a whiff of permanence. (Today, the company says it has pierced more than 100 million ears.)
If I look through my wardrobe now, or sift through the boxes of trinkets and keepsakes I’ve held onto since my own girlhood, nothing from Claire’s has survived. Had I kept anything, I suspect it would have disintegrated by now into a tidy pile of ash and glitter. Because Claire’s accessories aren’t meant to last. The things you buy there are never really yours; at least not the you that develops later, once you stop looking for a sense of self in shopping malls.
Like any maturing woman, Claire’s life these days is complicated. In 2007, private equity firm Apollo Global Management acquired the company in a $3.1 billion leveraged buyout. Apollo grew Claire’s quickly, adding about 350 stores in three years, and in 2013 the company filed plans for an IPO. But Claire’s had (has) more than $2 billion in debt, and lackluster financials. In 2016, it shuttered more than 150 locations, and in January 2017 Claire’s nixed its IPO plans. A few months later, Fitch Ratings deemed the company “at risk” of bankruptcy.
Still, Claire’s isn’t dead yet. The company could be revived under new management. Perhaps Claire’s will reinvent herself, finding new footing in these older, wiser years. She could take a pottery class, get a MoviePass, join Bumble, date a yoga instructor, and go paleo for a week before deciding it’s not worth it. She could figure it all out in the end. I know I’ll be rooting for her, wearing my rose-tinted attitude glasses.