Two Iconic '90s Mall Brands Head Toward Bankruptcy, Gen X Mourns

Modern shopping has changed the game for these staple retailers.
Updated July 11, 2024
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Express and The Body Shop, two mall staples of the 1990s, are facing separate financial challenges as they struggle to keep their doors open. Once at the top of their respective categories, both retailers have gotten lost in the shuffle over the years with the emergence of Gen Z as a major consumer force.

With more competition in the market than ever before, neither store is on their target market’s top of mind. Accompanied by rising production costs and slow-moving inventory, sales are slower than ever before.

As company executives decide the chains’ fates, it could signal the beginning of the end for these two iconic brands. At the very least, they may never be the same again.

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What's happening with Express?

Gorodenkoff/Adobe Women shopping

Express is bearing the weight of a $300 million debt burden as company leaders grapple with finding ways to keep the brand alive. In weeks-long talks with creditors, Express leadership has tried to renegotiate and whittle down their whopping debt, but the creditors aren’t 100% on board, and bankruptcy rumors are swirling.

In the span of three quarters, the company lost over $150 million. To help bridge the gap, the retailer took on a $65 million loan at 15% interest. Gordon Brothers Group, who assisted with the loan, as well as Hilco Group, Wells Fargo & Co., and Bank America Corp., are all included in the conversation regarding the retailer’s mounting debt and potential next steps.

The brand has struggled to keep up with its fashion rivals over the years, and with the rise of work-from-home during and after the pandemic, the demand for business casual, the brand’s bread and butter, has declined dramatically. 

“It’s a case of irrelevance, both from a price perspective and in terms of style,” said Melissa Minkow, director of retail strategy at digital consultancy CI&T. It’s also been argued that inflation isn’t helping their situation either, with shoppers looking for ways to save wherever possible.

Express (originally known as Limited Express) was born from Limited Brands in an attempt to test the retail waters with 20- to 30-year-old women, a younger demographic than The Limited’s target audience. Starting with only eight stores, the brand, most well-known for its jeans and denim apparel, exceeded expectations and drove $1 billion in sales by 1992, earning it a permanent spot on the mall map.

What's happening with The Body Shop?

NDABCREATIVITY/Adobe woman buying new clothes

Three months after being acquired by German private equity firm Aurelius, The Body Shop entered administration, a process used to protect a struggling company from liquidation and legal action by creditors. 

Aurelius took control of The Body Shop in November in an attempt to revive the retailer’s profits. A spokesperson for Aurelius said The Body Shop “faced an extended period of financial challenges under past owners, coinciding with a difficult trading environment for the wider retail sector,” adding that they would “consider all options to find a way forward for the business and will update creditors and employees in due course.”

Previous owners include L’Oreal between 2006 and 2017 and Brazilian firm Natura & Co from 2017 to 2023.

Like Express, the growing competition in the beauty and cosmetics industry has impeded sales over the years, causing the brand to shrink. Aurelius closed all of The Body Shop at Home — the direct sales arm of the company — in Europe and parts of Asia due to stagnant profits.

Dame Anita Roddick started The Body Shop in 1976 when she opened her first store in Brighton, England. Unlike other big brands at the time, the company used ethically and naturally sourced ingredients in their products, an almost unheard-of move in the Aqua-net era. Roddick largely focused on helping girls and women feel good in their own skin instead of bowing to the pressure of societal beauty standards and trends.

Will they survive?

LIGHTFIELD STUDIOS/Adobe woman filing for bankruptcy

The fates of both Express and The Body Shop are not yet solidified. However, there is speculation on what paths they may take in the future.

Express is attempting to keep its debt in check and avoid filing for bankruptcy. The company hired restructuring adviser M3 and law firm Kirkland & Ellis to assist in putting its finances in order and continues to extensively review its business model to avoid additional costs.

Some experts think The Body Shop will never entirely disappear, but it might not have the same visibility as it did in previous years. A shift to online sales instead of maintaining a presence in brick-and-mortar partnerships might be down the road.

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Bottom line

Roman/Adobe woman and male friend using phone in mall

Express and The Body Shop may be weathering a financial storm, but alternative solutions might bring them away from the brink of bankruptcy. Consumers can expect to continue to shop these '90s favorites as the two firms reposition themselves for more modern business models and, hopefully, a more stable future. 

But the longer term question remains of whether future generations will continue shopping at malls versus turning to online retailers in order to save money shopping. The nostalgic Gen X days of mall life may indeed become a thing of the past.

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Author Details

Taylor Bushey Taylor Bushey is a professional writer with a background in the banking industry. She also covers topics including home, wellness, lifestyle, fashion, and beauty.