Bleyle’s Comeback Drive

SHENANDOAH, Ga. -- Using tough measures that fit the times, Bleyle Inc., a women's sportswear firm known for its traditional wool separates for an over-50 audience, has moved into the black for the first time in three years.<BR><BR>New owners and...

SHENANDOAH, Ga. — Using tough measures that fit the times, Bleyle Inc., a women’s sportswear firm known for its traditional wool separates for an over-50 audience, has moved into the black for the first time in three years.

New owners and management have not only streamlined the operation, they are also looking to expand the label’s appeal to a younger customer.

The company — formerly known as Bleyle of America — was purchased in April by the owners of Fashion Star Inc., a Carrollton, Ga.-based maker of bank and airline uniforms with annual sales of $8.5 million. It was acquired from Achim Walz, the owner of Bleyle in Europe, a 105-year-old apparel company based in Sindelfingen, Germany. The European firm set up the U.S. unit here, about 45 miles south of Atlanta, in 1978.

Sales of the U.S. operation reached $35 million in 1990, but dropped to $19 million in 1992.

“The company was in trouble,” said Michael Young, president of Fashion Star, and now also president of Bleyle. “We’re trying to turn it around, first by cutting out excess.”

The new owners have sliced expenses in half, by closing the New York showroom, laying off 12 upper management employees, reducing excess inventory and restructuring fabric purchasing. Two of Bleyle’s six retail outlets have been closed, with the remaining stores becoming Fashion Direct outlet stores operated by Fashion Star. Outlet sales have been reduced from 30 percent to 10 percent of total volume.

Production was cut from 320,000 units in 1992 to 280,000 for 1993, mostly through the reduction of off-price sales. Inventory is now cut to order and delivery period, rather than total style number.

The company has shown a pretax profit of around 7 percent of net sales each month since June. Sales for 1993 totaled about $17 million.

“We’ve established a specialized niche with the older customer — one who tends to have money to spend, but has often been ignored,” said new designer Melanie Young. By incorporating new fabrics and softer silhouettes, Young wants to gradually move Bleyle in a younger direction, as well as satisfy the varying needs of its existing customer base.

“We’re sticking with basics that built Bleyle’s reputation. But we’re also adding more fashion-forward options, without being wild and crazy,” she said. “Gradually, we want people to look at the line and say, ‘That’s great,’ not just, ‘That’s Bleyle.”‘

Michael and Melanie Young are husband and wife. They also own J. Anna Young, a sportswear line sold through home trunk shows with annual sales of $1.5 million. Melanie’s father, Bill Loftin, is majority owner and chairman of Bleyle and Fashion Star.

Fabrics added to the line include lightweight woven polyester for suitings and washed polyester for blouses. Double-breasted blazers and skirts and pants with softer lines have been added to Bleyle’s best-selling pull-on pants and other basic silhouettes. Blouse prints have broadened from florals to include nautical, mosaic and Hermes-inspired patterns.

New details, such as metal and enamel buttons, are also designed to spice up Bleyle’s traditional look.

Carlos Aria, formerly a designer with Esprit, is updating Bleyle’s sweaters with longer lengths, mandarin collars, stripes and crests.

With more expensive fabrics, trimmings, interfacing and fusibles, prices increased 3 to 4 percent in 1993. Wholesale prices range from $37 to $45 for blouses, $35 to $69 for skirts and $75 to $130 for blazers.

Sixty-five percent of Bleyle’s production is domestic, done in its own plant here, with blouses and sweaters produced in Hong Kong. Young would like to gradually move all production here.

“It’s harder to do labor-intensive garments here, but costs of doing business with Hong Kong, including duties, shipping, agent fees and transportation, add up,” he said. “And since we rely on trunk shows, special orders and reorders, we need quick turnaround of domestic manufacturing.”

Since the acquisition, sewing operators are paid by the hour rather than the piece, a move that has increased speed, delivery and reorder capabilities. Young sees hourly wages with group incentives as the wave of the future for domestic manufacturers.

With specialty stores accounting for 65 percent of business, Bleyle has focused more on road sales than maintaining luxurious showrooms, which was the approach of the former owner.

“We try to give close personal attention to specialty stores by filling special orders, and trying not to sell to their close competitors,” said Young.