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Coming off a strong fall, the legwear industry is looking for its third consecutive year of growth after a long dry spell.

In the last two years, the category grew 6.2 percent, from $2.9 billion in 2005 to $3.04 billion last year, according to market research firm The NPD Group. Tights lead the group, surging 52.8 percent to $172.2 million.

Although legwear hasn’t always been on such a consistent rise, industry insiders attribute the gains to the increasing popularity of dresses both on the runway and at retail.

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD, based in Port Washington, N.Y., said 2007 “was the first good legwear year in a decade,” when women often chose to go bare-legged, and “2008 is likely to be as good a year, as the dress continues to be strong and we keep seeing an overall migration of accessories as the primary part of an outfit.”

Often labeled a slow season, spring is seen as an opportunity for manufacturers and retailers that will offer products such as footless tights and socks in pastel hues and sunny patterns.

“We’re doing an explosion of color in our line for spring,” said Catrinel Popa, vice president of design and merchandising for Hue. “There’s a momentum to footless and tights, and spring will continue with the same energy in lighter and beautiful colors, textures and patterns.”

Firms have taken note from the most recent spring and fall runway seasons, where legwear has played an integral part in completing a look.

“For spring, it’s really all about soft blush pinks and sage greens,” said Hannah Byun, designer of Hansel From Basel. “Everything was inspired by the Comme des Garçons collection from last fall, which showed pastel pinks and periwinkles. I wanted to follow that same sensibility.”

From the ankles to knees, Hansel From Basel is also one of the many firms banking on socks as a way to spruce up a warm-weather look.

Tony Taylor, creative director of the Brooklyn-based Look From London, is doing striped anklets in yellow and black, as well as knee-high socks in florals and Lurex fishnet.

This story first appeared in the January 7, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“Socks will be the group to watch this spring,” said Wayne Lederman, president of Leg Resource Inc., which manufactures legwear for Betsey Johnson and Anne Klein. “They’ll be shorter silhouettes, which fashion-forward women will pair with pumps and open-toe shoes, as well dresses and shorts.”

Soxland also is socking up, featuring laced lightweight styles to add a little fashion to function.

“Our accounts are looking for something more than just a plain sock,” said Susan Reese, vice president at Soxland.

Lederman said leggings should have another strong spring by providing an alternative to heavier, full tights.

Designers also are taking chances on novelty patterns and color.

“We’re doing lots of footless for spring in florals and stripes,” Taylor said. “We’re not selling basic footless.”

Stacey Pecor, president of retailer Olive & Bette’s, also bought into the look for spring.

“We’re showing a shorter capri leg in white and continuing with black, brown and some of the more neutral colors,” Pecor said. “We don’t see the dress falling off and there isn’t a replacement in bottoms. Skirts are trending down and capris and shorts are flat. The legging is the only bottom with any momentum or strength.”

In expanding on the classic look, StockinGirl Legwear is offering bottom ornamentations on black footless styles with pearls, buttons and other unconventional detailing.

For fall, firms are again relying on solid tights in luxurious fabrics, such as velvet and cashmere.

“We will have another great season with our essential opaque tight,” said a Wolford spokeswoman. “Not only is it a staple for every woman’s wardrobe, but it also slims the leg, has a bold, modern look and is warm. It’s also our most requested and featured tight.”

Chunky knits also are expected to make a reappearance next season. American Essentials is incorporating mohair and merino wool into its cabled ribbed styles.

“The focus is on dark, autumnal colors such as chartreuse, tin and black,” said Michele Slade, vice president of sales and marketing for the firm, which produces hosiery for the Calvin Klein label.

The layered look is also back this fall, a trend that some manufacturers said didn’t gain enough speed when introduced last autumn.

Legale president Barbara Russillo will expand the legwarmers selection in hopes that the junior and contemporary market will pair them over tights with a short skirt or dress.

“I think we’re actually going to see it on the street this year and it will be very strong,” Russillo said.

Henri Bendel will present a variety of legwear trends, but the key will be how the category is merchandised, said Scott Shram, general merchandising manager of accessories and apparel. He plans to take some pieces out of the lingerie section and into areas with more traffic.

“We have the opportunity to do more legwear business than we’ve done in the past, but we’re trying to figure out how to present it in unexpected ways throughout the store,” Shram said.

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