NEW YORK — American fashion brands are flush in the mind of the country’s consumers.

Those were the fashion cards played by people polled for market researcher Brand Keys’ second annual Fashion Index. Domestic brands will have to dig hard for the consumers’ dollars, though, as practical concerns such as value and sheer need continue to climb among people’s priorities.

When asked to cite apparel brands that are "generally important to them," American labels accounted for two-thirds of the 52 names so identified by a quota sample of 3,750 women and 3,750 men from the country’s nine census regions. That roster comprises eight more brands than the 2002 index, an increase of 15 percent. Significantly, all the newcomers were U.S.-based: Eddie Bauer, J. Crew, L.L. Bean, Lands’ End, Lee, Old Navy, Riders and Wrangler.

"The emphasis on American brands was a surprise," said Brand Keys president Robert Passikoff of the 2003 Fashion Index results. "The war in Iraq [added] value to American brands and was a great equalizer," he posited in referring to those labels’ pricing and buy-American propositions. "That’s why we’re seeing these brands resonate across age groups."

Returning to the range of brands deemed "generally important" were Abercrombie & Fitch; Adidas; Armani; Bill Blass; Brooks Bros.; Burberry; Calvin Klein; Champion; Chanel; Christian Dior; DKNY; Donna Karan; Ellesse; a favorite sports team; Fendi; Ferragamo; Fila; Gap; Geoffrey Beene; Giorgio Armani; Gucci; Hermès; Hugo Boss; Lacoste; Levi’s; London Fog; Louis Vuitton; Major League Baseball; Nautica; National Basketball Association; National Football League; National Hockey League; Nike; Paul Stuart; Perry Ellis; Polo; Prada; Puma; Ralph Lauren; Reebok; Tommy Hilfiger; Versace, and Yves Saint Laurent. Falling off the "generally important" list were Missoni and Brioni.

Among brands consumers consider "important to wear now," compared with a few years ago, twice as many European names lost share as did those based here: Chanel, Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, Versace, Armani, Adidas, Nautica, Reebok and the National Hockey League. Armani held up best among the decliners as ranked by women and men, rating fourth-favorite for both, despite share decreases of 2 and 3 percentage points, respectively. Assessed by age cohort, Reebok stayed firmest, losing one basis point with 35-to-44-year-olds and placing third.Leading a list of 15 brands women said were "important to wear now" versus a few years ago was licensed apparel from a favorite sports team, followed by Nike, J. Crew, Armani, Levi’s and Calvin Klein. Licensed apparel from a favorite team also led the three age groups of the 7,500 men and women polled: 21 to 34, 35 to 44 and 45 to 59. Nike ranked second in the two youngest cohorts, while Adidas was second among 45-to-59-year-olds. Rounding out the top five by age break were: Ralph Lauren, Polo and Perry Ellis, among 21-to-34-year-olds; Reebok, Calvin Klein and National Football League licensed apparel, with the 35-to-44-year-old set, and J. Crew, Brooks Bros. and Major League Baseball licensed apparel, with the 45-to-59-year-old crowd.

"Especially in the clothing business, companies tend to operate from an old paradigm that style and marketing will drive sales," Passikoff observed. "That paradigm is starting to fall apart." Instead, he said, such priorities as value and quality of life are driving much purchasing — even of ego-intensive goods like apparel. Among the few apparel brands responding effectively to such shifts, in Passikoff’s view, are Nike, Armani, Donna Karan and J. Crew.

Given their evolving priorities, it’s not surprising that people are continuing to place less importance on the brand labels, logos and trademarks of the apparel they wear: 61 percent of those polled said those things were "much less or less important" than they were a few years ago, versus 57 percent in 2002. That slide steepened for both women and men, with declines in importance cited by 64 percent of women, against 61 percent in 2002, and 58 percent of men, against 53 percent.

That viewpoint makes it all the more meaningful that American fashion brands are relatively in favor. "It’s a return to basic American values, and it’s reflected in the way consumers are reacting to the value of a brand," Passikoff said of the consumer’s preferences. "The poor economy compounds things," he added. "However, [the consumer] is not manifesting the bunker mentality of Sept. 11."

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