By  on January 14, 2002

NEW YORK -- After the sour holiday season that just passed, innerwear vendors during last week's market were relieved that retailers seemed to be in a fairly decent mood. Likewise, store executives praised efforts to develop and present products that have an extra edge of fashion, value and comfort.

Still, a barrage of demands for markdown money compounded by an uncertain economy, as well as layoffs and consolidation within the manufacturing and retail industries, left a number of resources furtively waiting for orders, which are not expected to be completed for the next several weeks.

Fueling the anxiety is the fate of Kmart, the nation's second-largest discounter, which is a huge source of revenue for a majority of large and midsize innerwear companies that produce proprietary Kmart brands such as Jaclyn Smith and Kathy Ireland, popular-priced bra brands like Vassarette, Sara Lee's Hanes Her Way, Just My Size and Playtex, and major private label programs of underwear, sleepwear, warmwear and robes.

As reported, Kmart said last week that it is reviewing its liquidity position, and sources indicated that it might shutter up to 250 of its underperforming stores. Innerwear executives said they are concerned over the prospect of a potential Chapter 11 filing, which has been raised in the financial community and which would leave many makers at the back of the creditors' line. It also could damage the Disney business at Kmart, and the fledgling Joe Boxer operation at Kmart for women's innerwear and men's and children's underwear. The Joe Boxer trademark became a Kmart exclusive last year.

Addressing the future of the Joe Boxer business at Kmart, Bill Sweedler, president and chief executive officer of Boxer parent Windsong/Allegiance Group, said: "We just had a big pow-wow with Kmart [Thursday]. We were pleasantly surprised to hear that the planning and implementation stages are going on without a hiccup. I think the Joe Boxer launch will help turn around Kmart's business."

Sweedler said, "Before we signed this deal, we obviously did an enormous amount of due diligence, and we feel very confident going forward. We have a long-term agreement, and [think that] Joe Boxer will become a multibillion-dollar brand at Kmart."Sweedler would not elaborate, but according to sources, Joe Boxer will be showcased primarily in Kmart's top 500 stores, which generate around 60 percent of its revenues. Kmart operates about 2,100 stores.

Meanwhile, retailers from major stores and smaller operations alike showed up in full force for the transition-early fall market with one objective: finding new products that will continue to build the slowly returning momentum of intimate apparel.

Sandy Pearse, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel at Macy's West, said: "My priority at this market is to look at new merchandise -- it's got to be new in terms of presentation and product ideas. I think French Jenny has done a very good job with its sleepwear collection."

Donna Wolff, vice president and dmm of intimate apparel and hosiery at Bloomingdale's, said: "I thought Calvin Klein [innerwear] and DKNY at Wacoal looked pretty good and very focused. Overall, the market was a lot more focused than it has been in a long time, and vendors were really into big volume drivers."

She cited Wacoal as a top foundations brand.

One change that Wolff said she liked was the presentation of collections in which each group had made a meaningful statement.

"It used to be you would see 10 groups and the last four were just fringe products," Wolff said. "Now, all the groups have a lot of meat and potatoes from start to finish."

Barbara Lipton, vice president and dmm of intimate apparel and hosiery at Saks Fifth Avenue, said, "This was not a critical foundations market. March will be important. We really looked at what's been working and what hasn't and did a lot of recapping.

"We were happy with what we saw in sleepwear. The Natori, Josie and Oscar de la Renta sleepwear collections in particular were strong. I thought Oscar was extremely well edited and made a lot of sense. It should do well. The Natori White Label collection was well focused, and I feel it will do well for the more contemporary customer."

De la Renta sleepwear is produced under license by Carole Hochman Designs.Lipton added that bridal looks and special occasion fare presented a "tremendous opportunity in 2002."

"Because of that, we'll be intensifying the Flora Nikrooz and Jonquil labels for special occasion," said Lipton.

Mary Krug, the newly appointed vice president and dmm of intimate apparel and hosiery at Neiman Marcus, said: "I want to get an overview of the market and see what our important partners are planning. Overall, I feel positive about business."

Regarding the pace of intimate apparel business at retail, Paula McManus, foundations buyer at Jacobson Stores, said the better business and designer business has been solid.

"My big guns continue to be Hanro, Chantelle and Wacoal," she said. "I plan to capitalize on all the excitement at this market and focus my assortments on different ideas that make you stop and look at everything you're doing. It's about reevaluating your vendors."

From a manufacturer's perspective, Jeanette Cantone, senior vice president of merchandising and design at Natori Co., said, "Business is challenging, although there are a few bright spots. Response [to our line] from all key accounts was strong, based on the fact that many retailers made plan or outperformed for 2001."

Cantone cited strong retail reaction to a Japanese tea garden print that was "sophisticated, but not over the edge," and a sheer animal stretch mesh daywear top and boy-cut briefs, both in the Josie collection.

At The Warnaco Group, business appeared to be bustling, as a number of retail groups were seen in meetings.

David Clark, president of Warnaco's intimate apparel division, said a major new product introduction by Warner's has received positive reviews from retailers: Warner's Freedom Movement Bra.

"The bra cups move with you, but the frame stops on you," said Clark, emphasizing that the bra stays in place on the bodice.

The new comfort underwire bra is slated for June 25 deliveries and will be supported by a marketing and ad campaign with a tag line that reads, "We Just Turned Comfort Inside Out."

Gwen Widell, senior vice president of merchandising and product development for Warnaco intimate apparel, said Warnaco will have a "strong presence" at the Jan. 25-28 Salon International de la Lingerie trade show in Paris."We'll be showing the Warner's, Calvin Klein Underwear, Lejaby and Bodyslimmers collections in Paris. We also will show the Calvin Klein Underwear and Warner's brands at the Intimare show in Bologna this year for the first time," said Widell.

Carole Hochman, president and design director of Carole Hochman Designs Inc., said, "This is the first time we are doing a separate line of microfleece robes, and it has received great reaction. Our Oscar de la Renta collections also were very strong, as was our licensed Esprit line."

Tina Wilson, design director for the licensed Donna Karan Intimates and DKNY Underwear lines at Wacoal, said retailers responded to the reintroduction of stretch cotton and polyester velour at-homewear by Donna Karan.

"March market will be luxe items," Wilson said. "And of course, they will have to blend in with Donna's ready-to-wear collection, which she shows in February. There will be lots of silk jacquards, crinkle silks and interesting lace gowns."

Susan Pink, senior vice president of the French Jenny sleepwear division at Richard Leeds International, said several ideas got "terrific response," including a variety of tops with whimsical sayings like Miss Behave, Dream On, Cat Nap and Smart Cookie; amusing motifs and prints including three yellow ducks and a heart-shaped leopard print, and waffle-pattern two-piece longjohns called Jenny Johns.

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