By  on February 7, 1994

ATLANTA -- Among the hype, hoopla and hordes of people at the Super Show, women's apparel was a clear winner.

Manufacturers are launching new women's collections, expanding existing lines and continuing the crossover between sports apparel and fashion.

The Super Show, which began Friday and ends today at the Georgia World Congress Center, is expected to draw over 100,000 buyers. Through Saturday, attendance had already surpassed last year's total of 95,977, according to a spokesperson for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, which sponsors the show. Exhibitors, including footwear and sporting goods equipment as well as apparel vendors, totaled 2,800, compared with 2,553 last year.

Sports celebrities, roving robots, simulated bungee jumping and huge inflated sports products create a carnival-like atmosphere, but the Super Show is serious business.

"This is the most important trade show in the world for us," said Roberto Muller, executive vice president, apparel product marketing, for Reebok. "It is the focal point of trade on a global basis. Everybody comes here."

He added that although some buying is done, the show is more a vehicle for projecting a company's image and honing its strategy.

"We can display product here the way we envision it at retail," Muller said. "And we meet with senior executives from big chains to talk about our strategies and how we can improve business."

The recent hiring of new women's apparel designers and merchandisers is part of an aggressive growth strategy for Reebok. "Women's apparel, which is now 25 percent of total U.S. apparel sales, will be as big as men's by the end of 1995," said Muller.

Key to that growth will be crossover applications into streetwear. "Designers such as Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren have legitimized us," Muller noted. "They now look to sports for inspiration. We've barely scratched the surface on what we can do."

The synergistic relationship of fashion and sports was illustrated by designer Norma Kamali's appearance at the Super Show to launch her new activewear line, called Omo Gym. "I'd like to find a place among the Nikes and Reeboks," she said. "Reality has hit and the real clothes issue is upon us. I'm doing this because I believe in it. I have to do this to survive."The activewear line -- which includes bodywear, swimsuits and skiwear -- made its debut here for April delivery.

At Nike, women's apparel sales increased 13 percent for fiscal 1993, against a 2.5 percent increase in men's apparel, with the biggest growth coming from cross-training collections, rather than sports specific areas.

Women's apparel sales should increase 15 percent this year, said Ann Wiper, divisional merchandise manager of the women's apparel division.

"Crossover applications have been key for us, but it's primarily crossover between sports, rather than into streetwear," she said. "Our biggest growth has been with the entry level sports customer, rather than the serious performance athlete."

Nike spends approximately $4.5 million on the Super Show alone, said industry sources, with a 55,000-square-foot ballroom transformed into a high-tech hodgepodge of sensory bombardment with music, lights, walls of video monitors and sound effects.

While many companies break fall lines at the Super Show, retailers said they came more to look than to shop. "I don't buy anything here, except maybe closeouts, because the manufacturers come to us," said Tara Shoop, women's buyer for Hibbett Sports, a Birmingham, Ala.-based sporting goods chain with 60 Southeast locations. "I come here to see fall lines and get an idea on the latest trends."

Many companies, such as Addidas, introduced new or expanded women's collections at the show. "We've never been thought of as a women's brand, but we'd be crazy not to go into it, with women such a huge and growing segment of the market," said Peter Moore, chief executive officer of Addidas. "Still, I think women's business is tough, because women are more sophisticated consumers and very picky about things like fit."

The new Addidas line consists primarily of cotton lycra bodywear pieces, fleece coverup jackets and a few leather outwear pieces. Moore said he would like to increase the business to eventually 40 percent of apparel sales.

Another manufacturer of male and unisex clothing, Starter Corp., announced plans for its first women's line of streetwear and activewear, which will make its debut in 1995.

Olympic track star Florence Griffith-Joyner will be the celebrity spokeswoman for the line and will aid in the design."It's advantageous for us to have a women's line," said David Beckerman, chairman, president and ceo of Starter Corp. "The line could be done in conjunction with the Olympics, or as a brand business."

Manufacturers say expanding women's categories will open up more avenues of distribution, such as department and specialty stores.

"We're seeking new distribution through women's apparel," said Alberto Verdi, managing director of Fila Sport in Hong Kong. "We want more inroads into better grade department stores, such as Saks Fifth Avenue and and Neiman Marcus, and we'll do that with more high-end warm-up suits in microfibers. Also, we're offering smaller groups and more delivery dates that women's retailers want."

Verdi said that the company would like to increase the women's business, which now is 20 percent of apparel sales, to 35 percent in the next few years.

The changing retail landscape was evident at the Super Show, as manufacturers, such as Fila, expanded the number of company-owned stores. Fila announced that it would open two new stores featuring full-price merchandise in San Francisco and Los Angeles during 1994.

With the two new openings, Fila will have seven full-price stores. In addition, the company plans to expand its retail factory outlets to total 30 in the U.S. by the end of the year.

Danskin will also enter the full-price retail arena with three locations this year. Two will be in Manhattan, including an 11,000-square-foot flagship store tentatively planned for the Upper East Side, and one in Miami Beach.

Scheduled to open this fall, the stores will carry Danskin bodywear, dance, tennis and golf collections, as well as Danskin's hosiery lines, with footwear to be added later.

"We are transforming ourselves into a retailer," said Byron Hero, chairman and ceo. "We're expanding our outlet stores, which have all been profitable, and if these retail ventures are successful, Danskin should be between a $500 million to $600 million company over the next few years." The company posted $139 million in sales for 1993.

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