By  on August 25, 2008

By Nola Sarkisian-Miller

Juniors retailers kicked off the summer with a better-than-expected wave of sales and the mood is filtering down to wholesalers who hope to benefit from the momentum at WWDMAGIC this week.

In a stagnating economy, the resilience factor of the younger junior customer is showing. Apparel sales for young women ages 13 to 17 inched up 0.1 percent to $16.75 billion for the 12 months ended May 31, according to The NPD Group Inc. That compares with the 7.7 percent apparel sales decline to $16.8 billion for women ages 18 to 24 during the same period.

Vendors planning to exhibit at WWDMAGIC said novelty is the buzzword to keep the junior customer engaged, especially at a time when rising gas prices and falling home prices are taking a toll on families’ budgets, and the more sophisticated young contemporary design aesthetic is making a play for the teen shopper.

To succeed now when there’s less room for inventory error, both vendors and retailers must go the extra mile for their patrons, said industry experts.

“This is an opportunity for a retailer to really cater to a client, to be more creative and hook them with more than a fashionable item,” said Lilly Berelovich, president and creative director of Fashion Snoops, an online fashion forecasting service. “Designers need to know what their target customer is into. It’s beyond purple. They can be into family or discovering the planet, so vendors should know the story behind their own brands.”

A common thread connecting a number of juniors companies is their embrace of the eco-conscious trend, one that’s moved beyond the token-ized organic cotton T-shirt. Last year, Santa Cruz, Calif.-based Synergy Clothing launched its organic line of hoodies, dresses, long-sleeve shirts and pants using organic cotton, hemp and recycled silk. The company, known for its screen-printed designs incorporating exotic art with a Western twist, even shifted its sourcing to domestic partners this fall to keep an eye out for quality control.

Intimates line Spreegirl also is broadening its collection of “green” lingerie, introduced last season. About 80 percent of the line now incorporates coconut and bamboo fibers, fashioned into novel silhouettes such as tube chemises, rompers, pleated camis and kimono robes.

As manufacturers raise the style bar on earth-friendly fashions, they say the trend is here to stay. “The eco movement will always matter,” said Vinh Luong, vice president of merchandising for Spreegirl, which sells to Von Maur department stores, Revolve Clothing and LF Stores. “It’s good for the environment, feels good on the skin and drapes better than conventional fabrics. It goes beyond the environment to just a better product.”

Both lines have raised their prices about 10 percent to meet transportation costs, but say the junior customer is willing to pay for products that fit well. Other companies echo the sentiment. Prices have risen 5 percent at Salt & Pepper Clothing, which will be showcasing its line of Flying Tomato printed knee-length dresses, lightweight denim jeans and ankle-length denim skirts at WWDMAGIC, yet sales have doubled in the past year, according to company sales representative Steve Cho.

“It’s all about adding perceived value and not being generic,” said Danny Leder, brand manager of Miami-based Earth Happy, which is offering art-driven T-shirts in collaboration with Brazilian pop artist Romero Britto, wholesaling for $15. “We can garner a bigger price because of our unique concept.”

As lines strive to create “better” junior product or more young contemporary styles, retailers are responding to the collections and creating new real estate for the emerging category. This month, Macy’s West stores will launch a new section of denim, T-shirts and collections to “bridge the gap” between the juniors section and its contemporary Impulse zone, said Simone Tolifson, Macy’s West fashion coordinator for juniors, kids’ and intimate apparel.

“This new zone is very different from the juniors department — everything from the customer, pricing strategy and product mix,” Tolifson said. “The new zone was built to both attract a new customer that is currently shopping in specialty stores and tap into an existing customer who currently is only exercising a small share of her apparel spending at Macy’s.”

San Fernando, Calif.-based Jem Sportswear is producing Lyla T-shirts for the section, which will retail for around $40. Jem, like other companies, is looking to straddle the category divide by catering to different markets. At WWDMAGIC, it will be offering T-shirts under the Awake, Awake Couture, Cold Crush and First Love labels, wholesaling from $7 to $60. The designs will span different degrees of embellishments, such as tie-dyes, dip-dyes, floral prints and mixed fabrics such as chiffon and burnout sleeves, catering to clients from Wet Seal to Bloomingdale’s.

“By producing product for all markets, I can be creative upstairs and still meet everyone’s expectations,” said Orna Stark, president of Awake.

Fellow junior brands also are seeking ways to tailor their fashions to the different shopping segments. New York-based Jou Jou, whose spring line will include hand-painted jeans, trenches, anoraks and blazers with piping and belts, targets its clothes to the young junior just hitting her teens; the junior between the ages of 15 and 19, and the 19- to 24-year-old shopper. For example, it will offer wider leg openings for the younger customer and skinny jeans for the older one.

“The whole crowd to go after is the “Hannah Montana” crowd who’s a preteen and has a big appetite for fashion,” said Bob Acampora, executive vice president of Jou Jou. “She’ll grow into the market and start making decisions on her own.”

Designing private label goods is one way Los Angeles-based Nicolette Clothing can focus on its better junior line of Indian-inspired dresses and tops made with knits and jacquards with embroidery and eyelet details, priced at wholesale from $15 to $25. The company sells to Charlotte Russe, Forever 21 and Urban Outfitters, and wants to stay flexible with its clients.

“We like to offer nice tailoring and cool embellishments for Nicolette Clothing, but for private label, we can cut out some stuff and work with vendors,” said Nicole Azad, the line’s New York showroom manager. “If they want something for $10, we’ll work with them.”

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