By  on September 12, 2007

When Andrew Rosen said last year he was entering the bridge market with a new line called Premise, the industry raised a collective eyebrow: Why was Rosen entering a market everyone else was fleeing?

But Rosen, whose Theory line was a trailblazer in the contemporary market, may once again be on to something: The bridge category's heartbeat could be starting to beat strongly once again. Just don't call it bridge.

"What we do as designers and manufacturers is create something that stimulates the customers," said Rosen, Theory's co-founder and president. "The good ones of us identify voids, which are created when the world changes, and capitalize on them. The reason Theory was created was I recognized that women in the workplace changed — what they were wearing was different, and they had money. We felt there was a void in the bridge market, and [with Premise] we're giving the woman who shops in the bridge department a modern perspective."

There's no question — even from the reluctantly self-described classic bridge lines like Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman — that the old concept of "classic bridge" is dead, thanks to several changes since the segment's peak in the late Nineties and early 2000s, when the market was worth more than $1 billion a year. They are:

- The casualization of the workforce, including the lack of necessity for the suit and jacket on which the bridge department was built.

- The shifting focus from coordinates to items. 

- Customers abandoning head-to-toe brand loyalty and shopping across channels.

- The classic bridge brands getting too big and trading risk for known winners.

- The rise of contemporary and the demand for contemporary-spirited product.

- Women's insistence on looking younger and more modern, even as they age.

- The transition of the Generation X customer out of contemporary, as her body and career grow up.

"In the Nineties, the action was all in the bridge department. In the 2000s, it's all been contemporary — but the pendulum is going to swing back," predicted Rosen, who hopes to triple Premise's volume from the first to second year, although he declined to quantify sales. "Bridge fell off because there was not a lot of excitement in bridge. Those traditional businesses were so big, people were afraid to mess with them, and they had been around so long they started anniversary-ing what they were doing, so they got stale. But now there are all these new resources, and there's a changing of the guard in bridge."The result includes Modern floors at Saks Fifth Avenue and the New View at Bloomingdale's (where "bridge" is not only an anachronism, but also a "bad name," according to Stephanie Solomon, vice president for fashion direction for Bloomingdale's).

"When we launched New View a couple years ago, we had a powerful contemporary business, and were asking, 'When that customer grows up, what is her next step?'" said Solomon. "We felt we needed to give her offerings that would catapult her into her next love. The market is growing up with this customer."

Bridge floors, once monopolized by Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman, Anne Klein and Eileen Fisher, have redistributed the space to Tory Burch, Elie Tahari, Premise, Pink Tartan, Lafayette 148, M Missoni, Magaschoni, DKNY and Hugo Boss. They share the bridge price point, but have slimmer (though not contemporary) fits and more stylized, fashion-forward looks than their predecessors. Together, they are carving a new niche, which they argue needs a better descriptor than the old term, "bridge."

"If you think of those collections, the personality of the brand is driving the choice for the consumer," said Roseanne Morrison, fashion director for The Doneger Group, the fashion merchandising consulting firm.

These brands, most of which have launched (or relaunched, in the case of Tahari, which is now Saks Fifth Avenue's number-one vendor) since 2000, have been experiencing growth of around 50 percent annually, as the bridge floor begins courting a new client.

"Contemporary has peaked, and retailers are always looking for what business they can grow and maximize," Morrison added. "The opportunity in bridge is with the younger customer who is 30 who can't just wear contemporary anymore. This woman has a lot of money."

But she doesn't want to look frumpy or dowdy, two words often synonymous with bridge. "There was a time when women moved through the phases in their lives and accepted looking a certain way," said Elizabeth Calderone, president of Premise. "But there's been a trend for a long time with all of the cosmetic surgery, which indicates women don't want to look their age. They still want to look modern."The success of Tory Burch — and of the new bridge brigade in general — is that it appeals equally to women in Texas and London and to 18-year-olds and 80-year-olds, according to Tory Burch president Brigitte Kleine.

"A truly bridge floor three years back looked flat, with no print, color, sophistication or styling," said Kleine, adding that brands like Tory Burch and M Missoni then entered the market. "We don't look at it as competition — we are all creating a new segment together, as we all saw the same void in the market. We are not really bridge. We don't have a true name for ourselves, because we aren't trying to fit into any particular mold."

Followers of this new market certainly are not only the familiar bridge-floor patrons. "We have designer customers, and we also have aspirational customers," founder Tory Burch said. "Women want to mix price points today. Designer customers mix us with designer pieces, or we will be the investment pieces in a wardrobe filled with H&M and Zara."

Tory Burch hangs at times with contemporary brands (such as on the fifth floor at Bergdorf Goodman), sometimes with bridge (such as at Bloomingdale's) and sometimes with designer brands (in some specialty stores) — and, "there isn't a clear-cut difference in our performance with where we hang," said Kleine.

But, in at least one case, being with bridge brands helped business. Saks originally carried Tory Burch in its contemporary department on Burch's request not to be with bridge brands, but she said Ron Frasch, the retailer's president and chief merchandising officer, convinced her to move to the New View two years ago and "he was right," she said. "When we moved, we started doing better there."

M Missoni, which, like Burch, has a distinct aesthetic, has grown at least 30 percent a year since its inception six years ago, said Graziano de Boni, president and chief executive officer of Valentino USA, which holds the license for M Missoni. De Boni added that the line was up 61 percent last year, after 50 percent gains the year before. The brand, of undisclosed volume, is carried in about 250 doors, and sells equally well when surrounded by bridge, contemporary or designer brands."Bridge is an industry way of classifying things, but consumers don't care what it's called or what floor it's on," de Boni said. "When we launched in 2001, it was in the middle of the dark days of the bridge market, when everyone was trying to figure out how to get out of that business. I saw an opportunity to create a more designed and feminine product to get into that market — that was what was missing from bridge. We were the first European brand to enter the bridge market, which was dominated by American designers."

Elie Tahari is another example of blurring the lines between bridge and contemporary. Tahari declines to define his brand using the typical industry terms, and his fit is also unique, as he chooses not to use fit models. "We are carving this niche slowly — it's not something that really exists," Tahari said. He predicts bridge will become "a more expensive contemporary department that would house some of the young designers that would like to do a more expensive product, some designer product and some contemporary resources moving up in price, quality and fashion."

But, as much as designers such as Tahari turn their noses up to the bridge name, they don't say no to the larger spaces they can gain as the classic bridge lines lose real estate. In Saks, Tahari sits next to bridge, like in the 5,000-square-foot shop-in-shop that just opened in Los Angeles. In Bloomingdale's, Tahari sits between Armani Collezione and Burberry on the New View floor. At Bergdorf's, the brand has about 1,000 square feet on the contemporary floor, where it sells more than $6 million annually, according to founder Elie Tahari. But the collection's best performance is in Europe, where it is sold with designers such as Prada and Jil Sander, according to Tahari.

"Today our competition is more designer than anyone who is sitting next to us on a bridge floor," Tahari continued. "With companies like Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman, our size 12 would be their size 2. It's a different consumer, so I don't feel they are our competition at all. Even if they don't continue, we wouldn't benefit from those customers. I think it's a big mistake to put us next to some of those bridge resources."But as companies like Tahari, Tory Burch and Premise carve out the neo-bridge world, there are question marks over the futures of classic lines in the category, such as Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman. Over the last few years, executives at their parent company, Liz Claiborne Inc., have admitted both brands have had trouble walking the line between cultivating new customers — or even holding onto the woman who has become more modern — while not alienating their core ones. After their real estate shrunk from their peak and sales of Claiborne's classical lines hurt the firm's bottom lines, the group put the two subsidiaries on the auction block this summer, along with 14 other brands.

"In the late Nineties and early 2000s, it was a totally different landscape with only three players that almost had a monopoly," said George Sharp, who has been creative director of Ellen Tracy for two years. "The bridge department got very formulaic, and it all became a little too rearview mirror. Competition and change are healthy, and have helped us have more fashion-oriented product. Our biggest competitor is her own closet."

Dana Buchman attributes much of the problems bridge has faced with the way the retailers bought the lines. "We are sometimes bought too classically," Buchman insisted. "Sometimes the bridge floors are styled like a morgue, but it's getting a little better. For a while, contemporary was the pretty new face, and all the investment went there, but now everyone is recognizing this need is in bridge."

Unfortunately for the traditional lines that built the bridge department, the change may be undercutting them. Buchman and Tracy already have lost substantial space, and the uncertainty of their ownership could reduce their real estate further, sources speculate. If a retail company acquires either line to make it an exclusive, the collection won't be in other stores after it's taken in-house. Or, if a line is going to be taken downstream, it will be almost impossible to still sell at a higher price point in its final season, so buyers might be trying to buy smaller quantities to hedge their bets. And, regardless of who the new owner is, it's more than likely it won't have Claiborne's deep pockets to write checks for markdown money.But Buchman is optimistic about the future, pointing out that there is still a huge market looking for her type of product: the Baby Boomer client she has been dressing from the beginning. "The Boomers are a very powerful group," the designer said. "In the fashion industry, it's not always fashionable to talk about the Boomers, but the women who run the country are generally the Boomers. They want to dress younger now than they did in the beginning, and there is a huge opportunity to provide faster fashion in more luxurious manifestations made to fit them."

Buchman said that when more revealing looks, such as low-cut tops, tight pants and short skirts, were in fashion, the bridge market was challenged to adapt it for its customer. "It was hard to come up with a successful version of that trend, and a lot of women quit buying," she said. "But the new trends will be good for us, because there is more interest in volume."

And there are other brands that reinforce Buchman's optimism. Eileen Fisher is the rare brand that was strong during the bridge boom and still hasn't faltered. Even through the slump of the last few years, the brand has grown about 15 percent in the past couple of years, and today is at about $250 million — the volume of bridge brands such as Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman during the market's peak.

"We don't like standing by ourselves, and we enjoy knowing we are again in an area that is exciting," said Eileen Fisher's vice president of sales, Mariclare Van Bergen, who was at Dana Buchman for three years during its peak before coming to Eileen Fisher in 2000. "Competition brings new customers to the floor, and I hope new resources keep sprouting up."

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