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ADDING FASHION TO FUNCTION

NEW YORK -- If the experts are on target, the activewear market is in store for some rejuvenation for fall 2003.<P>The outlook includes livelier colors, an infusion of prints and more versatile items, according to six executives who keep a close eye...

NEW YORK — If the experts are on target, the activewear market is in store for some rejuvenation for fall 2003.

The outlook includes livelier colors, an infusion of prints and more versatile items, according to six executives who keep a close eye on the market that has become less about specific sports and more about personal style.

Roseann Ford, DuPont’s fashion marketing director for ready-to-wear, said: “People are mainly interested in comfort and easy care. The trend really started with Yohji Yamamoto. Now we’re seeing more and more designers go that route.”

Jane Rinzler Buckingham, president of Youth Intelligence, a New York-based trend forecaster, expects terry cloth matching outfits — something that Juicy Couture fans are already wearing — to go more mainstream next fall. Surf-inspired styles such as floral prints, a baggy fit and capris with drawstring waistbands should be popular.

She also expects the bridging of athletics and electronics to become more widespread. Nike, for example, has teamed with Phillips to develop a line of dualistic items like a sports bra with a sewn-in heart monitor and jackets with an mp3 player. Footwear should also take on double duty, along the lines of New Balance’s recovery shoes for postworkout and Nuala’s slip-on shoes with magnetic inserts for holistic benefits.

Buckingham said she and her staff are already looking for what’s next after yoga, and what they have come up with is more aggressive yoga, as well as Pilates and gyrotonics (stretching and strengthening exercises with machines). Soccer, martial arts and deep carving are expected to gain ground. The latter is an alternative form of skateboarding done on skateboards with rows of wheels set on curved steel axles for more snowboard-inspired carving.

Britt Bivens, account manager for Promostyl, another trend firm, noted how changes in athletic pursuits are trickling down to apparel trends.

“We’re seeing nicer sports coming back like polo, rowing and group activities,” Bivens said. “The idea used to be we were out to kill ourselves and we’re going back to enjoying ourselves. The clothes don’t have to look that active.”

What that means for fall 2003 is manufacturers are moving away from logos and extra details in favor of sleek, chic styles that accentuate silhouettes. It’s “more old-style, grand-prix racing like James Bond in his Aston Martin than Formula One with lots of logos,” Bivens said.

Technical fabrics should continue to be important with “industrial-inspired ones with almost a mechanical feel,” like vinyl and rubberized finishes gaining popularity. Bivens also sees fleece, furs and heavy knits showing up more on the scene.

On the color front, Promostyl’s forecast is loaded with brights and colored neutrals. There is also plenty of green, including Granny Smith apple green, sage, forest, and grayish green.

Margaret Walch, director of the Color Association of the U.S., said activewear makers are doing a better job of shopping the world for new colors and “it really is paying off.” When a Nike designer called last week to ask Walch for travel tips, she suggested London for quirky, colorful things, Barcelona for wider shades and India for more exotic tones. In New York, color sourcing can be done here in such neighborhoods as the Lower East Side, NoLIta and NoHo.

A major change for fall will be active companies’ use of richer colors with deep pigment dyes like cinnamon, blue spruce and browns, Walch said. Even though they are not exactly newcomers to the sportswear market, these shades have not been widely used in activewear. The trend stems from shoppers wanting to mix their activewear with their work and weekend wardrobes, Walch said.

“The browns can be attributed to the popularity of hiking, which everyone can do and do together,” she said. “The blues and greens show the more outdoorsy and less field sports approach to activewear.”

Metallics and coated colors are also expected to be more prevalent. Another major change on the forefront is an interest in prints, wovens and patterns. The challenge is to find ones that are cross-seasonal and from other cultures, Walch said. Consumers often know what they want and will hold off from buying if they don’t find what they have in mind, she added.

“Manufacturers need to look for more unusual designs since consumers already have solids in their wardrobes,” Walch said. “My only piece of advice is, `Be very distinctive and go with shorter runs to give consumers more individualistic styles.’ “

Ford of DuPont noted that new technology is often used by activewear makers first and adopted by ready-to-wear makers later. Now that consumers understand CoolMax keeps them cool, and Thermalite keeps them warm without bulkiness, DuPont expects its “easy set Lycra” to be a hit with activewear makers. The product is supposed to retain color and protect fabric better than regular Lycra. Relaxed stretch, another DuPont development, is well-suited for golf and tennis apparel since it allows movement without a tight fit, Ford said.

There are also shifts underfoot on the retail front.

Within the next 12 months, discounters like Target, Wal-Mart and Kmart stand to generate 50 percent of activewear sales, compared with 33 percent in 2001, said Art Sparr, chief executive officer of STS Market Research. More department store shoppers are checking out discounters in an effort to save time and money, he added.

“It’s due partially to the economic pressure many Americans are subjected to. Consumer confidence levels are lower and unemployment is higher,” Sparr said.

In addition to offering one-stop shopping, discounters are often located in strip malls, which tend to be easier to access than traditional shopping malls. They’re also doing a better job of marketing, and the idea of finding fashion in the discount channel is “catching on,” Sparr said.