NEW YORK — In an industry that thrives on people who are disciplined about exercise, activewear makers have decided it’s time to lighten up.From featherweight, multifunctional products to ads free from chiseled physiques, companies such as Nike, Danskin and Salomon are focusing on a more relaxed image that appeals to a wider range of women. Well aware that substantial growth is not expected for the $16.2 billion women’s activewear business, big brands are trying to gain more market share with versatile pieces to be worn around town.Kim Speed, senior product category manager for Salomon, said, "Versatility is what we’re pushing. It’s the trend and it’s what people are asking for. It’s for the urban nomad to wear on the street or for snowboarding one day and skiing the next."Nike’s three-tiered plan to rev up women’s apparel sales involves plugging technical activewear, pitching a more personal marketing message and improving customer service via online initiatives, said Jackie Thomas, director of women’s brand marketing. For the first quarter ended Aug. 31, U.S. apparel sales increased 6 percent to $329 million. Women’s apparel accounts for about 20 percent of that figure.Sphere, performance-oriented apparel made of three-dimensional fabrics that was launched in stores this summer, will be the focus for apparel. To tell that story and others, the company is also teaming up with directional health clubs in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Miami.Visitors to the Nike Goddess Web site are being directed to a new toll-free phone number set up to help shoppers. There are now "answer girls" or customer service specialists who advise callers about their individual questions about products, fit and stores from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. PST."It’s for people who need recommendations for the best products for them," Thomas said. "We really get an opportunity to interact with the person on the other end of the phone in a meaningful way."In addition, the site is being updated to offer more information about cause-related marketing and volunteer work. The first Nike Goddess store opens today in Chicago.Performance apparel is also a priority for Reebok, which will be playing up its "Vector" division, technical items imprinted with the brand’s vector logo. For spring, designers have come up with modified versions of the apparel it provides for the National Basketball Association and National Football League for consumers. Wicking technology and compression-type garments are some of the things that have been gleaned from products for the pros. Reebok chairman and chief executive officer Paul Fireman said sports licensing product and Reebok-branded apparel helped boost U.S. apparel business by 30 percent for the third quarter ended September 30.This spring the company launches Premier running apparel and footwear. The brand "is getting grounded in terms of who we are and that’s a performance athletic company," said Jan Sharkansky, vice president and general manager of the women’s business.Reebok is giving its walking apparel more of a performance slant and linking it up to the brand’s running apparel by using the same colors, materials and logo. The collection should appeal to women who are walking for fitness and to former runners who have turned to walking, Sharkansky said.Under its Rbk label, Reebok has introduced women’s apparel modeled after the successful Allen Iverson signature collection. In March, knockoffs of the NBA star’s jersey will be offered in a dress and skirt. On another front, Reebok is designing dresses and tops inspired by its NBA and NFL team jerseys.Salomon is serving up practical pieces like Gore-Tex shells or PrimaLoft jackets for travelers who might not spend all their time on the slopes. Speed noted that to some degree the emphasis on technical pieces needed for certain weather conditions was "overkill" for the average consumer. Given that, Salomon is now sourcing proprietary fabrics through Asia that have technical properties for one-third of the cost, Speed said.The brand’s "Smart Skin" pieces now have stretch panels on the knees, shoulders and buttocks — areas where people tend to lose body heat. Instead of using graphics to identify special pockets, such as one for a Walkman, as other ski and snowboard brands do, Salomon has developed a braille-like system on zipper pulls and cuff tabs that identify special pockets."The whole basis of our stealth design is that things are not there unless they need to be," Speed said.The brand is making inroads with nonathletic stores like Barneys New York, which picked up the line this fall. To build that nontraditional base, Salomon is developing a 12-piece heritage collection for fall. Sweaters, tops and bags retailing for $20 to $25 will be sold to select stores."We’re a little late in picking up retro as they have in the real world," Speed said. "But for winter sports, no one has done it."Adidas’ director of apparel marketing Caroline Kahn said, "Our vision of the consumer’s needs is clearer than it was last spring. We have really focused on the details, the use of color and how she likes to wear her product once the purchase has been made. It is easy for a line to become contrived sitting in a design review or showroom."With the economic downturn, it seems that consumers are more price conscious when buying basics, but alternately have not been reluctant to spend on branded novelty. I think the trend towards individualism has effected this as well. We have seen great increases in our novelty areas of business."For the first half ended June 30, Adidas apparel sales shot up 10 percent to $1.07 billion from $970 million a year ago.At Fila, retro styles are an important part of the spring business, said Diane Shiviskis-McCaffrey, director of apparel. Settante, a Seventies-inspired group of jackets, pants, shorts and tops in terry cloth or velour, is a top seller and has helped increase sales of more expensive products such as a $120 warm-up suit or a $52 long-sleeve cotton jersey. To improve its quality, Fila is sourcing more higher-priced items from Italy instead of the Far East. Women’s apparel sales account for 30 percent of Fila’s apparel sales. In the first three quarters of this year, Fila has generated $405 million in worldwide apparel sales.This spring, the brand will launch a print advertising campaign featuring tennis pros Jennifer Capriati and Kim Clijsters in more lifestyle-oriented campaigns, Shiviskis-McCaffrey said."They have crossover appeal and they’re obviously in good shape," she said.Danskin is also looking to broaden its accounts with more lifestyle yoga pieces. More department stores are embracing the health and wellness lifestyle and sporting goods stores are more open to buying "softer, easy" pieces, said Carol Hochman, president and chief executive officer.Danskin’s O2 performance fabrics, coverups and basics are also expected to be important for spring. The company is sold out of spring merchandise and sales are 16 percent ahead of last year, Hochman said."We have a much broader customer base, based on the fact fashion trends are running with the activewear business," she said. "Activewear has become streetwear and that increases the number of people who are buying performance fabrics."Everlast Worldwide is going after teenage customers with body-hugging styles like baby Ts with special appliqués and is trying to build its base of baby boomers with activewear that offers ample coverage, said George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer. This year women’s apparel sales are expected to hit $28 million, compared to $22 million last year, he said. The company is also going after the yoga market by offering more yoga-friendly pieces for spring.
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