NEW YORK — Lingerie executives will be exercising extreme caution at this week’s market.

While May typically is a small market for actual ordering, it is a time for retailers to reassess strategies for fall, digest the feedback of spring business and preview product for early 2004.

But tensions are high despite the consumer appetite for fashion items, with a lackluster April at retail brought on by the stagnant economy and the distraction of the war in Iraq.

Also raising fears are the number of major department and specialty stores and smaller specialty operations who passed on fall orders in March, the majority of whom are expected to review lines over the next two weeks and perhaps finalize fall buys by Mother’s Day.

Further compounding the problem for innerwear brands are the number of retailers putting the squeeze on vendors with new or expanded private label programs.

However, the attempt to thin out branded business is said to have been met with limited success, mainly because consumers have not responded to generic-looking commodity goods that do not carry the cachet of a well-established name, with the main exception being Victoria’s Secret.

Meanwhile, the pressure on margins remains intense. Many vendors are countering this by featuring more fashion and innovation in highly edited lines, as well as offering more exclusives to retail groups.

Jim Mogan, president of the Kellwood Intimate Apparel division of Kellwood Co., said: "Stores are looking at May as a critical market. Newness is critical, and to be successful everything begins and ends with product. Product is king and it’s up to us as manufacturers to drive the business and get consumers back into stores."

Mogan said Kellwood’s Biflex division will be unveiling a new pink label line of bras by Oscar de la Renta for exclusive distribution to Federated stores for fall.

As part of the newness at Kellwood’s LA Intimates unit, Susan Feldman, senior vice president of merchandising and sales, said color will be important.

"We will be creating a cohesive story in satin and knit sleepwear that will extend to loungewear with similar color palettes," Feldman said. "With all of the stress of the war and the economy, we wanted to do very clean, happy colors like kiwi, tangerine, watermelon and aqua. The idea is to create impulse purchases.""This will be a very telling market and I think it will be important for us to gauge the mood of retailers," said Victor Lee, president of NAP Inc., who noted the company is "still expecting many orders for fall and holiday."

For transition and early spring, NAP will show four lines: loungewear by Bill Blass Lifestyle, sleepwear and robes by Anne Lewin and Crabtree & Evelyn, and a new line of daywear by Docker’s.

David Komar, executive vice president of marketing at Charles Komar & Sons, said, "There’s a lot of soul searching and questioning going on right now. Retailers are redefining their strategies and their open-to-buy dollars. We are finding that we need a specific strategy for each retailer and we are doing more previewing. Stores want more exclusives and special attention, and they are decreasing the number of branded vendors."

He added that designer Eileen West "has worked with tremendous creative spirit" to produce a capsule sleepwear collection bearing her name for Valentine’s Day selling.

Peter Cooper, vice president of Lady Ester Corp., said, "Business generally hasn’t been stellar at retail and a lot of people will be waiting to see what will happen after Mother’s Day. People are dealing with a difficult time, between the war and the slumping economy. I don’t think they’ll be coming to market in a particularly jovial mood."

Cooper said embellishments and novelty fabrics will be highlighted in three lines: brushed microfiber and a "roseskin" in the Escapade cami line, jacquard lace and dotted mesh in daywear by Je T’Adore, and embroidered polyester chiffons and charmeuse in Val Mode sleepwear.

Wendy Shum, vice president of sales and merchandising at JWE Silk, said, "It’s really the department stores who will be coming back to reanalyze fall buys. I have a strong feeling we’ll be talking about margins."

Regarding the wait-and-see attitude of retailers, Rene Rofe, chief executive officer of International Intimates, said, "With this current environment, retailers are buying close to the vest. The stores that show up at the right time will get the order for the right merchandise. But the problem is some off-price retailers will wait too long and it will be difficult for them to get good merchandise."Jim Noble, senior vice president and general manager of the Jockey brand at Jockey International, said, "If you have a strong brand, stay true to shipping and offer newness and value, you can weather the storm. We are seeing so much good selling in fashion merchandise. I think during adverse times the timing is good to introduce lots of newness."

Noble said Jockey will introduce two new bra concepts and three new underwear programs for women, as well as a variety of line extensions.

"A new cotton and Lycra [spandex] pants program will feature some vested styling features that have been successful, as well as a new presentation and packaging program," Noble said. "The Jockey bra line will feature some new technical advances including moisture management."

"All of our appointments are set with attendance the same as last year," said Jeanette Cantone, senior vice president of merchandising and design at Natori Co. "As for business, there are some soft spots, but we manage to hold our own. This really is the beginning of the spring 2004 season kicking off with Valentine’s Day selling."

Cantone said the key challenge will be to "continue to focus on offering newness in all categories and having fashion-right items at key price points within the collection."

Neil Mossberg, ceo of Yalla Inc., parent of Fernando Sanchez sleepwear and at-homewear, said, "For us, it’s a follow-up market. We are finding that a lot of people are working twice as hard to do the same amount of business. But we are fortunate to see a spike with Fernando Sanchez because it’s a fashion business."

New ideas at Sanchez for late fall and early spring include luxury fabrics such as silks and cashmere, and light-weight blends of silk and cotton, he said.

Steve Kattan, president of Madison Intimates Brands, described the mood of the market as "very cautious."

"We have very small deliveries for Valentine’s Day," Kattan said. "Our market will be centered around big discussions as retailers make adjustments to fall plans and look at the balance of the spring season."

Kattan said Via Nicci, an "upscale, seductive sleepwear line with a European look," will be expanded to 400 department and specialty store doors by 2004. The line, introduced at retail in December, is currently sold in 100 department store doors and 50 specialty locations. A daywear collection will be added in August, he said.

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