BRIDGE MANUFACTURERS FIND THEIR FOOTING ON 'CASUAL' TIGHTROPE

Byline: Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK -- Bring on the chinos.
After several seasons of misreading the career casual movement, some of the biggest names in bridge say they've finally got a grip.
The result: Traditional bridge looks -- tailored sportswear in neutral shades -- are being marketed for fallwith fresh fashion in relaxed silhouettes, new fabrics, textures, prints and bright colors.
As a business strategy, it's keeping the regulars loyal to their favorite brands, while the hipper, easier looks are attracting a younger generation of working women who aren't quite ready for bridge's traditional looks. And the casual looks are often as much as 20 percent less expensive than the classics.
The new looks are giving fashion houses a much needed dose of optimism as they go into the crucial fall market.
"Casual career is the buzzword," said Marilyn Kawakami, president of Anne Klein II and A Line Anne Klein. "We've had that sense all year, and we've seen the transition occurring everywhere."
But it's not that easy, said manufacturers. For the bridge customer, dress down does not mean young and trendy.
"You don't just send out all these casual items that don't relate to the core," said Maura de Visscher, president of Emanuel/Emanuel Ungaro, a bridge line here. "These collections have to talk to each other."
At Ellen Tracy, design director Linda Allard said the company is addressing the casual trend in both its bridge collection and in Company, its secondary label. For the former, it's a matter of adding some appropriate silhouettes such as jeans, but making them out of a more luxurious fabric such as velvet. For Company, Allard said she's adding "pivotal pieces that can go both ways," such as tailored stretch pants or a simple blazer shape.
"The entire concept of Company is casual, but it's also for the woman who doesn't regularly get dressed up and doesn't need suits," she said. "In Company, the fabrics are more brushed and textured."
Other flexible pieces include a melange wool suit with a short skirt or a blazer sold as a separate that, "depending on how you put it together," can go career or Friday.
"We are addressing [the casual trend] in collection as well," Allard said. "We might show a velvet jean or a knit pant as a Friday option. We need to get back to the wardrobing concept of giving the customer pieces that work many ways--like a tailored jacket that can be worn with a white shirt or stretch pants for Friday."
But Allard said the concept of dress-down Fridays is ambiguous and needs to be clearly presented to consumers.
"It's hard to define what's appropriate for Fridays," she said. "For example, if you're going to have meetings, a sweater and jeans are not appropriate. So much depends on the company and each individual's schedule and position."
The vagaries of the dress-down workplace are a concern to most manufacturers.
"Casual weekday means different things to different companies in different parts of the country," said Kawakami."For some it means jeans; for others, it's the same shirt and jacket, but she's allowed to wear trousers."
Kawakami said the Anne Klein II philosophy is to become broader and address every aspect of the customer's life, "from dinner dressing and cocktail parties down to carpooling."
"A Line's base, on the other hand, is the casual weekend, so for that customer it's about taking the dressing up, to include jackets and more tailored looks," she said. "But for both lines, it has to do with being multifaceted, offering related separates that work hard. You can do that with separates more so than with suits, because when you try to split up a suit jacket and skirt, it always looks a little dorky."
For fall, said Kawakami, color will be very important, as will patterns, both printed and woven.
"That's the transition that pulls all the elements together," she said.
Colors in fall deliveries will include deep blue, beige, flame orange, black, ivory, a pink-orange the company is calling "flamingo," deep brown, camel, electric blue and white.
Fabrics, she said, are medium-weight rayons, viscoses and wools that will work in climate-controlled offices almost year-round. Versatile pieces include dresses that can be worn as jumpers over blouses or under suit jackets, shirts in various fabrics and twinsets.
The bridge manufacturer Dana Buchman has just started to ship the first deliveries of its casual line, Dana B. and Karen. That, said president Gail Cook, is part of the company's decision to embrace the business casual trend.
"Most of the time, when you go to stores, you see casual presented in this jeans, crop top, velour way that's like at-home relaxing apparel," she said. "We're approaching this as a business, so the woman looks professional. We're using silk, silk twills, linen and viscose, but with more relaxed styling so it's not just the straight suits we're known for."
Cook pointed out that casual is creeping further and further into the work week at many major corporations.
"Ford Motor Co. relaxed its dress code five days a week, but jeans are not appropriate, especially for a woman in mid- or upper-level management," she said. "But then there's a woman who has her own business and works at home, and if she has a business meeting with clients, she'd feel funny in a suit. We feel nobody's addressing this in terms of what's appropriate."
Cook said Dana Buchman will promote this aspect of the new line with a "very aggressive" marketing campaign that will include look books and seminars for retailers and sales associates, as well as seminars for the customers themselves.
"For fall, we will double our ad budget to solidify the Dana Buchman franchise and launch the new label," said Cook. She declined to reveal the budget.
Emanuel will also address the casual trend in its fall ad campaign, said de Visscher.
"We have broadened our ad campaign to show how everything works together," she said.
Emanuel's basic approach has been to take the silhouettes that work best in the career line and translate them into easier, more casual fabrics--from a viscose crepe to a washed linen or a cotton chino, for example.
"You're just taking it down a little," she said. "There's a lot of brushed and faded cottons in the line, washed silks and some waterproof outerwear. What we're saying is the relaxation comes in the choice of fabric and construction, not styling."
De Visscher also noted that because of the price and styling differential, "we're getting a new customer as well, who will get to know our service and quality."
De Visscher said she's anticipating "strong double-digit growth," which the company has had each season since it opened five years ago.
According to Elissa Bromer, president of Andrea Jovine, casual is affecting more than just Fridays. In fact, she said, all of the bridge company's offerings have become more relaxed.
"We think the days of structured dressing are over," said Bromer. "Everything is getting softer, and comfort has become crucial every day, not just for weekends. Jackets are getting softer, pants are getting more important. It's now appropriate for a woman executive to wear a dress with a matching sweater to work instead of a suit."
Mixing knits with wovens, textures, a variety of pants styles and monochrome dressing are some of the trends Bromer feels will be important for fall.
"Women want to look finished, in a very sophisticated way," she said. "That's why they come to a bridge manufacturer for a casual look."
Bromer said she is predicting a sales increase of 20 percent over last fall, propelled by the casual trend. That trend will also be served by Jovine's new activewear line, which will be launched for fall selling.
But opinions were divided as to whether the casual offerings should be in the same area as the bridge labels or sold on a different floor.
Buchman's Cook spoke for the majority when she said she felt the lines should be kept discrete, because the shopper is in a different frame of mind in different areas of the store.
"When you're going to go shopping for different kinds of clothes, it's easier if it's segmented," she said. "If I walk into a store and there's a lot of everything, it's confusing. We do have to work, though, to make sure the sales associate knows to direct women to the other area. We have to make sure the message gets across."
De Visscher, on the other hand, feels firmly the two looks should be housed together, because the whole idea is about mixing and softening the career looks.
"You're going after the same customer," she said. "Why confuse her by sending her to a different floor? When we spin off our casual line, we will look for space to house them together. We're setting everything up to capture this customer 24 hours a day."

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