NEW YORK--Despite tight floor space, retailers say they will manage to make room for designers who can put a new twist on bridge sportswear, a category that continues to outperform other areas at better specialty and department stores.
At a time when the general apparel climate has been poor, bridge has been "terrific," said Michael Gould, Bloomingdale's chairman and chief executive officer. Bloomingdale's and other chains are paying close attention to the rapidly evolving bridge market, particularly in light of the stagnant demand for the more expensive designer ready-to-wear collections.
Designer lines have already been eliminated from Rich's, while Bloomingdale's has been concentrating in the last few years on fewer but more successful collections, such as Chanel, Donna Karan, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren. At the same time, Bloomingdale'shas continued to expand its bridge business chainwide. Among the newcomers in bridge this year are Isaac by Isaac Mizrahi, Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass USA, and Look by Marc Jacobs. They could steal some of the thunder from such bridge powerhouses as Ellen Tracy, DKNY, Emanuel and Dana Buchman.
Last year at Bloomingdale's, there was double-digit growth in bridge, Gould said.
"We've seen no abatement," he added. "There are some great opportunities. Even with all the snow in January, the total business was 20 percent ahead, and there were some businesses that were 40, 60, 70 percent ahead last month. We continue to push it and expand it."
He noted that Bloomingdale's is opening a Mizrahi shop this month in a "key spot," but already carries some of the merchandise on the floor. The store is also considering the new bridge lines from Oscar de la Renta and Marc Jacobs, but Gould noted, "There is not room for all these new labels. We have to be selective, and we have to be important to certain people."
That also means cutting back on others, he said.
Bloomingdale's has at least 19 bridge labels, including four from Donna Karan, but will likely add to the count, considering that more designers are climbing aboard the bridge bandwagon. Lynne Ronon, a Saks Fifth Avenue senior vice president and general merchandise manager, said bridge had a "tremendous year" and next to cosmetics, where Saks has been very aggressive, was the chain's leading merchandise group in sales. In profit growth, it was as high as cosmetics, she said.
"When we look at a new line, we look to see that it adds something we currently don't have. Isaac is different. The line doesn't look like anything we have. It's very item-intensive," she said, noting that shantung silk items seem very strong.
Blass's line is also different from the rest of bridge, she said.
"It's an interpretation of his collection, which has been very strong. It's part of his signature."
Ronon was also optimistic about de la Renta's new bridge line.
"It's going to be fabulous, from the limited preview I saw. It is a highly designed bridge collection, inspired by his collection, with fabulous lightweight wools, a little bit of a twist with the new microfiber feeling.
"Is there room?" she asked. "Definitely. I just need to find the real estate. That always been a challenge."
At the Saks flagship, bridge is on levels four and five.
"We'll just try to have more edited assortments so we can get everyone on the floor," said Ronon.
To drive the category, Saks plans to continue developing stronger alliances with key vendors, marketing the lines through special mailings and events, and training sales associates to sell the products.
"Maybe there are too many [lines] out there, but we are not buying them," Ronon said. "But we always shop. We always look. I don't worry that there may be too many resources."
Saks is rolling out the Mizrahi line to 25 stores, or about half the chain, because it appeals to "a broad audience," Ronon said. The store launched a 1,000-square-foot fifth-floor shop for the new line last Thursday. Mizrahi was there for the launch, which was telecast to 11 Saks branches. During the hour-long event, he extolled the virtues of the line, which includes cotton sateen pink A-line dresses, priced at $260, and matching peacoats at $300. There are also black sheath dresses at $298 and reversible gingham jackets for $250. Mizrahi took calls from around the country and did three makeovers from the crowd at Saks.
"It's never too crowded when resources look good and the merchandise is salable," said Mary Hughes, vice president and general merchandise manager for fine apparel at Dayton Hudson Department Stores, Minneapolis. "We still have finite real estate in our stores. If we look at six new bridge lines, we may choose to test the lines in different stores and gauge the response. Then we'll decide how to merchandise."
Dayton Hudson, which includes Dayton's, Hudson's and Marshall Field's, is charting gains of at least 10 percent in its bridge business.
"Our success in bridge has primarily come out of the workday casual market and weekend casual categories," Hughes explained. "Bridge is a way for designers to expand their businesses, because typically designer merchandise is carried in a limited amount of doors. With bridge, the price points are lower and the line can be in more doors."
Stanley Korshak, Dallas, a women's and men's better todesignerstore,isbigonbridge, especially lines with limited distribution.
"The winners are the ones that are truly focused on their targeted clientele," said Kay Glatter, vice president of the women's division. "There's room for more quality merchandise at bridge prices, especially from designers with stature in the designer and couture arena."
Jerry Rice, president of Helen's Of Course, a three-unit Seattle-based specialty store, said the flurry of new bridge lines indicates the designer market may be saturated.
"The designer business has grown to such a huge volume that I don't know if there are enough bodies to put all those clothes on," Rice said. "There's absolutely a designer market, women who do not want to compromise. But how many people can run around in Bill Blass or Ferre?"
Rice said she will review each new secondary line to determine if it is right for the store. But she said the new secondary lines would probably take business from other secondary lines--not from the more expensive designer labels. She said her designer customers stick with designer because of cut and quality and are not likely to buy bridge to save money.
"My designer customers want the Badgley Mischka gown because it makes their heart go pitter-patter," Rice said. "It turns them on. There is nothing on the bridge rack that compares to that one dress by Badgley Mischka."
Bridge is still a growingbusiness for Atlanta-based Rich's/Lazarus/Goldsmith's, a division of Federated Department Stores.
"The issue is not if there are enough or too many resources, but whether or not there's enough newness," said Sheila Kamensky, vice president, fashion merchandising. "Each resource needs to stand for something and not have the same point of view."
Since Rich's got out of the designer business three years ago, bridge has become more important and is attracting customers accustomed to buying designer-priced goods, said Kamensky. Bridge merchandise in varying amounts is carried in three Rich's stores, four Lazarus stores and one Goldsmith's. Key resources include Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy, DKNY, Emanuel, A-Line and Tahari. Career categories have been strong, but Rich's has also seen growth in more casual looks that work for casual Fridays and weekend wear.
Kamensky said she had previewed the new Oscar line but had not yet formed an opinion. "Established names are performing," she said, "but we're open to new people too."

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