NEW YORK--The upscaling of the better-price sportswear market is gaining momentum. Eager to woo fashion-forward customers that have been lost to specialty stores such as Banana Republic and The Gap, some department stores are aggressively creating a new layer of fashion to add to their offerings. As reported in January, they are calling it "much better" or "young bridge." Since then, Bloomingdale's, Strawbridge & Clothier, and Dayton Hudson Department Stores have been among the department stores getting into that picture. Better-price sportswear firms, including August Silk, Sigrid Olsen and Karen Kane, are staking out their claim to this zone by updating their fashions and upgrading their fabrics to include sponge crepe and silk wool tricotene, while new lines, such as Tao and Hillary Charles, have popped up to tap into this niche. The category, which is gaining momentum for fall selling, aims to fill the void between the better market, dominated by traditional resources like Liz Claiborne and Jones New York, and the bridge zone, dominated by such players as DKNY, CK Calvin Klein and Ellen Tracy. The designs in this new zone offer bridge styling at price points that are 20 percent above better and 25 percent below bridge. Jackets, for example, retail no higher than $300. "With European couture largely gone, department stores are redefining what is left," said R. Fulton Macdonald, an apparel industry consultant. "Department stores are trying to reenergize their fashion mix by adding new layers, slicing it up--this is all micro-niche marketing, and it's a Nineties trend." "Department stores are addressing a certain kind of customer that has never been addressed before," said Beth Silverstein, merchandise manager of better, contemporary, bridge and designer sportswear at The Doneger Group, one of the watchdogs of the trend. "This consumer is the cross between Generation X and the aging baby boomer. She had to do a lot of cross shopping to meet her needs, but now department stores are more clearly defining the merchandise that appeals to her." To create this zone, department stores, each of which has its own take on the issue, are fusing various resources into one area, Silverstein said. They range from low-end bridge resources such as Gruppo Americano and Kenar and contemporary labels like David Dart, Mevisto and Eileen Fisher, to better resources like Francess & Rita and Beau Jeste. "We are adding on another layer to get another layer of customers," said Joan Kaner, fashion director at Neiman Marcus, which a year and a half ago began intensifying offerings priced at the opening end of bridge. Jackets, for example, retail for no more than $280. This new area aims at women between the ages of 30 and 45 whose household income is between $75,000 and $100,000, she said. "That customer had previously been intimidated by shopping at Neiman Marcus," said Kaner. As part of its strategy, Neiman Marcus created career and casual shops aimed at this new customer, stocking up on such labels as Democracy and Ballinger Gold. Starting this month, it is launching a private label career line called Roberto Viani, which will be housed in these areas, according to Butch Mullins, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of intimate apparel and hosiery and the opening price of bridge. Neiman Marcus is not alone. The following stores are also staking out this territory: Starting a few weeks ago, Strawbridge & Clothier added a new department in six of its 13 stores. Resources, which offer casual and career fashions, include Definitive Clothing, Hillary Charles, 17 North, Mevisto, Kenar, and Quatro. As part of its new marketing strategy, Strawbridge & Clothier is launching an eight-page color spread in Philadelphia magazine, its first ad with this publication, according to Carla Busico, a buyer for better sportswear. The ad, which will run in September, features eight resources, from Kenar to Anne Klein, photographed in restaurants in Philadelphia. Over the past year, Bloomingdale's has been making a big push into this much-better category with the expansion of its Sutton Sportswear shop, which had previously been limited to such traditional names as Jones New York and Liz Claiborne. Bloomingdale's is now enlarging that area with updated lines such as Tao, Isadora, Patricia Jones and Due Per Due, while keeping the other traditional names as core resources. "There is a real growth opportunity for Bloomingdale's in this area because it differentiates us from our competition," said Diane Holtze, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for Sutton Sportswear and Studio B., its better-price casual sportswear department. "There is definitely a void between bridge and better." Dayton Hudson, whose own take on affordable hip fashions was stocking up on such resources as Carole Little, is now making a big push to create an expanded breadth of resources that fills the void between better and bridge. Starting this fall, the retailer is creating new departments in 24 of its 60 stores, carrying such labels as BCBG, Bisou, French Connection, Isabel Ardee and Max Studio, according to Maureen Hathaway, senior buyer for women's advanced sportswear. The retailer is also launching its own private label program called 111 State. Private label jackets retail up to $300. "We are trying to give the store more of a Banana Republic feeling--something that is hip but that bridges bridge and better," said Hathaway. She and other industry sources believe that Banana Republic, in part, created the impetus for the department stores' new merchandising strategy. Over the past year or so, Banana Republic has dramatically upscaled its fashion offerings, scrapping its safari look in favor of dressy casual designs like shiny silk T-shirts and cotton polo bias-cut dresses.The retailer's new flagship here, on Fifth Avenue at 52 Street, reflects its upscale approach, with gilded mirrors, commissioned murals and antiques. In general, though, industry observers tend to agree that the move toward this new zone is part of an overall trend on Seventh Avenue--the compression of the fashion pyramid. Designers are trading down, while moderate and better resources are trading up. Adrienne Vittadini, for example, is launching a better line called AV Options, to be in stores for spring. (See related story on page 12.) "When business is bad, everybody is looking to fill in the niches, the gaps," said Edward M. Jones 3rd, president and chief operating officer of Segrets, the parent company of Sigrid Olsen. "That's how bridge got started in the late Eighties." Sigrid Olsen is tapping into this new trend with the launch of Collection, which is more updated than its Sport offering. The new line, which offered velvet dresses and cropped velvet vests for holiday, was tested this past spring and will be in full swing for spring 1996. Collection carries an average wholesale price of $39, compared to Sport, which wholesales for $33. By yearend, Collection is expected to account for 50 percent of overall company sales, which will total $30 million, according to industry sources. Karen Kane, which used to be about "matchy matchy" dressing, launched for holiday 1993 a new line called Lifestyle, aimed at this much-better zone, according to Lisa McCarthy, vice president of sales. Avoiding the rayon blends it uses for its signature label, Lifestyle offers fabrics from Italy and Japan, like Italian cotton plaids.For holiday, the line includes black pantsuits in rayon crepe with rhinestone buttons; twinsets in merino wool; cropped vests in lamb leather or patent leather; boiled wool cardigans, and antique lace T-shirts. The line now accounts for 40 percent of sales, which totaled $80 million last year, according to McCarthy. Eager to tap into this new opportunity, August Silk, which began offering bridge style merchandise six months ago, is launching a separate line under the label August Silk Collections, beginning with spring 1996. The line features piquAs, textured herringbones and silk and linen blends. The jackets retail from $149 to $169; the August Silk line retails from $99 to $139, according to Ellen Dawson, design director. Kazu Apparel Group, a sportswear firm based here, temporarily shelved its Kazu label, a casual-related silk separates line, last year to develop Tao, which is aimed at this much-better/young-bridge zone. When Tao was first launched for spring 1994, it easily found a home in specialty stores, but the company had trouble convincing department stores to carry the line. "Initially, when we first launched, department stores told us that we fit into an area that had not yet been created," said Karen Rudich, account executive at Kazu. "They were confused as to where to merchandise the line. Now, it is a different story." The line, which posted wholesale volume of $3 million last year, is expected to generate $5 million this year based on new accounts from department stores. For September, Tao will be housed in Dayton Hudson's Minneapolis store, while Bloomingdale's is carrying the line in its Sutton Sportswear area in such locations as New York, Short Hills, N.J., and Chicago. Many of Tao's fabrics are from the bridge market, including sponge crepe, wool crepe and wool cashmere, Rudich said. Items that booked well for fall include tab trousers with a military vest in silk wool tricotene, and a double-breasted jacket in sponge crepe. Hillary Charles, which first hit stores in November 1994, is another entry to the zone. It first set out as a pants resource, but is fast expanding its offerings. The line, which now offers shiny charmeuse blouses, tie-back vests with men's wear print backing and bubble-texture blouses, was snapped up by Dayton Hudson and Strawbridge & Clothier for fall selling. Already, several sportswear firms that had trouble finding a home in department stores due to their undefined look, are now enjoying an increase in sales because of new merchandising strategies by retailers. Mevisto, a sportswear firm known for its novelty jackets, is already reporting an increase in its sell-through at Strawbridge & Clothier, which moved the line to the new zone about two weeks ago, according to Jeffrey Schwager, sales director. "We were going back and forth from contemporary to better at department stores," said Schwager. "There are a lot of us around that couldn't find a home because there wasn't a true structure for us," he said. "Today, it is not a question of who you are. It is a question of three areas of business that are sort of merging."
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