JUNIORS: FASHION COMES FIRST

Byline: Alice Welsh

NEW YORK--Junior manufacturers are reporting tough going in early fall back-to-school business, but are hopeful things will pick up for late fall and holiday.
One thing is sure--fashion-forward styles are moving much faster than basics. Price is a big issue with this group, as retailers push for lower prices while manufacturers feel consumers will pay more for novelty.
Some makers reported a renewed interest in wovens and predicted that would continue for spring.
"What doesn't work well is when retailers have a 'too narrow and too deep' mentality," said Suprina Berenyi, director of sales and marketing for Priority, a junior knitwear firm here.
"Those that are doing best are reinterpreting hot items. For spring, we are taking our best body and our hottest fabric and melding them together."
Berenyi was pleased with fall sales, especially with eight styles, including knit tops with cotton, denim or satin collars and zipper treatments. "Customers are responding to rich-looking colors and styles with an extra touch."
As for price, "The customer is willing to pay for quality, but price points in the market have dropped dramatically. To maintain margins, you have to do more volume. That's why a lot of firms are going out of business. It's hard when costs aren't going down," said Berenyi.
"Basics are not performing well, but customers are responding to fashion," said Bob Acampora, executive vice president of sales for Jou Jou. "We already have reorders on our special denim overall that comes with a telephone."
Acampora said there is a price war over basics.
"In basics, [retailers] are too focused on price. And price doesn't mean anything to the junior customer if she is not interested in the product.
"You need fresh merchandise to entice the customer. The selling floor needs to make a fashion statement."
Acampora noted wovens have been flat for two years, but he is seeing greater interest and expects the category to grow for spring. Wovens with denim trim and styling are doing well.
"Fall business is tough, and it's not what it was last year," said Darryl Johnson, president of Los Angeles-based Magazine Clothing Co. "But I am getting reorders on some items, especially my puckered woven tops in satin and plaid, and printed satin skirts."
Johnson thinks the wovens market is coming back and will continue to rise, with all the new fabrics available in the market.
"Retailers are squeezing us for ridiculous prices. I used to get a 35 to 40 percent markup; now my average is 20 to 25 percent.
"Some manufacturers are accepting business at just a 10 percent markup."
Johnson said off-price firms and companies going out of business were affecting the "normal price points business."
Nadine Schefren, national sales manager of New York's Antique Boutique, said she is getting good reaction to vintage ski jackets and outerwear and is expecting a strong fall. "The junior market is constantly changing, so I really don't know what to expect for spring. It's very difficult to predict."
Los Angeles-based Jalate reported a strong response to fall with sell-throughs of 25 to 40 percent a week on knitwear, especially knits with zippers, varied stripes and stretch satin.
"All our business is in fashion. That's what's moving. Last year we did a lot of basic scoop-neck T-shirts, but novelty is what is reordering," said Ted Cooper, a founder and chief operating officer.
"I think the customer responds to price within reason. There are a few extra dollars for the right item."
Cooper said he was maintaining last year's margins with wholesale prices up about $1 per style.
"I think retailers are more demanding and the junior business is harder than ever before, but we are experiencing great interest in our knitwear," he said.

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