SPORTSWEAR VENDORS SPICING SEASON WITH A SPLASH OF COLOR

Byline: Janet Ozzard, Alice Welsh and Anne D'Innocenzio

NEW YORK--Whether they're showing holiday, resort or early spring this week, sportswear makers are talking about color.
While it won't be an endless rainbow, there'll be more color--brights and pastels--than there has been in the past few seasons, when neutrals ruled the scene. With this expanded palette in tow, many vendors say they are expecting at least a slight gain in bookings. Also helping will be the continued appeal of soft dressing and items, such as vests.
Here's what retailers should find as they shop key markets.
BRIDGE
Bridge lines, for the most part, are wrapping up their resort bookings and moving into spring. Soft dressing, using fluid fabrics such as viscose crepe and silk, continues to be strong in both seasons. All agreed that color--whether neon, as at DKNY, or pastels at other firms--is making a splash. But no one is abandoning the neutral and black groups, which still form the foundation of collections.
Pastels are key for Ralph Lauren's Ralph line, according to Stuart Kreisler, consultant for the designer's women's apparel.
"You know how you went into the store a few months ago and it was a sea of beige?" he said. "That's going to change. The direction now is color, and in flowy, fluid, feminine looks. It's not hard-edged or man-tailored."
Hemlines, Kreisler said, "are all over the place. There are many different legs out there. But there's still a lot of interest for short."
Business is definitely up over last year, although he declined to say by how much.
Denise Seegal, president of DKNY, said her company closed its holiday bookings in June, and is currently showing spring. Fabric trends range from washed linen to neoprene rubber.
"Color was very important for us," she said, noting that various styles of dresses in fuchsia, orange, lime or yellow neoprene rubber were selling well. But she added, "Black is always how you begin, and then you decide what to put over it." For spring, she said, dresses continue to be important, in slip, apron and Empire silhouettes, as well as fabric combinations of satin with velvet or with crepe.
In the jeans division of DKNY, Seegal said, "overalls continue to be important in all fabrics," as do T-shirts, indigo dresses and leather outerwear.
At Emanuel by Emanuel Ungaro, president Maura de Visscher said, "The vest continues to be very important for us," including a short embroidered number and a fringed scarf with buttons that imitates a vest.
Other trends include tie-front pants and sarong skirts in printed silks, which "can work back into daytime wear, but can also be used as resort," said de Visscher.
For November delivery, neutrals such as ivory and beige are key, but there is some color in the form of deep browns. Fabrics include more soft viscoses and silks as well as a tone-on-tone seersucker.
Spring will be on view at Accento by Marzotto, where Michele Mascarenhas, vice president of sales and marketing, pointed out: "We're doing a lot of sorbet colors such as orange, lemon, green and peach, in a very soft lamb suede. We're using viscose, and there's a lot more texture, such as jacquard fabrics."
Mascarenhas said hemline interest is "definitely short."
CONTEMPORARY AND JUNIOR
Contemporary and junior showrooms are cautiously optimistic about market week, and say they are expecting normal to heavy traffic. Most companies are showing holiday, because buyers of these trend-driven categories want to wait until closer to season before placing resort or spring orders.
Kenar Sportswear, a division of Kenar Enterprises, will be showing both holiday and resort.
"A lot of retailers are waiting to place holiday until now so they could see how business was," said Howard Epstein, president of the line.
Kenar's most important fabric for holiday is an acid-washed rayon and silk velvet blend. For resort, there will be a silk and linen blend crepe weave. Skirt lengths are generally 17 or 21 inches, but Kenar is offering one style in the new mid-knee length, said Epstein, who estimated a 10 to 15 percent gain over last year's bookings.
Resort and early spring deliveries are being shown at Eileen Fisher, a contemporary sportswear company here.
"We will be doing a lot of silk for resort and spring," said Anne Kasper, executive vice president of Eileen Fisher. "We'll use a palette of both warm and cool colors. The silk group is at higher price points, but it's almost been demanded by our better specialty stores."
The silk group will wholesale 35 to 40 percent higher than Fisher's other groups.
At Against Gravitee, a contemporary sportswear resource here, fall is still available in the showroom, in addition to holiday and resort-early spring.
"We can turn orders really fast, so some of our buyers are waiting until now to write Aug. 30 and Sept. 30 deliveries," said Susan Rowe, sales manager.
Projected holiday bestsellers include long bias-cut skirts and suspender pants in rayon satin. For spring, Against Gravitee will show a group in a melange yarn, a satin acetate shiny group and a kitchen-motif print group in rayon and cotton blend khaki, tomato, black and tan.
BeBop, a Los Angeles-based junior denim company, is focusing on holiday, showing denim mixed with velveteen, sherpa jackets and vests and novelty jeans.
"People aren't ready for spring," said Jennifer Schwager, BeBop's New York sales representative. "We are a novelty company, so buyers try to wait until close to the season to make their selections."
California Gold Rush, a junior dress line based here, is showing holiday and early spring.
"A key fabric for us is an acrylic interlock that we developed overseas," said Pat Slochower, vice president and general director. She said that business overall has been healthy and will probably continue into holiday and spring.
XOXO, a Los Angeles junior sportswear company, is expecting a strong holiday and spring, but president Greg Fienne feels buyers are definitely cautious. "The word 'holiday' is basically gone in our market," he said. "It scares buyers, because they think it's such a short selling season."
BETTER AND MODERATE
Moderate- and better-priced sportswear companies are banking on textured fabrics in bright solid colors and soft dressing to boost sales of the resort and early spring seasons, with some companies projecting sales gains of 10 to 15 percent.
However, vendors said they continue to be plagued by consumer skittishness and price pressures from retailers.
"We are trying to give the consumer newness in fabrics and silhouettes as well as value at the same time," said Ellen Daniel, merchandise director of the SK & Co.'s Jessica Tierney line, a division of Bonaventure Textiles USA. "This is definitely a challenge." Important fabrics include washed linens and cottons, Daniels said. For resort, key items include open-weave textured sweaters over relaxed washed silk pants or mercerized cotton knit pants, and for spring, easy A-line and pleated skirts.
At Liz Claiborne, price is also an issue. "We are maintaining prices on basics, and in some cases lowering prices on items," said Linda Larsen German, president of the sportswear division.
German also noted that resort-early spring is "a great season to introduce newness in fabrics, because customers are looking for new clothes at the end of the year."
Significant looks include embellished vests and sweaters, using chenille, bouclÄ and Lurex. She added that pants, instead of skirts, will be important.
"For the early spring market, it is clear that business will be driven by weekend wear and casualwear," noted Barry Cohen, executive vice president of Ellen Figg Inc., a moderate-price casual and career sportswear firm. "Softer silhouettes, like tunic tops and sleeveless tops, will be strong. Texture will also be strong."
While banking heavily on casual looks, he is not downplaying career wear. "We still feel that strong classic career suiting is not going away," he said, adding that suiting has become more textured.
Other industry executives agree. "The key word is balance for spring, in terms of soft dressing as compared to structured dressing," said Norty Sperling, president of Norton McNaughton Inc., adding that 60 percent of the firm's spring collection will be in soft easy clothing.
"What's really new is the textured solids, like jacquards woven in with solids and nubbies in the solids," said Sperling.
Also stressing texture, Danielle Anduze, design director at Robert Stock Ltd., whose women's sportswear is primarily silk. The company's resort palette will be bright, aqua blue and ocean green. For early spring, the line will carry such hues as rose and cream. JH Collectibles is banking on a bright color palette, including mango and watermelon shades, to boost resort and early spring, noted Linda Ugenti, fashion director. Key items include brightly colored palazzo pants and trumpet-style floral skirts, both in rayon crepe.

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