FASHION ON THE RISE FOR LEGWEAR

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK--Goodby basics--hello fashion.
That was the message many legwear buyers gave manufacturers during this month's holiday and early spring market. The demand for knee-highs, over-the-knees and thigh-highs produced increased activity at all price points.
While most manufacturers rely on the November market for much of their business, several reported steady traffic and bookings last week. The market officially opened on Aug. 8, but some resources said early ordering put them ahead of plan.
As the industry continues to look for alternatives to basic legwear, it wasn't surprising that casual dress codes were a popular subject in several showrooms here. Some manufacturers said the acceptance of knee-highs and other fashion items in the workplace caused them to redraft or abandon sheers for more timely options.
Many buyers and manufacturers said they welcomed the infusion of brights and other colors that were offered by such firms as Hot Sox and K. Bell. Resources like Ellen Tracy, DKNY and other pantyhose manufacturers broadened their palettes for early spring. Several buyers said the newness was needed after last year's sea of neutrals.
Susan Perkowski, buyer for Elder-Beerman Stores Corp., said she would spend 10 percent more than at last year's market. With casual socks outperforming other hosiery items, she said she plans to book 38,000 units of socks, including 12,000 units of anklets, knee-highs, over-the-knee styles and other casual items from Ben Berger, a sock resource here.
Socks that retail for $5 have been performing so well that Elder-Beerman has doubled its business at that price point since last spring, Perkowski said.
With casual dress codes taking root all across the country, Perkowski said she planned to order only 3,500 units of sheers, since fashion items are expected to be strong performers in the months ahead. In the company's 50 stores, Hanes, Jockey, Evan-Picone and Liz Claiborne are key resources, she said.
Thigh-highs and over-the-knee offerings have increased 10 percent in the past year, said Perkowski, noting that an additional 5 percent increase is projected for next year. With more vendors offering a wider range of colors at this market, Margaret Scott, buyer for Carson Pirie Scott & Co., said the range of shades should boost holiday sales in the company's 59 stores.
"Now there are several color stories, as opposed to last August's market when there was one: neutrals," she said. "Neons should be big for juniors and cosmetic tones should be strong for career women."
With control-top and contouring pantyhose sales continuing to increase, Scott said, she plans to order a substantial amount of units from the company's key resources: Hanes, Pennaco and Jockey. Sales for over-the-knee offerings and thigh-highs should increase Bergner's sock business by 5 percent, she said.
"We expect those items to be strong going into spring. The fact that we're selling them now in the Midwest in 90-degree weather is very positive," said Scott. Darlene Takanishi, buyer for Gottschalk's, the Fresno, Calif., 27-store chain, said she planned to increase bookings by 5 percent compared with last year. The company usually generates 50 percent of its annual volume from merchandise booked at August market, she said.
Casual sock sales have increased by 12 percent compared with last year's results and sales for sheers are 4 percent lower, Takanishi said, adding that sheer business should rebound by spring.
"It's been a long time since I've seen a lot of newness in the sheer-hosiery business. Hanes, Jockey, Round the Clock and Givenchy are all pushing the classification with new looks," Takanishi said. "I'm very pleased with the brights. It's really going to make the floor pop."
About 75 percent of her orders went to Hanes' Smooth Illusions and Silk Reflections, which also offer plus-size lines. Jockey's new line of maternity sheers should fill a void in Gottschalk's stores, she said. In sock resources, she said, Hot Sox, Hue and Gold Toe were standouts.
In other action last week, Hot Sox received orders for 30,000 dozen units of thigh-highs and over-the-knee styles, according to Gary Wolkowitz, president. As a result, the company projected a 50 percent increase in sales.
"We thought it was regional business in New York and Los Angeles, but it's a national situation," Wolkowitz said. "We're selling them from Atlanta to Seattle."
More than 10,000 dozen units of Ralph Lauren's thigh-highs and over-the-knees were placed, said Wolkowitz, whose company holds the designer's hosiery license. A 50 percent increase was projected for the Ralph Lauren line.
At K. Bell, a Culver City, Calif., socks and tights resource, there were twice as many appointments as there were last year, excluding drop-ins, according to Harold Malisow, vice president of sales. A 25 percent increase was projected, he said.
With prices from $2.45 to $6, metallic Lurex anklets, knee-highs and tights were spurring sales, he said.
"Retailers are covered in high-priced goods," Malisow said. "The question they're asking is, 'Where can I get fashion at a value-oriented price?' "
Unlike at previous August markets, at this year's retailers reacted to fashion items, said Barry Tartarkin, vice president of licensing and private-label development for Ridgeview Inc., the licensee for Ellen Tracy hosiery. The company will terminate its existing line of Ellen Tracy sheers at the end of the year. During market week, Ridgeview launched its new line of Ellen Tracy sheers made with double-covered nylon and Lycra in every course. Bookings for Ellen Tracy's over-the-knee styles in matte microfiber with Lycra spandex in every course and Tactel microfiber trouser socks with Lycra in every course have been tremendous.
The absence of Dillard Department Stores, which pulled its buyers out of the legwear market, opting to meet with vendors on its own territory, had not affected overall business, Tartarkin said.
"That's a factor we can't change. If the stores don't want to come to us, we'll have to go to them," he said. "It makes the regional people more important during market."
Having already pulled its innerwear buyers from the New York market, May Department Stores might follow suit with its legwear buyers, according to Howard Hyde, vice president of marketing and sales at Danskin. A 15 percent increase in sales is projected for this market, said Hyde, noting that Danskin sales reps would meet with Dillard's and Mercantile Stores at their respective stores this week.
"I'm sure May Co. is next," said Hyde. "In some ways, it's better to go to their turf. During market, everybody is always late, always rushed and always unfocused. Making the presentation on their turf without phones ringing can be a plus. You get their full attention."

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