GET A LIFESTYLE RETAILERS TRY ON A NEW WAY OF OUTFITTING WOMEN
Byline: Debra Witt
The sight of Florence Griffith-Joyner flashing across the finish line during the 1988 Summer Olympics one long fingernail at a time started women thinking about expressing their individuality and lifestyle choices through clothing. "If Flo Jo can wear a one-legged uniform and chiffon skirts to run 100 meters," women collectively wondered, "why can't I at least wear my leotard with a blazer?" Suddenly, women were cursing Dynasty's power-suited characters Alexis and Crystal for stuffing them into tight skirts and fitted jackets. Those constricted femmes ached for that brief period in the mid-'70s when Danskin's wrap-skirt and wrap-front bodysuits (that tied in the back) were acceptable street attire. In an effort to bring back those free-moving days, women decided to reclaim their wardrobes. Every item of clothing today's woman owns must perform in a variety of settings--office, gym, club, mall, mountain. Gymwear is streetwear. Outdoors comes indoors. Underwear is outerwear. Sport is fashion. Unfortunately, those seemingly clear classifications aren't so easily understood at the retail level. Recently, department and specialty stores have been chasing the fashion end of this sporty lifestyle movement by making trendy statements with volumes of Timberland take-offs and athletically-striped, -lettered and -numbered stretch pieces, T-shirts, vests and hooded jackets. Meanwhile, sporting goods stores have not been able to fully flourish with this newfound appreciation for all things athletic. Fortunately, at all levels of distribution, some fashion sport definitions are emerging. Department stores strive to tell a sports story, says Terry Corgey, senior director of advertising at New York's Active Apparel Group, makers of the Everlast Woman and Converse Apparel for Women collections. One month soccer may be the theme, the next month running. Corgey says department stores like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's and Dillard's are looking for a well-rounded product mix that equally stresses bra tops, leggings, fleece separates and cover-ups. Department store buyers say their female customers buy on impulse. So the set-up must catch their eye. Sporting goods stores, on the other hand, want to make a technical statement. Buyers here focus on the fitness essentials of any sport--bra tops, bike shorts, warmups. The merchandising theory applied through this channel maintains women shop sporting goods stores to purchase specific items. Fashion is favored, buyers say, but performance is the first priority. Within the boundaries of those two distinct definitions, a wide range of vendors--from Adidas, Reebok and Nike to Speedo, Baryshnikov and Crunch--are finding they can be all things to all stores. Sporting goods manufacturers are "meeting the challenge" of producing sports apparel with the prized value-added feature of multi-functionality, boasts Maria Dennison Stefan, vice president and executive director of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA). By continuing to build in technical and fashionable attributes, Stefan says, the sports industry is bringing women's activewear to the ready-to-wear market. "Seventh Avenue is recognizing that we've revolutionized American lifestyle by really pushing this whole cross-over movement," she says. "You can't count the demand for clothing that has an authentic athletic appeal." She goes on to say that for department stores, activewear has become the new bridge line. A good example of this is Bloomingdale's, where the second floor of its New York flagship has assumed an urban-athletic environment. A white backdrop provides the perfect contrast for Norma Kamali's dramatically black and red OMO Gym line. Behind the OMO section, Everlast Woman and Crunch Fitnesswear dominate with merchandisers playing up the fleece and nylon cover-up options. By highlighting the casual lifestyle appeal of sports, this year women's activewear has charted 4 to 10 percent increases across the country, with the strongest gains reported in the Northeast and California, according to retail analysts and industry surveys. That is good news considering data compiled by NPD for the SGMA Sports Apparel Index for 1993. Sluggish sports participation and greater importance of the price/value factor in purchases of sports apparel for women were cited as reasons sales of women's sports apparel at all levels of distribution grew only 3 percent last year. Department stores lost a full percentage point of market share in 1993, from 19 to 18 percent, while sporting goods stores increased their share of the market from 10 to 15 percent. The report showed strong sales gains in women's jogsuits, socks and sweatsuits and declining sales of women's shorts and jackets. All retailers are interested in activewear only if it carries over to the street, according to Norm Zwail, president of The Weekend Exercise Company, the San Diego-based manufacturer of the Marika, Aerodynamics, Baryshnikov and 44th Street Athletic Club brands. Zwail says stores are looking for non-traditional aerobicwear, pieces like camisole crop tops, drawstring waist pants, fitted zip-front vests, mesh shorts and even skirts. "The trendy look with the racing stripes might not go forward," he explains, "but the trendy look of using a sport theme will go forward in a broader sense. We'll continue to see more of an athletic feel versus a ready-to-wear feel." Currently, Zwail says department stores understand the fashion sport category the best, thanks to designers like Donna Karan, Norma Kamali and Laura Whitcomb fillingtheir collections with neoprene, Lycra, Polartec fleece, microfibers and mesh. However, he warns department stores may lose some of that foothold because they continue to have a "hard time finding a home for women's activewear." After years of experimenting with bodywear and active coordinates in the hosiery, sportswear and ready-to-wear areas, with some even testing separate active sections, fashion sport still doesn't have a secure spot. "Sporting goods stores are getting very smart these days and are very tuned into this fashion sport concept," Zwail continues. "Buyers at stores like Oshman's and The Sports Authority definitely want to capture that cross-over customer now that women are comfortable in the environment of a sports store." Indeed, Bob Timinski, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based The Sports Authority, says the massive chain is "making tremendous strides" into the women's market. One-third of the chain's apparel mix is devoted to women. Recently, he notes, the chain decided to make itself more "women friendly" by developing women-specific promotions tied to Mother's Day and events like New Balance's Race for the Cure. In every Sports Authority, Timinski says technical aerobic, swim and running collections are supplemented with fashion sport jersey and fleece separates and active tops. In selected stores, women's outdoor and ski apparel is mixed into a concept area. "We're definitely excited about the future [of women's activewear] now that Nike, Russell and Champion are looking at the women's market more seriously," Timinski adds. And at Oshman's Sporting Goods stores, based in Houston, Joan Charles, women's apparel buyer, says "substantial" increases in sales over the past three years means her women's activewear is getting more dollars up front and more floor space in the SuperStores. Oshman's also builds the women's sections around functional components for cross-training. But because everyone is not "hi-tech," Charles layers in fashion with looser cotton jersey and fleece separates that relate to and mix with the stretch items. "Women's is becoming a department of its own," she states. Using different, less hard-core fixtures and display techniques, Charles has been able to sell women the active lifestyle clothes that aren't necessarily for working out. Brands like Danskin, Avia, Nike, Gilda Marx, Everlast, City Lights and Marika allow Oshman's to "cover every need." These days you have to cover every need for every woman, says Joanne Ciresi-Barrett, Reebok's women's apparel designer. "You have to have a layering system for the gym, the street, the outdoors. This is the way women really dress. The clothing has to perform on the under layer and be easy to wear in lots of places on the over layer." Fashion sport, Barrett says, simply means a "head-to-toe look that fits not just the woman, but the woman's life." It's about time.
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