NEW YORK--Sleepwear and robe manufacturers are looking to build their businesses with mass marketers through fashion and expanded sourcing overseas. Because of a growing demand for brands from mass merchants, some firms--which specialize in both branded and private label business--will be relaunching faded or discontinued department store brands for discounter channels. A leading example of that strategy started four years ago in foundations, when Vanity Fair Mills repositioned the Vassarette brand acquired from Munsingwear with Hills Department Stores and Wal-Mart Stores. First-year retail sales at Wal-Mart alone amounted to $100 million. Now, daywear and sleepwear under the Vassarette label are being distributed to mass channels, as well as the foundations. Companies that specialize in private label sleepwear will be focusing more on presenting lines that are individually styled and merchandised for chains that want to differentiate themselves from other mass retailers. At sleepwear and robe firms, executives generally say the mass segment of their businesses is posting annual sales gains of up to 30 percent, and it now accounts for about one-third of overall business. Additionally, vendors say the hot-selling items at department stores are what mass merchants want--items that have become proven hits over the past six months to a year. Many of these bestselling ideas gleaned from department store successes are interpreted into private label lines under such labels as Honors at Target, Upstart at Wal-Mart, Ashley Taylor at Kmart, and Sarah Morgan at Caldor. Key silhouettes for early fall selling have been novelty printed T-shirts, softly tailored long pajama sets and rompers, and coordinating long and short sleep gowns and robes. For spring, vendors say the top-booking ideas are updated nightshirts and matching boxers, feminine-looking chemises, and baby-doll looks with Empire treatments. Anything that has a dual-purpose function also has been in demand by mass marketers, say manufacturers. In sleepwear, the number-one-selling fabrication is cotton knit, especially in updated prints, and solids that feature surface treatments such as piqués and waffle and rib patterns. Bright fashion colors are strong, along with continuing interest in heather tones. Robes that feature novelty prints and treatments, particularly chenille, are key. Basic terry robe programs, however, are usually sourced directly by the mass merchants overseas to get the lowest price possible. Reflecting the interest in manufacturer labels at retail, Karen Wilson, divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel at Kmart Corp., noted that the chain has a strong private label business. But she continued: "We are investigating national name brands. Some have come to us." As for the pace of sleepwear business at the chain, she said, "We had some very nice increases last year, and we are having an excellent year right now." Wilson singled out three areas for growth this year: yarn-dyed and printed flannel sleepwear; loungewear sets such as pants and coordinating tops, and basic velour and terry loop robes. "We also see pajamas as being important this year, as well as traditional gown business in flannels," she said. Best-selling colors, she said, are "clean and crisp brights, pastels, and heather tones." Among vendors, Norman Katz, chairman of I. Appel Corp, said, "We are looking at our business in a completely different light today. A lot of opportunities in mass channels have opened up for us which we hadn't considered in the past. Now, we are manufacturing in the U.S., as well as in Mexico, the Far East and Eastern Europe." Katz noted that until 1994, Appel had primarily been selling its products to department and specialty stores. He noted, though, that the Appel brand of sleepwear and leisurewear will continue to be distributed exclusively to department stores. Katz further noted that the Danville label in robes will be reintroduced to mass channels later this year. Danville had been a department store label and was discontinued six years ago. Several other brands--which are part of the Formfit Rogers division at I. Appel--also will be repositioned for mass distribution, but the names have not yet been selected, he said. "Mass business for us in 1995 will contribute an additional 10 percent sales growth to our total business," predicted Katz. He added that another loungewear-sleepwear brand aimed at mass merchants, Finessa, which is part of Wior Corp., a Los Angeles-based subsidiary, currently is generating a "substantial amount of business." Seth Morris, president of Val Mode Lingerie, noted that consumers who shop at mass stores "may not have deep pockets, but it doesn't mean they don't have a taste level and a sense of fashion." "Mass merchandisers are not a major part of our business at this point, but it's healthy and growing," said Morris. "The volume opportunity with mass merchants is they commit to a quantity, and the inventory risk is not significant, because it's a cut-to-order business." Morris, whose company has sources in the U.S. and overseas, would not break down figures, but he said, "each year we will take one step forward with mass merchants, either with a new account, or grow an existing account." James Martino, president of Russell-Newman Inc., Denton, Tex., said the company is seeing annual sales gains of more than 20 percent with its private label and branded business for mass merchants. Robes and sleepwear under the Club Bed label, and robes by Pinx, are the firm's mass labels, said Martino. Its Cypress label robes are distributed exclusively to department stores. "Mass merchants are targeting a fashion customer and improving the quality of their assortments regularly," said Martino. "We currently have 30 percent sales increase in business with mass merchants over last year, and they now account for 25 to 30 percent of total Nap business," said Dan Barbo, an account executive at the mass merchant division of Nap Inc. Nap sells daywear, robes and sleepwear under the Nap and Anne Lewin labels exclusively to department stores. In addition to mass merchants, it does private label for Victoria's Secret. Embellished, feminine-looking daywear is becoming "very strong across all channels right now," said Karyl Chongas, vice president of the Vassarette and Form-o-uth brands at Vanity Fair Mills. "We have had very healthy growth in very pretty, embellished slips and camisoles this year by Vassarette," said Chongas. She further noted that the trend towards lots of lace embellishments is starting to cross over into Vassarette's nylon tricot sleepwear at the mass level.
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