CATALOGS STEP LIVELY WITH LEGWEAR

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK--Legwear is giving a lift to apparel catalogs this fall.
Books, including Spiegel and Tweeds, say novelties and fashion looks--such as thigh-highs--are pulling in the orders. At the same time, basic crews and wool ragg socks are steady performers for firms such as L.L. Bean that specialize in outdoor goods.
Unlike previous seasons, a few catalogs are giving socks and tights their own pages rather than lumping them in with accessories. Boot socks, knee-highs and other new styles are also featured throughout most catalogs on pages devoted to women's apparel as part of ensembles.
While many books are ignoring sheer pantyhose, Lands' End includes two styles of sheer pantyhose in its current Textures catalog, which is career-oriented.
Some catalog executives said, though, that consumers don't want to pay a shipping charge for basic sheers, which can be easily found marked down in most stores.
Socks and tights and fashion looks are another story. Spiegel, the 89-year-old Chicago mail-order business, has doubled its socks and tights sales in the past year, according to Kathy Meadows, buyer for fashion accessories. Last year 48 variations of Spiegel catalogs were sent to 225 million consumers.
This fall the company doubled its offerings and it plans to double its merchandise again next fall, she said. Spiegel sells tights in two-pair packs only. Available in eight colors, two-pair packs of La Leg's ribbed retail for $24.
"We've definitely seen an increase because it's a fashion item," she said. "Tights have cycles. We haven't had one this good in a while."
Plus sizes are an important element in tights, contributing 30 percent of sales, she said.
Meadows said the fact that some retailers have had trouble reordering tights from manufacturers has enhanced Spiegel's business.
She also noted that 80 percent of consumers who order legwear also order other products, especially ready-to-wear. In the past, the company has tested selling sheer hosiery, but there is no plan to bring it back into the books, she said.
"Our sheers weren't different enough. Women can get them easily enough, and they're always on sale in the stores," she said. "There's also a shipping charge, and it's such a small-ticket item." Fall hosiery orders at One 212, a new mail-order catalog business geared toward contemporary sportswear and career dressing based in Edgewater, N.J., are about 15 percent ahead of plan, according to Ted Pamperin, executive vice president of women's apparel for Hanover Direct, Inc., One 212's parent company. Sales for socks and tights contribute about 3 percent of the company's overall volume, he said.
Aimed at middle-class professional women from 18 to 40, One 212's first catalog was shipped in June and 2 million will be sent by the end of the year, he said. Circulation should double next year, he added.
Unbranded over-the-knee socks at $14, Easton's knee-highs at $4.50 and Easton's thigh-highs at $12.50 are bestsellers, according to Robin Flamenbaum, product manager for accessories and footwear for One 212, who said the catalog emphasizes component dressing.
"Most customers buy the outfits on our pages from head to toe. Hosiery is the final touch, and it can make an outfit incredible," she said. "We want women to come to us for the trends. Whatever is happening in the market--we have to attack it."
For holiday, One 212 introduced glitter tights in silver or gold for $18, ribbed over-the-knee socks at $14 and microfiber tights at $13.50. L.L. Bean takes a more conservative approach to hosiery. Socks, especially the thick, rugged style, have been a staple since 1912 at the Freeport, Maine-based company, when they were introduced as a complement to its footwear business, a company spokeswoman said.
A wool, cotton and nylon blend ragg sock that is available in three lengths and six colors is one of the category's bestsellers, she said. Two-pair packs of socks retail from $14 to $19, depending on the length.
Tights and trouser socks are also sold at L.L. Bean. This year the company introduced woolen blend tights at $23 and two-pair packs of cotton and wool blend ragg socks at $14 and $15. Offerings vary from season to season, but Christmas is generally the strongest season for sock sales, she said.
In the Christmas catalog, socks are listed in a special table of contents that promotes gift ideas under $25.
Lands' End, the Dodgeville, Wis.-based direct-mail company that focuses on casual sportswear, has carried socks since the apparel catalog's inception in 1976. Sheer pantyhose was introduced in 1990 but socks generate most of the company's hosiery business.
With an annual circulation rate of more than 155 million catalogs, Lands' End sells most of its socks from October through December.
For fall and holiday, the company expanded its offerings beyond basics. Cashmere-blend trouser socks at $20 are featured in the Lands' End December catalog. For fall, two-pair packs of textured trouser socks at $6 were introduced in Textures.
Cotton crew socks at $4, cotton and wool blend socks at $7 and ragg wool socks at $7 are three key fall items, according to a company spokeswoman. Three-pair packs of cotton crew socks that retail for $11.25 are also popular, she said. For fall, the company also expanded its color palette for certain styles, including the cotton crew socks, she said. "We always look at the color trends in the market and then decide what our customer will respond to," she said. "When we enhance the color palette, we want to make sure our customer has things in her wardrobe or there are items in the catalog to coordinate with it."
At Tweeds, another division of Hanover Direct, Inc. that specializes in moderately priced contemporary career and casual clothing, sales for tights have never been better, according to Rose Panicali, merchandise manager for Tweeds. Socks and tights sales are contributing between 3 percent and 5 percent of the company's overall volume this year, she said. This contribution is twice as much as last year, she noted.
This fall the six-year-old company introduced to its monthly catalog microfiber tights at $18, open-stitch patterned tights at $20 and two-pair packs of ragg socks at $16. Thigh-highs, which were featured last fall, were not offered in this fall's catalog. She said a basic thigh-high style will be reintroduced for spring, and knee-highs and anklets will be added to the collection. "We carried thigh-highs last year," she said. "We thought the trend had come and gone."
For the first time this year, hosiery and shoes were featured on a separate spread instead of with other accessories.
"When sweaters are really hot, which they are now, legwear is usually hot, too," Panicali said. "We expect sales to increase through next year." Sales for socks and tights have increased at J. Crew in the past year, but the company declined to say how much. November and December are the strongest months for sock sales, according to a company spokeswoman.
Cotton, Lycra spandex and nylon crew socks at $5, cotton ragg socks at $7 and ribbed wool trouser socks are this fall's bestsellers, she said.

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