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Better Finding Its Way

Fall sales of better-priced sportswear haven’t hit their stride, as the momentum generated by several spring launches hasn’t kept up.

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NEW YORK — Fall sales of better-priced sportswear haven’t maintained the momentum generated by several spring launches, but the attention has given the category fresh impetus.

The changes in the better market can generally be traced to the transfer of the Lauren by Ralph Lauren license to Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. from Jones Apparel Group last year. The switch was initiated in June and acted as a starting gun, prompting Polo to set about rapidly developing its own version of the line, while Jones created Jones New York Signature to replace the $548 million in sales produced by the Lauren collection.

Vendors saw this as an opportunity to increase or take their piece of the pie. H Hilfiger from Tommy Hilfiger Corp.; Calvin Klein, produced under license by Kellwood Co. and G.A.V., and Realities from Liz Claiborne Inc. were introduced in department stores for spring. The trend continued for fall with Michael Michael Kors hitting stores last month.

The evolution of the sector has spurred competition and added diversity to the selling floor. Better-priced merchandise accounts for a significant portion of the overall sportswear market, which is about $39 billion annually, according to STS Market Research.

The market has come full circle, in a sense, with retailers pointing to Jones’ Signature and Lauren as the strongest performers, while some of the other introductions have faltered. Despite frustration among some vendors and merchants that the better area hasn’t been as strong for fall as it was for spring, others are seeing strength.

“There are definitely pockets of retail activity that have been good, but overall, for most people, business has just been OK,” said Kathy Bradley-Riley, senior vice president of merchandising at The Doneger Group, a buying and consulting firm. “The fall assortments on the floor look very good. She just hasn’t really been out yet.”

Toni Browning, president and chief executive officer of Proffitt’s/McRae’s, a division of Saks Inc., said, “Business overall is challenging in most every segment. We are most pleased, probably in our entire company, with our better business right now.”

Browning owed at least a portion of this success to newness from the fledgling labels, and Jones’ Signature has done the best. Proffitt’s/McRae’s has taken away some space from the moderate area for its better collections.

The fresh collections also have had an impact on existing brands.

“It caused our mature brand businesses to be better at what they do,” Browning said. “They had to sharpen their game.”

Competition may be stiffer, but the new lines also have brought consumer interest to the better departments, which has benefited existing collections.

“It hasn’t hurt our business at all,” said Michael Lerner, chairman of Marisa Christina Inc., which produces the Marisa Christina line. “We don’t see any substantial difference in what our plans with our stores were before or after the changes.”

Still, brands entering the market have an uphill climb.

Angela Ahrendts, Claiborne’s executive vice president, said in June that Realities did not live up to the firm’s early projections.

“We needed to turn up the volume from a color and print and pattern standpoint,” she said, noting fall deliveries would reflect changes to the line.

That same month, Hilfiger president and ceo David Dyer noted that H Hilfiger’s “sell-throughs at regular prices remain somewhat below retailers’ expectations, indicating that we still have some work to do.”

Both companies declined to comment for this story.

There is some indication that companies might be going back to the drawing board, particularly in the lower-priced end of the segment. Claiborne, for instance, is said to be testing a variety of new concepts for the better area, one of which could simply be called Liz.

There appears to be a considerable appetite for better lines from names with designer credentials, especially among fashion-savvy retailers.

Michael Kors’ designer cachet seems to be wooing retailers, despite some early glitches, which were probably highlighted because the line had the launch spotlight basically to itself in better for fall.

“We had some shipping problems, some issues trying to get the merchandise out of our warehouse,” a Kors spokeswoman said of the first weeks of the launch. “Other than that, it’s smooth sailing.”

The line now also has to contend with the departure last week of Anne Gorfinkle, who was vice president of women’s design, but will remain with the firm on a consulating basis.

Retailers said Kors’ aesthetic is a welcome change for better, even though some also have noted fit issues.

“Michael’s launch has picked up in the last four weeks with the second delivery and it’s been much stronger,” said Barb Schrantz, general merchandise manager of ready-to-wear at Proffitt’s/McRae’s.

Schrantz noted, though, that the line has “an inconsistent fit” in tops, so a woman might wear a medium on one kind of top and a large in another.

Browning, the ceo, added, “We feel very, very good about the Michael business.”

Likewise, Jim von Maur, president of Von Maur stores, said, “We’re very excited about the Michael Kors [collection] because we think it’s going to give the lady a touch of fashion, but something that isn’t too far out.”

Overall, the Davenport, Iowa-based retailer had a “very strong” spring in better, but growth hasn’t been as strong as planned so far for fall, he said.

That might not be a fashion problem, though.

“Traffic is not the same as last year,” von Maur said. “I don’t think the war helps, gas prices, maybe the election, uneasiness as to who’s going to be in the White House.”

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