By  on April 30, 2008

It's survival of the fittest in the better department, which has seen the exit of Nautica, O Oscar and Sigrid Olsen so far this year.

Better sportswear vendors are facing a perfect storm of the economic downturn, retail consolidation and pressure from new entrants. Then there's the customer, typically a middle-income mother, who may be trading down — or foregoing buying herself clothes entirely — to cope with rising gas and food prices.

Mainstay brands like Liz Claiborne and Jones New York are expected to come under increasing pressure, both from exclusive brands with department stores like Tommy Hilfiger, to which Macy's is promising to give prime real estate, and new arrivals such as a DKNY diffusion line and relaunches of Adrienne Vittadini and Rafaella.

Better stalwart Liz Claiborne's big relaunch under Isaac Mizrahi isn't until spring 2009, but Liz Claiborne Inc. does not view 2008 as a throwaway year for the $900 million better Liz Claiborne brand — even as it is "strategically reducing some distribution," according to Dave McTague, executive vice president of partnered brands for Liz Claiborne Inc.

"The issue is the performance in general in missy and in department stores," McTague said. "Traffic is difficult, and generally the first trigger retailers will use is promotions to drive traffic. If you only get people in with promotions, it's difficult to drive revenues."

Liz Claiborne and fellow better mainstay Jones New York are investing in grassroots marketing efforts to drive traffic to store floors. Liz Claiborne chief creative officer Tim Gunn is hosting in-store fashion shows for the Claiborne brand on a monthly basis, and Lloyd Boston is doing the same for Jones New York. Jones Apparel Group Inc. has also enlisted Nina Garcia to do in-store fashion shows for Anne Klein (Jones had no comment on how Garcia's up-in-the-air status at Elle will affect the partnership). Jones has maintained its investment in Jones New York and Nine West, but upped marketing spending for AK Anne Klein.

Wesley R. Card, chief executive officer of Jones Apparel Group, said orders and real estate for Anne Klein were flat for fall, though he noted Jones New York Signature picked up some casual space, and the company is redesigning the AK Anne Klein shop-in-shops.

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