Casual lifestyle designers’ response to the sluggish economy is anything but casual. They’re pushing novelty items, upping the quality and increasing their profile in untapped markets.

Casual lifestyle vendors are in survival mode. They’re looking for ways to convince cautious retailers to spend money in the midst of a punishing economic slowdown and the looming threat of war with Iraq.

The strategies include launching new trend-focused labels that target hot categories such as knits and scaling back on basics in favor of novelty pieces; playing up quality while cutting costs and reducing prices, and expanding into new markets, a move that includes adding more traveling and regional sales representatives. The initiatives are expected to yield sales gains in excess of 10 percent, many vendors said.

NOVELTY’S NICE: Tanuja Chhabra, owner of Dallas-based Apparel World, said: "We’re taking our company in a new direction and emphasizing unique items that stores can use to build volume and create new business." For fall, Apparel World is launching two new item-driven labels: Simran, a misses’ sportswear line with lean silhouettes and novelty prints, and Savan, a fashion knit collection.Signature label Apparel World remains focused on slinky acetate sportswear, but now includes more fashion items, too. With these launches, the company is planning double-digit sales increases. Natural Fashions Inc., a Los Angeles-based label, also is offering more labor-intensive finishes, trims and textures and staying away from basics, said designer Punnu Chopra. "To get stores to notice a line, the styles have to be novel and eclectic," she said. "Basics aren’t as important." Natural Fashions is also planning double-digit gains.

QUALITY COUNTS: "The key to surviving and prospering is to emphasize quality," said Mark Lahijani, designer at New York-based Club France. "That includes using only the best fabrics, intense quality control and assurance and having great fashion designs — don’t show stores something that’s already all over the place. Be different and have an impeccable level of quality and the stores will not only place orders, but will keep coming back. The strategy works: we’re planning on gains of at least 15 percent this year." Handcrafted chenille fabrics help convey a sense of heritage and quality at Scrap-Work Inc., a novelty fashion-item label based in Earling, Iowa. "Chenille evokes images of Grandmother’s house, stability and handcrafted quality. And it’s helping us build the company and our volume," said Jackie Bogner, co-owner and designer. At Apparel World, "prices are going down drastically — up to 25 percent on namesake line," Chhabra said. "We’ve shifted production from California to local contractors and are saving lots of money, and we’re passing the savings on to the stores."

SPREAD THE WORD — AND THE PRODUCT: Strategically expanding into new territory is helping to tap new retail accounts, explained Natural Fashions’ Chopra. "We’re making every effort to reach more specialty stores. We’re consolidating the lines so that they’re more focused and easier for traveling sales reps to work with. We’re spotlighting novelty and things that stores can have immediately, which is a big concern right now. They’re not buying really far out." Scrap-Work Inc.’s Bogner said Minneapolis and Atlanta are among the new markets the company will enter this year. "We can find accounts at both gift and apparel shows since our product has an antique nostalgic feel, even though the silhouettes are modern." Club France’s Lahijani said it’s imperative to get the product in front of potential accounts via advertising and marketing tools such as mass mailers. "Stay focused on the vision of growing the company and attracting stores who will be loyal," she said. "Let them know what you have to offer and be available when they need you." Apparel World’s Chhabra said she’s hired more sales representatives with the goal of reaching larger chain stores in addition to specialty stores.

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