LOS ANGELES — The Pink Panther and Barbie are joining Mickey Mouse, the Cat in the Hat and Spiderman in the world of character apparel licensing properties at Jem Sportswear.

This time, the characters are revving up the fashion quotient beyond T-shirts with more young contemporary merchandise. Frankie B. licensed tops are also part of Jem’s recent spate of deals.

That’s a shift for the 32-year-old company, which has its roots in the men’s and boys’ licensed knits and private label business targeting midtier and mass market retailers. In the last three years, the company has pursued the fashion market with the launch of its proprietary contemporary brand Awake, and later with the acquisition of juniors line Chica in 2002, which operates under its Chica Inc. affiliate.

Most recently, the company has had a hit with the Disney Classic Collection. The T-shirts, done in mineral washes and overdyes with screenprints, heat transfers and flocked characters, have been worn by actresses Hilary Duff, Debra Messing, Drea DeMatteo and Gina Gershon. Selling at $13 to $28 wholesale, they can be found at Fred Segal Fun in Santa Monica, Calif., and at Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom stores.

“After many years of relationships with studios and retailers, we figured why not get into the better product category, especially since retailers have been clamoring for it,” said Jeff Marine, president of Jem Sportswear. “It represents 10 to 20 percent of the business now, and we see it growing to 30 to 40 percent in the next few years.”

Marine expects sales at Jem to climb 20 percent in 2004 to $85 million, buoyed by the new ventures. Founded by three partners, the San Fernando, Calif.-based firm benefited from lucrative deals with Disney Studios, Warner Bros. and Universal Studios, as licensed merchandise evolved into another revenue source for movie studios.

Marine, whose father, Earl, was one of the company’s founders, came aboard in 1981, working in the sales division. By 1988, he rose to president and ran the company with his father, buying out the other two partners by 1990. Since 1998, he has been the sole proprietor of Jem, which owns a dyeing and printing facility in Mexico and imports from China, including Hong Kong, India, Peru and South Korea. Design director Orna Stark owns a minority share of Awake, and Chris and Helen Griffin and Constance Burge are minority partners in Chica.Awake’s knit tops brought Jem into the contemporary category with a strong reaction. Crafted from Indian and Peruvian fabrics with embellishments and retro touches, the line sells to Rich’s and The Bon-Macy’s at $18 to $34 wholesale.

Chica, a $2 million young contemporary line emblazoned with slogans and messages geared to the Latina customer, is carried in Hot Topic and Macy’s West at wholesale prices of $8 to $12. Pending licensing deals are in the works for hosiery, lingerie, underwear, accessories, sportswear and denim.

The next evolution for the Disney line is adding more characters, supima fabric shirts with raw edges and bold color-blocked raglans. Spring will offer pigment-dyed athletic sets in mixed fabrics wholesaling at $35 each. By fall 2004, Disney will include a broader collection of denim and thermal styles and accessories such as purses, caps and watches.

“What’s really exciting about this deal is that Mickey is fantastic, but Disney has a vault of characters, including Pooh, Snow White and Bambi, so the possibilities are endless,” Marine said.

What’s not endless is the number of retailers that will carry the line. Marine has said he wants to penetrate better department stores, declining offers from midtier chains, at least for now.

Jem also recently landed the knit top licensing deal with Frankie B. The 50 styles feature sheer, fitted tencels and pointelles from deep V-necks, off-the-shoulder looks and crewnecks to razorbacks and tank tops. Sharon Segal at Fred Segal in Santa Monica, Nordstrom and Atrium in New York are among the retailers that picked up the line, which wholesales for $18 to $40.

“They have a great reputation and they were the right company for this because of the people behind it and the resources they have,” said Daniella Clarke, owner of Frankie B.

For the Pink Panther by Shag collection, Jem has partnered with MGM Studios, which is preparing for next year’s 40th anniversary of the mute feline. The franchise is considered one of the studio’s top three along with James Bond and Rocky, according to entertainment analysts. That includes buzz about a new movie, the first since 1993’s “Son of the Pink Panther” with Roberto Benigni.MGM commissioned Josh Agle, the artist known as Shag, for the celebration to create a mélange of art featuring the cool cat in mod, adult circumstances — with a monocle, a cigarette or around a bevy of well-dressed hipsters — for use in the company’s marketing efforts that includes contemporary apparel.

“We’ve been successful in the juniors market for the past two-and-a-half years, but our research pointed out that there was a broader market for adults,” said A.J. Rhodes, domestic marketing manager of MGM Consumer Products.

There’s a venture with London retailer Thomas Pink for a line of men’s shirts, cuff links, boxers and women’s shirts, along with a worldwide release of a DVD film compilation, music set and comic panels in newspapers due out April 6.

What’s in it for Jem is a 30-piece line of mostly tops screenprinted with the feline, rhinestones or slogans, ranging from ribbed tanks with “Choose Pink” to the pointelle racerbacks with “Think Pink.” The line also features long-sleeve, sheer tencel shirts geared for layering. Jem has thrown in a couple of bottoms such as the roll-over waist miniskirt in polka-dot tiers with pink paw prints. Pink, rhinestone seam tabs are the line’s signature mark.

Wholesale prices range from $18 to $35 and the line will ship by January.

“We’re borrowing touches from the art and making it all about clothing that’s fun and light and can be worn in or out,” Stark said.

Also due to launch in January, the Fifties-inspired Barbie looks will channel Audrey Hepburn, Stark said, with cigarette pants, off-the-shoulder tops and lots of beading.

Industry observers say the character craze hasn’t let up, as designs continue to reflect a positive mood in fashion.

“Disney [Classics] is on fire, so it makes sense to capitalize on the trend,” said consultant Trish Moreno, owner of Trendsyndicate. “People are lightening up in their way of dressing and characters are safe and sweet.”

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