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Casual Merchants: The Crossover Effect

Specialty chains have been picking at the bridge market, not seizing upon it.<P>Granted, it's a tough market to tap. Elegant, streamlined suits and eveningwear that clone designer looks, but sell at lower prices, are difficult to finesse. That's...

Specialty chains have been picking at the bridge market, not seizing upon it.

Granted, it’s a tough market to tap. Elegant, streamlined suits and eveningwear that clone designer looks, but sell at lower prices, are difficult to finesse. That’s particularly true for chains geared for mass appeal and casual attire.

The situation is changing, however. Retail Brand Alliance is reportedly planning a big rollout of Adrienne Vittadini stores “with bridge merchandise price points, a designer look and designer quality,” said one source. There are no Vittadini stores operating yet.

Seeing other opportunities in bridge, Retail Brand Alliance plans to eventually put more focus on building the women’s component of its Brooks Bros. chain, possibly beginning in spring 2003, though for now, the focus is on improving Brooks Bros.’ core men’s wear business.

Currently, Banana Republic is about the biggest specialty player in the bridge market, not counting Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, which most consumers consider luxury department stores. Yet other upscale specialty players, such as J. Crew and Club Monaco, in their quests for distinct identities and healthier sales trends, have been dabbling in those higher price points and chicer styles.

Even Talbots, with its Collection business, taps into the bridge customer to some degree.

“I would say we are in the better category,” said a Talbots spokeswoman. “Collection is for a customer who likes a little bit more luxurious fabric and fashion-forward styling. There’s probably some overlap there,” with bridge, she added.

In all cases, the bridge objective is to appeal to an urban audience and working women, without being perceived as catering to one market.

With the offerings these chains have served up so far, they really don’t pose a serious threat to bridge vendors selling department stores. Still, when a specialty store gets it right — meaning they present focused assortments and key trends — they get red-hot with consumers. Several are searching for a better connection.

Polo Ralph Lauren Co. for example, is trying to reenergize its Club Monaco chain, which is expected to show improved results in fiscal 2003, after the events of Sept. 11 sapped its tourist business.

Polo bought Club Monaco in March 1999 for $81.5 million in a rare case of a major design firm buying an established retail chain. However, it has failed to perform as hoped. Club Monaco’s founders have left the business, and Wall Street has become disappointed by turnaround efforts, seeing it as a distraction from the core Ralph Lauren operation.

Recent advertising campaigns at Club Monaco convey an upbeat spirit and its fashion as clean, fun and modern. There are shots of models running and hand-holding, in a switch from the static shots of the past.

Club Monaco’s historic classic fashion image, with such items as black turtlenecks and white shirts, has taken a trendier shift to white peasant blouses and safari trenches.

J. Crew doesn’t consider itself a bridge chain, but it has gotten into some higher prices and career looks, such as this season’s wool gabardine jackets for $198 and matching flat-front trousers for $98, reminiscent of the clean Banana Republic look.”