NEW YORK — With spring and summer temperatures typically bringing down the shoe on hosiery and sock sales, and flip-flops as common in boardrooms as on boardwalks, legwear vendors are meeting the spring challenge with a slew of novelty products.

From unusual prints in bright colors to innovative accessories like foot tubes, foot thongs and toe caps, many focused on giving retailers solutions to the continuing trend of open-toe footwear during last week’s spring market.

"Spring is about novelty and items," said Karen Schneider, president of Wolford America. "Because people don’t invest a lot into their spring wardrobe, accessories become more important."

Normally, spring and summer have a shorter selling window for legwear than fall and winter, accounting for about 30 percent of total legwear sales in the U.S., which were estimated to be $3 billion last year.

"The six-month spring season has turned into a three-month season and the challenge is how can we put our best foot forward and really capitalize on the shortened time," said Susan Spindell, women’s national sales manager at American Essentials.

Many agreed that product development, particularly new styles and items that work with open-toe shoes, will play an essential role next spring.

"They want items that draw the attention of the consumer to the hosiery counter and that’s where our business continues to flourish," said Gary Wolkowitz, president of Hot Sox Co.

During market week, Hot Sox introduced several groups, among them Survivor, which features camouflage-like prints, camels, lizards, palm trees, peace signs and heart target motifs, and In Full Bloom, which includes garden florals and butterfly motifs. Hot Sox also stepped up its offering of junior styles with whimsical motifs, such as shoes, dresses, handbags, peace signs, sushi and daisies.

At its licensed Lauren by Ralph Lauren line, top-booked items included feminine floral prints and sport socks in colors such as pink,green and yellow.

Hue, a division of Kayser-Roth Corp., also stepped up its novelty assortment for spring.

"Our spring 2002 selling is up by 46 percent nationally at retail," claimed Molly Mott, Hue’s vice president of sales. "While the sock market is flat, newness is selling. Our number one item was the foot tube."For spring, Hue launched crochet foot thongs that were beaded or adorned with a crochet flower, toe toppers, toe-less socks and lightweight beaded slipper socks with suede soles.

The company also introduced Greeting Socks, a line of socks featuring such phrases as Happy Birthday, Best Wishes and Thank You.

"Why send a card when you can send a sock?" said Julia Townsend, Kayser-Roth’s vice president and general manager of the department and specialty store division.

Each pair has a card-like tag attached to it with the personal message, "I greet your feet with sweetness." Greeting Socks will retail at $5.

Townsend said among the top items are conversational sport socks, including styles with a floral cutout that spills over the leg band.

"Thirty percent of the volume in sport socks was in fashion styles, which tells me that consumers are responding to color and print," she noted. "For spring 2003, Hue is about special summer items, from the foot tube to the Moroccan thong, the toe topper and sport fashion items."

Many agreed that one of the key challengescontinues to bethe removal or reduction of main-floor legwear departments. As reported, Saks Fifth Avenue has recently moved its legwear department from its busy main floor to the eighth floor, following main-floor banishments at Lord & Taylor’s flagship on Fifth Avenue and Macy’s Herald Square.

"With all the transition on the floors, business is a little more difficult," said Barry Tartarkin, vice president and general manager at Pennaco, Danskin’s legwear division. "Buyers are still tentative, waiting to see how fall develops.Stores are looking to buy closer to season."

For its licensed Ellen Tracy line, the company launched peds in yarns like Tactel piqué and bouclé in several colors, including green, blue, rose and yellow. These will retail for $7.

Pennaco also stepped up its sport sock business with whimsical features such as color-tipped heels and pom-poms. Ellen Tracy’s key spring item will be a "Summer Survival Kit," consisting of a ped, a toe topper and a foot tube packaged in a see-through plastic envelope. The kit will retail for $10."We’d like to think that the consumer end of the business has bottomed out," Tartarkin said. "Consumers are wearing hosiery again, whether its the ped, the toe cover, and we think there is some growth there."

At its licensed Givenchy line, the company launched a bridal hosiery collection consisting of 12 styles devoted exclusively to the occasion.

"We have seen the bridal business as an opportunity for a couple of years," Tartarkin said. "In the end, Givenchy is known as a special-occasion product and there are no more special occasions than weddings."

The line features such styles as a lace thigh-high, a sheer pantyhose with a heart motif adorned with pearls or a crystal heart ankle bracelet. It will retail for $12.50 to $20, with a target of 400 department store doors. To complete the bridal assortment, Pennaco also previewed a combination of a thigh-high with a thong, stockings with a garter belt and a bridal garter.

The firm is also working on putting together some gift-with-purchase strategies, including a CD with a compilation of songs suitable for the occasion that would be attached to the flat packaging.

Howard Upchurch, president of Sara Lee Hosiery, said the market was upbeat, with many buyers looking for innovative concepts that give women comfort.

"A lot of our focus has been on sharing some early results of Body Enhancers," said Upchurch.

Body Enhancers is the new lightweight collection of figure-enhancing products with nonbinding features that’s launching for fall in stores. For spring, the assortment has been expanded by adding a seamless slip and a rear lifter.

"We continue to look for solutions that work with spring dressing," said Upchurch. "Our biggest challenge continues to be to update the product line to meet the need of today’s consumer and how they dress."

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