DALLAS — Diversity is the name of the game for knitwear firms bidding to build their businesses for spring.

These companies are saying goodbye to bland in favor of trend-based knit collections that appeal to a wider and more fashion-savvy crowd, especially younger shoppers seeking newness. Key are the little touches — handcrafted detailing such as crochet and needlepoint; novelty trims from crystals to beading to sequins, and optic brights that span the spectrum, with tropical tones especially hot. Also big are athletic and street inspirations such as body-conscious and layered knit T-shirts and cardigans, hooded or jeans-style jackets and color-blocking.

Some makers also are launching new luxury-based labels that use fibers such as cashmere and silk. Challenges facing knitwear firms include keeping prices in check in light of rising production costs, staying on target with trends and garnering retail floor space.

Despite the economic doldrums, many knitwear companies continue to see volume gains, mostly in the single digits.

“The greatest challenge of having a knitwear business is production,” said Alex Gore Browne, designer and owner of the eponymous knitwear label, based in London, who integrates trends with tradition in her seasonal collections.

“Convincing my factory in Scotland to produce anything other than a cashmere sweater has been a huge challenge. I’m working with people who are following the traditions of a 100-year-old industry. Now that the volume has increased, I have been able to move some of the production to Hong Kong where the quality is fantastic and they are more open to change. However, communication and distance remain problems.”

Browne produces about 25 styles per season and sells to upscale U.S. specialty stores. She is launching spring before holiday, reasoning that her luxury-based knits will translate well for social occasions. Spring and summer trends include brocade-inspired jacquards combined with viscose rib knits, pleated detailing and ruffles. Wholesale prices are $115 to $285. Business is planned ahead this year, though Browne didn’t provide sales figures.

Palmer Jones, a New York-based knitwear company, projected sales to climb 30 percent this year thanks to a trend-intensive focus that targets a hip urban crowd and a new label called Pink Label that launched for fall and includes lots of cashmere.“Creativity, novelty and luxury are what women want, along with a great value, something that will become a part of their wardrobe — heirloom pieces,” said Kathy Jones, co-owner.

The Palmer Jones spring collection includes lots of layering pieces such as thin cashmere T-shirts, knit camisoles with pearl buttons, Henleys, Lurex jackets, caftans and sweaters with crystals, large sequins and ribbon and braid trim. Wholesale prices are $180 to $650.

Jockeying for department store floor space is a big challenge for many knitwear firms, especially when competing against labels that offer both wovens and knits that might more readily catch the attention of buyers.

Companies such as Inhabit are focusing on fine-gauge luxury and novelty styles, explained Stacey Perlick, vice president of sales of the New York-based firm.

“We’re taking a sophisticated approach and offering luxury at a great price,” Perlick said. “Spring wholesales from $45 for a cotton and cashmere T-shirt to $125 for a cashmere jacket. We really want to stand apart from the crowd, so we’re doing ultrathin and soft knits that are almost sheer as pajamas. There’s a big focus on proportion and fit, with thin, sexy layers and lots of novelty items.”

Inhabit is projecting sales of $2 million this year, which is above plan, according to Perlick.

MAG, a better knitwear label based in New York, said it is steering clear of basics for spring in favor of novelty, said Lucia Greco, vice president of sales, noting sales are above plan for 2003.

“Unusual yarns such as silk and linen blends, buttons or details, including ruching and ruffles, are key for spring,” Greco said. “We’re also showing sporty color-blocking, leather-trimmed silk Lycra cardigans and a range of colors from pastels to brights: aqua, pink, orange and red are important.”

Berek, a New York knitwear company in business 27 years, is mixing it up with a game plan that includes a big private label business and a namesake collection that encompasses a wide range of seasonal trends, said Jean Mercier, sales manager.

“Whimsy and novelty have never been more important in knits, especially thematic styles that focus on special occasions and holidays,” Mercier said.

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