By  on May 19, 1994

NEW YORK -- Fashion looks are getting a boost in bodywear this spring, thanks to an improving economy.

Retailers and vendors both report that consumers are apparently feeling easier about spending their money, and as they look to freshen up their bodywear wardrobes, they're being attracted to the more interesting treatments, including textured fabrics and ready-to-wear colors and prints.

Pieces in fleece or jersey that coordinate with activewear are also important at some stores, with dual-purpose items that a woman can wear shopping as well as while she's working out continuing to build sales.

In general, say observers, basic items continue to account for most of the business. But the upbeat action in fashion looks is providing a welcome hike in figures. Some executives say volume in fashion looks is up this spring as much as 20 percent, over a sluggish period a year ago.

The importance of fashion bodywear appears to vary widely from store to store. In Florida, for example, Burdines reports fashion is key as bodywear commonly doubles as sportswear.

"South Florida is a very unique market," said Barbara McDonald, bodywear buyer at the Miami-based Burdines. "Our strength has always been fashion, especially streetwear looks."

McDonald, who oversees bodywear in 40 Burdines units, said the fashion influence emanating from trendy South Beach over the past several years has been instrumental in making stretch streetwear looks -- often put together from bodywear lines -- a part of everyday dressing in Florida.

She singled out three labels as fashion bestsellers: Softouch, Curbtex by Fashion Trend International and BodyWrappers by Attitudes in Dressing. Others that have had good sell-throughs in fashion items this spring are City Lights, and three lines by Weekend Exercise Co. -- Aerodynamics, Marika and the licensed Baryshnikov collection, she said.

Top items have been unitards, and active sport looks such as shorts, tank tops and cotton T-shirts.

Bodywear departments in Burdines units are generally located near active sportswear, she noted. The category continues to grow because in the Florida climate, it can be worn year-round as streetwear.

"Because of that, it has a permanent spot," she added.Macy's East has fueled a growing demand for fashion looks this spring with the addition of two new bodywear lines -- Mossimo and Carushka -- said Robin Satty, divisional merchandise manager for fashion accessories, bodywear and hosiery.

The two fashion lines have encouraged more high-end business, she said, and a third line is on tap -- OMO Gym by Norma Kamali bodywear, which will arrive this summer.

Key items so far in Macy's fashion bodywear include bike shorts, bra tops and thong-back leotards. Satty said a top-selling group has been Marika Swetz, a group of activewear-related items such as crop tops and shorts by Weekend Exercise.

"We're definitely doing a very strong fashion story, and we've totally revamped our basics assortments with textured solids," said Margie Dupuis, director of merchandising for the catalog and retail division of NordicTrack, Chaska, Minn.

Dupuis said response has been "very good" this spring to surface treatments and nontraditional bodywear prints and colors inspired by sportswear. She said dual-purpose items that can be worn in and out of the gym are the hottest sellers at NordicTrack.

NordicTrack at present has four apparel and sports equipment retail operations -- 60 NordicTrack Fitness At Home stores; two Fitness For Fun units for men, women and children; six NordicTrack Factory Direct shops, and 12 NordicSport shops in the U.S., four in Europe and one in Canada.

"Basics for us right now are pretty much driving our bodywear business," said Karen Failes-Coad, senior buyer of bodywear for the department store division of Dayton Hudson Corp., although she noted that higher-end fashion items are getting somewhat more play.

In basics, Failes-Coad said, a new strategy of everyday low pricing introduced this spring at the Dayton's, Hudson's and Marshall Field's stores has been "very successful."

"It's split into two areas," explained Failes-Coad. "What's selling are basics at down-and-dirty price points, or the higher-end merchandise from Aerodynamics or Nike."

At the same time, she said, the increase in fashion business has been with nontraditional bodywear that has coordinating fleece and jersey pieces in nontraditional colors.

"We are doing very well with Nike, because of its dual-purpose appeal," Failes-Coad said, noting that Speedo by Authentic Fitness, another fitness wear vendor, is the newest entry in the store's bodywear lineup.Among vendors, Glen Greenbaum, Danskin's vice president of sporting goods and specialty store accounts, reported, "Our fashion bodywear business is 20 percent ahead over fall 1993, and our basic business is up 12 percent over the past two months, because of strong reorders."

Greenbaum attributed the increases in fashion and basics to "a lot of stores placing reorders after having let their stock go low in January and February."

"It's encouraging for bodywear business," said Greenbaum. "More people have more discretionary income right now."

In a recent marketing research study, he noted, the firm's marketing executives found that memberships at health clubs around the country have picked up this year.

Anne Wiper, divisional merchandise manager of women's apparel at Nike Inc., Beaverton, Ore., said that while the company continues to emphasize basics, the introduction this spring of a fashion group of red, black and white colorblock bodywear, called Swoosh, has helped Nike's fashion business grow 10 percent over a year ago.

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