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Forging Ahead for Fall

<CS:BOLD>NEW YORK -- After an anxiety-filled fourth quarter, lingerie and foundations vendors are facing their first market week of the new year -- for transitional/early fall merchandise -- with plenty of hurdles to overcome.<BR><BR>Having weathered...

NEW YORK — After an anxiety-filled fourth quarter, lingerie and foundations vendors are facing their first market week of the new year — for transitional/early fall merchandise — with plenty of hurdles to overcome.

Having weathered a litany of problems at retail — ranging from cancellations for holiday and spring merchandise, as well as travel and budget restrictions, increased chargebacks and a depletion of open-to-buy dollars — vendors continue to be apprehensive about collateral damage from several other factors.

Among them is the fate of The Warnaco Group, following the firm’s bankruptcy, and how the woes of the troubled foundations giant could impact overall innerwear business. In addition, there is the continuing sour economy and the pressure on independent firms from the sectors’ corporate giants, who have the marketing muscle and clout to squeeze out smaller players.

Despite the hardships, a majority of manufacturers said they expect retail traffic will be brisk at showrooms this week, and the main topics of conversation will generally revolve around markdown dollars, recaps of spring buys and previews of fall 2002, and advertising and promotional campaigns for the second half.

However, vendors privately complained that it is unclear whether buyers’ budgets have been set — or, for that matter, if budgets will be focused exclusively on a few resources that performed well during the crucial holiday selling period. Others fear they could be locked into a smattering of key items that could turn out to be major hits or misses, which would erode their standing at stores.

Retailers are expected to order merchandise that stands the best chance of selling at full price, offsetting the losses incurred during the holiday season, which was packed with deep discounts and a multitude of promotions.

Ideas expected to be strong for early fall include:

Styles that will make consumers feel comfortable, warm and cozy, such as microfleece pajamas, brushed cotton nighties and chenille robes.

Silk at-homewear that has a glamorous, dressed-up look; knits that have a cashmere-like hand, and soft microfibers like Tactel.

An array of special treatments, including metallics, rhinestones, beading, embroideries, appliques, printed sheers and fake-fur trims. Color also will be key.

A must-have item that combines value and fashion, such as low-rise ankle pants that can be mixed or matched with a variety of tops.

Stan Herman, designer of robes and at-homewear that bears his name at the innerwear unit of Kellwood Co., said: “I think there is a whole sea change going on right now. Lines are smaller and geared to specific stores. It used to be a line would have 60 pieces, now it’s 40. Consumers want to feel comfortable but fashionable. I’ll be focusing on new stitching, more texture and color, and more classic silhouettes in my collection, which is 50 percent chenille.”

One item that received strong response when previewed last week was a leopard-print fake-fur robe, said Herman.

Carole Hochman, president and design director of Carole Hochman Designs, said: “We don’t think it’s the year for cutting-edge fashion. It’s a year for beautiful detailing and embellishments. We are always very classic and we’ve done our homework with the newness in color, texture and prints that make fabrics look interesting.”

Victoria Vandegriff, vice president of sales for the Carole Hochman and licensed Oscar de la Renta sleepwear brands at the Hochman firm, said: “We were trending well through the fall. But if you weren’t trending well — you had better look out. No one is sure what their fall 2002 budgets will be like. But in our case, it’s nice to go into January market and be confident of where you’re coming from.”

Jeanette Cantone, senior vice president of merchandising and design at Natori Co., said: “We are coming off an excellent fall-holiday season. While we saw a slight concern in September, we picked up the beat again. We had reorders up to mid-December because we’ve been on trend and will continue to capitalize on trends.”

Cantone singled out one top item: a mandarin collar, cropped pajama set that features an Asian-inspired print in the Josie line.

Cantone added: “The difference this year is we will be zoning our merchandise. We are paying a lot more attention to customers in different climates. For example, while we are shipping warmwear to the Northeast and Midwest, we will be shipping more cottons to the South and the West Coast. The key thing is that we have a strong understanding of our customers and we are delivering merchandise according to their needs.”

Susan Pink, senior vice president of the French Jenny division at Richard Leeds International, said: “Stores are taking a really hard look at what performed and what didn’t. It will be much more competitive and retailers will be coming in with a total merchandising point of view. I think the years of doing the same things over and over again are over, and newness will prevail. The attitude will be may the best product win.”

Pink said she feels “pretty positive about fall ’02” based on good sell-throughs at retail over the past several weeks of sleepwear items that featured sparkle and glitter treatments, as well as specialty appliques and fake fur.

“We are expecting a busy market and the retailers who usually come in will be here,” said David Komar, vice president of marketing at Charles Komar & Sons. “We feel retailers will be planning flat for the second half.”

Komar said the licensed Eileen West sleepwear, which features romantic laces and embroideries, has received good reaction, particularly one group with a leaf lace motif. Another strong item by Eileen West is a floral-printed sleep gown of cotton lawn with a coordinating printed velour robe. A top idea in the licensed Liz Claiborne line of sleepwear is a new brushed French terry fabric for robes, said Komar.

Peter Cooper, vice president of sales and merchandising at Lady Ester Lingerie Corp., said: “We are concentrating on trends coming out of Europe, lots of laces and embroideries, [bodice] cup treatments and sheers. We also will continue animal prints in printed meshes with lace treatments.”

Regarding the pace of the market, Cooper said: “There will be business that will be done, but it will be very selective for margin building, following all of the holiday sales and promotions.”

“How much can you give me in mark-down money? That’s the key to this market,” said Marvin Backer, chief executive officer of Flora Nikrooz Lingerie. “Retailers went though a rough Christmas this year and I don’t think they’ve put together their strategies, yet. But we have a lot of new colors in the Flash by Flora Nikrooz line and a lot of glamorous looks and laces in our special-occasion line.”

Backer said he expects additional business at the Intermezzo trade show, which begins in New York on Jan. 12, and the International Salon de la Lingerie in Paris, scheduled for Jan. 25-29. He said: “That’s where we get most of our foreign accounts, especially our Mideast accounts, which bypassed the New York market in November.”

Sheila Solomon, merchandiser and national sales manager of Priamo Designs, said: “It’s hard to get a read on this market because of what’s happened over the past several months, and many people were on vacation. But a majority of specialty stores have told me they had a very good December, mainly because they offered customers special items and personalized services department stores don’t do, like free gift wrapping, cookies, candy and beverages. Many specialty stores are coming in for January market because they missed November.”

The lion’s share of the Priamo line will focus on thermals for transitional selling, said Solomon.

Helen Sanchez, a designer of contemporary sleepwear and daywear that bears her name, said: “I don’t expect January to be a crazy market. It will mainly be a preview for March and it will get retailers thinking ahead. I’ll go to my stores and they’ll come to my showroom. Specialty stores are always in need of better goods and my business is growing.”

For early fall and holiday, Sanchez said she will feature laces and silks in a range of rich colors, including hennas, earth tones, silver and slate.