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Freshening Up for Spring

Smaller firms and niche brands, facing the dominance of Nike, Adidas and Puma, are embarking on strategies to pump up business.

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NEW YORK — Smaller and niche companies in activewear — facing a sector dominated by giants such as Nike, Adidas and Puma — are embarking on strategies for spring to increase their business and market share.

Everlast Worldwide is freshening up its women’s products with bold colors and new silhouettes and plans to initiate an aggressive consumer advertising campaign. Lizgolf by Liz Claiborne is adding more luxury fabrics and increasing its offerings of special sizes. Newcomers, including Zeneration, are looking to break into the market, and The Marika Group is branching out with a high-performance brand called IconTMG.

“Specialty stores are looking for new lines and they want to differentiate themselves from the majors,” said Norm Zwail, president of the Marika Group, who said he sees more room for new brands in activewear. “At the same time, more companies will likely enter the mass channel, which creates other opportunities.”

The $16.2 billion women’s activewear market has been particularly busy as brands such as Speedo enter the business, and big-name companies, including Nike and Danskin, expand their distribution by entering the mass channel.

On the trend front, performance fabrics are key for active companies and a number of new collections incorporate materials with properties such as wicking, breathability and moisture-management.

There are also a number of new collaborations under way, reflecting a strong trend in the sports arena as companies continue to link up with designers and celebrities. Adidas will roll out its new line designed by Stella McCartney in February, and its collection with Missy Elliott will start its second season in the spring. Another new sport collaboration is between tennis brand Ellesse and British fashion label Eley Kishimoto. The company is targeting stores such as Barney’s Co-op and Fred Segal for distribution, said Stuart Hudson, Ellesse’s U.S. national sales manager.

“This is a fun way to generate interest in our brand,” Hudson said, noting the collection will have limited U.S. distribution and will be sold worldwide. The initial products include miniskirts and cropped jackets in materials such as cotton and nylon with tennis motifs, and will wholesale for about $12 for a bandanna to $120 for a bomber jacket.

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Everlast’s spring offerings feature bright and bold hues such as green and hot pink, and there are new silhouettes including a miniskirt and lower waistlines. Many products incorporate elements like mesh and stretch fabrics. There are also new hangtags for spring that identify the fabric content of the items. An advertising campaign for women’s will kick off in the spring in magazines such as Shape and Latina, said Seth Horowitz, Everlast’s executive vice president. The company is seeking to elevate its status and build its brand as some of its competitors move into the mass channel.

“There are a lot of changes happening in the market now, and we see opportunities to expand into department stores and upper-end sporting goods chains,” Horowitz said. “We are planning strong growth from our women’s business in 2005.”

Women’s now accounts for about 60 percent of Everlast’s domestic sales, he said.

The Marika Group, best known for its yoga offerings, is starting IconTMG, a line combining technical fabrics with updated styling. “Our current brands are not positioned to capture the customer looking for more detailed garments at a certain price point,” Zwail said. “This is meant for hard-core gym workouts and high-performance activities.”

He said IconTMG targets a slightly younger customer than the company’s core labels, which include Marika, Shiva Shakti and Kiss The Sky, brands that are generally cotton-based and have a relaxed fit. “We are trying to bring a younger attitude to fitness,” Zwail said. He is targeting gyms and specialty chains as well as a selection of department stores such as Marshall Field’s.

The product offerings include cropped pants and sports bras as well as polyester and Lycra spandex T-shirts and low-rise shorts. Wholesale prices range from about $17.50 for bras to $22.50 for drawstring pants, and Zwail anticipates generating $10 million in sales within three years.

Meanwhile, Zeneration is a new company based in New York catering to Baby Boomer active women who want comfortable clothing that can be worn at the gym and elsewhere.

“We did a lot of research and found that many women’s needs weren’t being met,” said company founder Amy Lee. “This is a collection for women who want apparel for working out and for getting groceries.”

Lee, a native of Seoul, said the products were inspired partly by her native country. One of the initial collections, called Bamboo, incorporates bamboo fibers with cotton and stretch properties. Another collection, Balance, has layering fabrics and is available in shades such as tangerine, lemonade and turquoise, as well as white and black.

Wholesale prices range from about $15 to $60, and the company is targeting boutiques, spas, health clubs and department stores for initial distribution. Executives declined to give sales projections since they have just begun showing the line.

Among other niche companies, dance firm Capezio is starting the Red Label division, which has premium fabrics and sophisticated design elements, as well as a line of separates in its Dancesport collection. “The Red Label is a fashion-forward line that is cutting-edge as far as dance is concerned,” said designer Judy Spodek. “We are targeting a higher-end customer with this collection.”

Red Label has deconstructed seaming and corseting details and wholesales from about $15 to $25. Spodek also noted that Capezio is expanding its offerings of separates in the Dancesport category, some of which have performance attributes.

Women’s golf apparel is another arena that has been generating more interest from brands and stores, and the offerings have been getting more fashion-forward in recent seasons. Golf brand Greg Norman, a division of Reebok International, is among those expanding its selection of women’s offerings, which were introduced two years ago and include the company’s Play-Dry proprietary wicking fabric.

“Women’s is a fast-growing part of our offerings,” said Suzy Biszantz, Greg Norman president and chief executive officer. Women’s now accounts for 10 percent of the overall Greg Norman business, she said. “Color is key and the offerings are feminine but have performance capabilities.”

And Lizgolf by Liz Claiborne Golf has introduced more luxury items into its offerings for spring. Among the new looks are a suede jacket and products with high-end fabrics such as cashmere and silk.

“Our spring 2005 marketing efforts will address Lizgolf as a multigenerational brand and one that continues to be a multidemographic brand, i.e., a brand for business women, professional golfers, trade and leisure golfers,” said Fritz Winans, group president of Liz Claiborne Brands, who noted that the company has added sales reps to gain more national distribution in golf specialty shops. “We’re a performance-oriented resource so we want to be where our customer wants to buy the product.”

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