Like smart politicians, Canadian manufacturers showing at WWDMAGIC understand the importance of winning over soccer moms, a demographic whose fashion needs have been, for the most part, overlooked in the day-to-day realm.

Retailers are beginning to reap the rewards of offering 30- to 45-year-old women occupying the vast stylistic middle between, say, Jenna and Laura Bush, budget-friendly options for head-to-toe dressing.

Retailers' attempts to win over this demographic haven't always been fruitful. The Gap Inc.-owned Forth & Towne and Gymboree's Janeville both closed last winter, and Abercrombie & Fitch Co. is reportedly still tweaking its Martin + Osa assortment. But INC, the Macy's private label collection for women in their 30s and 40s, ranks as one of the chain's most profitable departments. Bloomingdale's has followed suit with Quotations, featuring 14 brands with contemporary-worthy styles and more forgiving fits.

So where do brands from the United States' neighbor to the north fit into the picture? "We really fill a great big white space out there," said Lani Karls, vice president, creative director and co-founder of Mac & Jac, a thirtysomething-focused Vancouver-based line, as well as its younger-focused sister labels Kensie and KensieGirl. All three lines were acquired by Liz Claiborne Inc. early last year.

"The Mac & Jac customer wants quality, and she wants clothes that can take her from the office to a dinner date," said Karls. "She wants to look good, but not at designer prices."

Women in this demographic tend to be both budget-conscious and seekers of quality, said executives. That can be a tough combination to deliver, but Canadian manufacturers said they are familiar with the challenge, perhaps more so than their American counterparts.

"The Canadian market is so tough. It's driven by quality-price, quality-price, quality-price," said Sandy Dombroski, vice president at Kersh, a knitwear brand based in Vancouver. "Consumers here have always demanded that and have driven us to offer it."

Mac & Jac's Karls agreed. "Canadians have a more European attitude towards clothing — they don't view it as being disposable, even though they are seeking great value. The craftsmanship has to be there too," she said.An attention to quality that doesn't necessarily come at the expense of price is what makes the frugal farmers' wives who shop at Trendsetters Co-op, in Ulysses, Kan. (pop: 4,200), so enamored with Montreal-based Tribal Sportswear, a women's sportswear line known for pants that are fashionable and flattering to middle-aged figures. "Tribal just flies out of our store," said Janet Pucket, a buyer for the Co-op. "Our customers can't get enough of the bottoms, and the quality of the fabrics and the fit for the price is just amazing."

Pat Brown, vice president of sales for Tribal, said the company could not reveal exact numbers or percentages pertaining to the brand's performance in the U.S., but said that gains were "healthy" and that the company receives strong positive feedback from their 1,800 American specialty boutique accounts and chains such as Nordstrom. (Tribal has 600 Canadian accounts). "I think it all goes back to consistency — not just of fit, but of quality and value," she said.

Brown said the company works hard to source quality fabrics and continually offers proven favorites to customers, citing stretch twills, cotton sateens and a polyester-rayon-spandex blend used chiefly in pants. Key spring 2008 looks include studded cotton tank tops ($14.50), a scallop-edged cotton sateen "jean jacket" ($24.50) and a shirred metallic-finish nylon jacket ($49.50). Cotton-blend Bermuda shorts range from $17.50 to $24.50 and skirts from $22.50 to $34.50.

Brown added that Tribal owes its loyal following to the line's reliable fit — evidenced by its using the same fit model for nearly a decade. To keep its fashions of the moment, Tribal sends a handful of scouts to select European and American cities to seek trends that the company then reinterprets for its customer.

The fact that these brands have not lost sight of their customers as true seekers of fashion — not just of forgiving waistbands — is part of their strength.

"We had an amazing spring, and we're off to a great start for fall with all three of our lines," said Karls, who added that gains in annual volume have been in the high double digits. "And that's in part because they are very trend- and value-focused. You can get Marni and Prada-esque looks that retail for just $79, $89, $99 per piece."In addition to a major rollout of its product for fall in Nordstrom's thirtysomething-focused Narrative departments in 102 stores, Karls said a key initiative in the coming months will be scouting locations for freestanding Mac & Jac boutiques, which should open in 2008. Fall styles include a wooden bead-embellished V-neck floral dress for $109, a black acetate tulip-shape topper for $129 and a black-and-white leopard print silk camisole with a back tie for $69. Mac & Jac is carried in 1,100 doors in the U.S. and Canada, including Nordstrom, Macy's, Marshall Field's and Dillard's in the U.S. and Hudson's Bay in Canada.

The fashion-craving soccer mom is powering a major shift in the marketplace that is redefining the misses' market, if not threatening its very existence.

"We started out very, very missy but we have changed our direction to become much more updated," said Neil Dombrowsky, owner of Picadilly Fashions, a 30-year-old Toronto-based line known for its "slinky" acetate-based collections, sold in 2,000 boutiques in Canada, Europe and the U.S., where three-quarters of its business is done. "Then we found that the real missy-focused mom-and-pop stores that have been in the market forever have been closing their doors or having a really hard time competing with big-box retailers," he said. "The ones that are surviving are giving something different, something much more contemporary, to their customers."

That realization prompted Picadilly Fashions to create Svetlana, a new line now in its third season and featuring edgier, more body-conscious silhouettes created by a former designer for swimwear brand Gottex. Dombrowsky has high hopes for the line, which has yielded 80 percent sell-throughs and 500 new accounts for Picadilly. "In its first season, it claimed 20 percent of Picadilly's overall volume," said Dombrowsky. "In the next five years, it will be on par with Picadilly and then surpass it. People are looking for something different, more styling and sexier clothing."

Retail prices run from $34 for a bias-cut ruffle skirt to $175 for a lace-trim, three-quarter-sleeve jacket.

The transformation of the misses' market to more contemporary looks also lends itself to more flexible merchandising options.

"Obviously, Kersh fits right in with the updated missy stores, but we also do great business in better stores too," said Dombroski. "Those stores put one of our sweaters with a $400 Theory dress and it sells. That's been a great business for us."Kersh, which launched a year and a half ago, is carried in 3,500 accounts in the U.S., including Nordstrom, Echochic in Philadelphia and Banana Moon in Hendersonville, N.C., and 1,500 accounts in Canada. Sales have increased by 200 percent each season, and "given that we are still in our infancy as a brand, I'd expect that to rise to 400 percent soon," Dombroski said. The company's sweaters and T-shirts, which are aimed at the younger, 18-to-35 end of the updated-misses' market, have a strong casual-meets-cool West Coast influence, and come in cotton blends, principally cotton-cashmere and cotton-spandex, as well as Modal. Kersh's spring collection retails from $30 to $125, and includes looks such as a bright pink scoopneck bodysuit ($30), a chocolate smocked tube dress ($45) and a smocked puff-sleeve sweater ($72.50).

Americans' new willingness to mix and match price points has also buoyed Mac & Jac's business, said Karls.

"Customers are demanding more [flexibility] from retailers," she said. "They are buying five good pieces and mixing them with lower-priced items."

Part of what allowed U.S. retailers to sell Canadian brands at lower prices was the strength of American currency against the Canadian dollar. With the tide turning, however — at press time, $1 CAD equaled $0.93 USD — vendors varied in their approaches to remaining competitive. Pat Brown of Tribal said the company's prices are holding steady because much of its manufacturing has been transferred from Montreal to factories in China and Bulgaria, which are also better equipped to handle the company's increasingly detail-rich silhouettes.

At Picadilly, Dombrowsky said, "The decline of the American dollar has been hard on our bottom line, because we still produce 95 percent of our fashions in Canada. But because of that, we can offer fast turnaround on reorders, and that helps retailers bring up their margins."

Kersh's Dombroski noted that any gains caused by increases in the Canadian dollar are balanced against the company's having to pay for overseas sourcing and manufacturing in American dollars.

On the whole, however, she said that the outlook is extremely rosy for Kersh and other Canadian brands who are poised to fill the gap in affordable fashion for the 30- to 45-year-old American woman."It's not just that small elite group of girls in Manhattan that want great fashion," Dombroski. "It's stay-at-home moms, it's the teachers, it's the checker at the supermarket — they want the great, cool stuff, too."
- Kristen Jandoli

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