By  on February 14, 2005

Recovering from the economic slump that closed wallets and shrank retail accounts, the contemporary category is booming.

“[It] continues to get bigger and stronger every single season,” said Kiera Ganann, director of women’s sales for London-based French Connection.

Vendors are celebrating the momentum by talking about expansion.

Expansion of novelty styles, lower-end lines and Internet selling helped lift the category from the doldrums of mid-2003. Now, updated branding efforts, new partnerships, new products and line spin-offs all are contributing to expected growth for 2005. As always, the focus remains on giving the customer what she wants.

CAMPAIGN TRAIL

Vendors may be ecstatic about robust sales, but they are still looking to expand those sales going forward.

French Connection is pushing for growth with a campaign that intends to sell its strong but controversial FCUK brand to a more sophisticated customer base.

“We wanted something different,” said French Connection’s Ganann. “We didn’t want the customer to get bored with FCUK.”

In the subtler, more innuendo-based campaign for fall 2005, the FCUK logo has disappeared in favor of such phrases as “Something beginning with F” and “Don’t make us say it.” The new campaign, combined with what Ganann calls a “tremendous reaction” to the spring 2005 line, is expected to result in a 20 percent increase in sales.

TWO FOR ONE

Strong companies also have looked toward growth by forming partnerships with larger companies.

Fresh from its acquisition by Liz Claiborne Inc., Los Feliz, Calif.-based C&C California, which is making its first appearance at WWDMAGIC, has plans to move past the basic T-shirts that initially made the line popular. C&C will look to move into woven pants, skirts and shirts and, eventually, swimwear and accessories.

“We just didn’t have the sourcing for that,” said C&C’s Claire Stansfield, a co-founder with Cheyann Benedict. “With this partnership, that door is open for us.”

The partnership “was really our plan from the get-go,” said Stansfield. “We had a five-year plan to sell to a large company and partner with someone who has the best experience.” That it all took place in only two years is exciting, she explained.C&C sought out Liz Claiborne with diversification and international distribution in mind. “We trust that they’ll handle our brand appropriately,” Stansfield said. “People respond to the uniqueness of our brand, so we’re keeping it very cool and sophisticated, very C&C California.”

Originally targeted at women ages 18 to 45, the line recently expanded to include men’s wear and infants’ wear. The summer collection features an assortment of jeans in a variety of washes and eight colors to coordinate with the line’s signature Ts, which will remain the centerpiece of C&C and feature new patterns and fabrics as the line grows.

With newfound distribution in Japan and a new corporate showroom in Los Angeles, C&C expects $30 million to $45 million in sales for 2005, with the original T-shirts accounting for $24 million.

GOOD IN PLENTY

Many vendors reacted to strong sales of one item by taking some risks and adding on new items.

For example, Jim Boldes, owner of L.A.-based Red Engine jeans, turned to a new look to grow his company’s customer base. More than 90 percent of his business, he said, came from the line’s basic five-pocket jean, which contributed to steady growth over five years.

Then the company added “sliced” jeans. Boldes said the company was initially wary of how customers who were loyal to Red Engine’s classic look would respond to the new ripped style. However, the risk paid off. 

“Our basic jean is still up there, but the sliced jean has been our number one seller for the past few months,” said Boldes. “We’re basically tripling to quadrupling [sales] from last year.” Wholesale volume is projected at more than $10 million.

L.A.-based Tail Bait expanded in the literal sense by using more fabric in its new collection. In addition to its Outer Underwear lingerie with interchangeable rhinestone straps, the line plans to use WWDMAGIC to launch sweatpants, sweatjackets, T-shirts, tanks and layering pieces. Owners Lainie and Valerie Dirienzo and Jackie Rodgers also hope to develop a line of jeans in the near future.“We’re trying to stay as innovative as we can,” said Lainie Dirienzo.

Attention from celebrities has helped the one-year-old line grow faster than originally expected. Teri Hatcher of “Desperate Housewives” fame has been known to wear Tail Bait tops on the show and has appeared publicly several times sporting the rhinestone bra straps.

“That helped us gain popularity so quickly,” Lainie said. Wholesale volume is projected at $1 million for 2005.

SISTER ACT

When successful with one line, why not try another? At least that’s the theory for a few companies who have looked to increase business by premiering sister lines.

Eighteen-year-old L.A.-based Johnny Was branched out at the L.A. market in January with the launch of 3J Workshop, to a response that 3J Workshop president Ofer Oz described as “unbelievable.”

“Sales were way more than we expected,” he said. The line picked up accounts with Fred Segal, Ron Herman and Yellow Dog in L.A., and also received orders from Europe.

The 3J Workshop made its debut with a collection of woven shirts in cotton and silk-cotton blends, and plans to introduce new fall styles at WWDMAGIC. Wholesale price points range from $80 to $100.

Of the $2 million in sales projected for 2005, Oz predicts $300,000 will be from WWDMAGIC.

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