By  on February 9, 2005

LOS ANGELES — Peter Kim is affectionately known as “hype man” at his family business, Protrend Inc., maker of the Hudson jeans contemporary label and Drunknmunky streetwear.

Kim, 34, chief executive officer of the company, has worked the celebrity angle to promote Hudson jeans and the club circuit to boost Drunknmunky. Now, he said, is the time to apply those marketing skills to Protrend’s moderate misses’ lines, Nicola and E.K. Trends.

“Branding has been missing from the misses’ business and there’s no reason why we can’t apply some guerrilla marketing tactics to it,” Kim said in an interview.

To help push the labels to the next level, Kim about three weeks ago hired Dennis Ammon to be president of Nicola and E.K. Trends. Ammon’s arrival marks the first time that Protrend, founded 26 years ago by Kim’s parents, Sang Hoon Kim and Eunice Kim, has brought in an outsider to run the misses’ division.

“We’re seeing stronger interest in the labels now and the time was right to more heavily pursue the business,” Peter Kim said.

With the elimination of global textile and apparel quotas on Jan. 1, a number of moderate brands face stiff competition from China, which is expected to ramp up its apparel exports of cheaper-priced goods.

“We want to get big and get big fast,” Ammon said. How big? The goal is to boost the $15 million category to $50 million to $60 million in three years.

Kim said Ammon, former president of Los Angeles-based moderate manufacturer Impressions, which is no longer in business, brings a strategic level of expertise that was missing from Nicola and E.K. Trends. The labels offered retailers an unedited assortment of clothing, often covering a spectrum of fabrics and styles without conveying a firm style statement.

“He’s firing one focused shot from a rifle, while we were spraying the market with a machine gun,” Kim said.

Ammon’s approach is to concentrate on what Nicola and E.K. Trends do best — twinsets, pleated designs and lace fabrications that can service both career and casual needs. The goal is to offer fashion dressing for the misses’ customer, who is aware and hungry for trends but not over-the-top looks, at moderate price points of $7 to $15 wholesale.For fall, that would encompass printed chiffon georgette blouses with coordinated pleated shell tops, pleated button-down blouses in floral prints and lace-textured, lightweight jackets with ruffles or zipped-up looks. Younger styles include a tank top under a butterfly-patterned lace wrap. Details include split cuffs and burn-out accents. There also are one-piece sets in mixed media, such as a mesh wrap shirt attached to a jersey tank in an animal print.

“By clarifying our position and what we mean to the industry, we can negotiate with retailers about how we’ll impact and improve their business, not just try to make things cheaper, faster and better,” Ammon said.

Forging partnerships is the way to get ahead, he said. The company previously had hit-or-miss success with retailers such as Dress Barn, TJX Cos. and Nordstrom. Midtier stores such as Sears, J.C. Penney and Kohl’s now top the wish list for new business.

“We need to build consistent sales with the companies, not just one month we’re in and one month we’re out,” Ammon said. “That won’t allow us to exist.”

Kim and Ammon are confident they can succeed against rivals in Asia. They agree raising prices isn’t the answer.

Instead, it’s about promoting the product. “China lacks a means of distribution, of really infiltrating the U.S. market,” said Kim, who plans to reach shoppers through community and retail promotions.

The terrain is familiar for Kim, who first helped bail out the company in 1994. His parents had built a thriving $30 million business on the success of their polyester blouses, a neat partner for the power suit of the Eighties. Sales took a hit in the early Nineties with the arrival of casual dressing, and eventually the company was $10 million in debt. That situation led to a telephone call Kim received from his father while Kim was on spring break from the University of Southern California.

“He said, ‘Spring break my ass,’” Kim recalled. “‘Come help the company.’”

By 1999, Protrend had returned to profitability with the help of vendors and new products such as knit looks, which provided crossover business in both the casual and career markets.Ratcheting up the business is a challenge in a category dominated by the private label offering from department stores. But Nicola and E.K. Trends may have a design edge.

“There’s opportunity for updated fashion resources in the marketplace,” said Lynn Miller, vice president of the misses’ category at Directives West consulting firm in L.A.

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