An air of conservatism continues to prevail among better and moderate sportswear companies as they feel the pinch of the tough economy. Brands such as Liz Claiborne, Jones New York, Harvé Benard, Ballinger Gold, Sag Harbor, Perry Ellis, Sigrid Olsen, French Cuff, Lynn Ritchie and Bonjour are erring on the side of caution in their planning for the second half.

Hal Upbin, chairman, chief executive officer and president of Kellwood Co., said he’s looking forward to a “feel-better mood” come fourth quarter.

“I’m looking toward a recovery, especially if the stock market holds, people get their tax refund checks and nothing crazy like terrorism happens,” Upbin said. “It will take five or six [factors] for things to get better. We’ll go into the holiday season feeling good, and by first quarter 2004, things will be looking better. Just modestly better — nothing robust. The consumer is looking at vital signs and they are starting to look pretty good, but we’re not quite there yet.”

Upbin said he projects about an 18 percent growth for the year — 5 percent organic and about 13 percent through acquisitions, citing the Briggs moderate brand it recently acquired. “Diversification was our focus and once we were focused with our infrastructure and systems, then we got into adding the various brands and we felt they would be additive [to the business], and they are.”

In 2002, Kellwood’s earnings gained 11.3 percent to $42 million on sales that were down 3 percent to $2.2 billion. Kellwood also is launching the licensed Izod women’s line in the second half and is gearing up for a 2004 launch of the Calvin Klein better sportswear line it’s producing under license for Phillips-Van Heusen.

Thomas Burns, president of Ballinger Gold and Mary Lucille, said the two lines are coming off a strong first and second quarter and, “based upon the initial reaction and orders placed, we see no reason why this momentum won’t continue.”

“I’m not sensing any difference in the consumers’ attitude that would prompt them to go on buying sprees,” Burns continued. “This creates a burden on the manufacturer where we have to anticipate their last-minute shopping as they buy closer to their needs.”Dan Shamdasani, president of Public Clothing Co., which produces the licensed Perry Ellis women’s and French Cuff lines, said, “We expect pent-up demand to materialize in the second half and are positioning ourself to service quick turns and in-season demand.”

Bernard Holtzman, president of Harvé Benard, said the uncertain economy and retailers’ hesitance to place orders early has placed extra burden on manufacturers to be right about everything — from whether skirts will be the next hottest thing to the newest novelty detail.

Holtzman, whose company does about $100 million annually, said, “The stock market is coming back and people are feeling stable at this point. Luckily, there’s newness in the market with miniskirts and retro skirts, but…people are waiting until they can actually wear something before they buy it. Waiting is the new mantra.”

In order to survive and remain competitive, Carmine Porcelli, managing director at Bonjour, said he introduced sportswear for fall to complement the denim business.

“We’re fortunate because we don’t have previous numbers [for comparison], so whatever we do is a big plus,” said Porcelli, adding that the company should end the year doing about $50 million wholesale. “You have to be cautious today, with what’s being sold and how much you cut of it.”

Christa Michalaros, president of women’s wear at Tommy Hilfiger, said “We’re going beyond basic jeans and moving much more into casual lifestyle. Another thing we’re doing is changing the face of the retail floor. Every month through color and novelty items, we’re moving beyond red, white and blue.”

To survive this challenging retail environment, Debbie Martin, vice president and group creative director at Liz Claiborne Brands, said apparel companies need to offer items that are “mood altering” in order to attract consumers’ interest.

“Consumers love color, novelty and emotional items,” Martin said. “Fall, which would normally be somber, has a lot more color. Everything from primary brights, almost citrusy colors, will be important.”

Heather Pech, group president of better sportswear brands Jones New York, Rena Rowan and Easy Spirit at Jones Apparel Group, said the company also maintains a conservative posture.“But there’s a lot that’s very salable and wearable,” said Pech, citing a wide range of novelty trends being used in the lines.

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