By  on January 9, 2006

NEW YORK — This month's market is a milestone for the intimate apparel industry. It will be the last January edition after decades as a traditional sleepwear, robe and warmwear venue.

That will be a main focus this week among retailers and vendors, as they discuss strategies to alleviate the pressure of presenting concepts and samples of fall collections a month earlier than previous years. The market dates in 2007, which will be consolidated from five to four sessions are: Feb. 5-9, May 7-11, Aug. 5-10 and Nov. 5-9.

This will offer challenges for vendors that have increasingly been required to speed up lead times for deliveries, giving manufacturers a tighter time frame to source, design and produce goods.

However, the transition is expected to offer two perks during a typically frenetic period: Merchants and manufacturers will have time to scout for fashion trends in Europe and Asia, and vendors that will have more time to source and manufacture merchandise in China will not be beleaguered by a shutdown of factories during the Chinese New Year when all production comes to a halt for about two weeks in January.

Another issue that will continue to be on the front burner for vendors is the fate of innerwear companies and brands being squeezed by retail mergers, including the Federated-May department stores union, the Sears-Kmart deal and the Bon-Ton-Carson's merger.

Among the categories that concern suppliers is branded sleepwear and robes, an area in which more major retailers are turning to private label, accounting for as much of 70 percent of merchandise on the selling floor. Still, bra makers are not out of harm's way, as it is anticipated large retailers will begin assessing how many national bra brands creating similar-looking seamless, molded-cup bras are needed on a retailer's matrix.

In response to these concerns, vendors are addressing the need for newness and differentiation of product. They are either building niches such as young, contemporary bridal like Flora Nikrooz, creating fashionable lifestyle collections of dual-purpose lounge separates like Cruz by the Natori Co., or focusing on a must-have brand in sleepwear such as Oscar de la Renta and Lauren by Ralph Lauren at the Hochman Design Group.Jessica Mitchell, senior vice president of marketing and merchandising at Natori Co., outlined several classifications that are expected to be key.

"Sexy cotton and Modal chemises, and cami pj's with geometric lace, as well as a softer design approach to the lounge area with new short wrap jacket and wider-leg, easy pants with novelty tops are expected to be strong," Mitchell said. "In fact, the whole concept of multipurpose dressing keeps getting stronger each season in all of the lines, including Natori, Josie Natori and Cruz. Luxurious velvet, stretch velvet and velour in new fashion colors such as fatigue, khaki and cocoa is a major fashion statement for us. Velvet is also used as trims. Luxury is always key to our business. And layering, the look of layering in lightweight fabrics like cotton jersey and printed and solid mesh, is key."

Gale Epstein, president and creative director of Hanky Panky, said a new color palette that includes dusty hues of orchid, muted seafoam, pink and pale olive that are "reminiscent of an English garden" is expected to receive strong reaction. She noted that a group called Dottie Paisley will enhance the romantic statement with vivid lavender swirls over daywear, as well as a blue and purple blossom print called Evening Rose on both daywear and sleepwear.

Cindy Kelly, president of Hanro USA, said, "January market is very important for us because we traditionally launch our entire fall daywear ad sleepwear collections. We plan to see all of our key customers this week. But we're looking at '07 as a challenge because of the nature of Hanro. It's really a custom-made business and that's why we use January. Next year, November will become even that more important."

Carole Hochman, chairman and design director of the Hochman Group, said, "It will be easier for us because we're already doing four markets anyway — January, March, August and November. And there's so little time between the January and March markets, and of course, the Chinese New Year. We'll combine February and May next year."

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