By and  on March 20, 2006

NEW YORK — After leaving legs out in the cold for years, designers are warming them up again.

Runway presentations from here to Paris sidestepped the nude trend of previous seasons and featured a range of options for full coverage from head to toe, including opaque tights, leggings, legwarmers and over-the-knee socks.

Hosiery makers are ecstatic about the shift, projecting the trend could pull them out of a slump and result in as much as a 35 percent increase to business compared with last fall.

Sales of hosiery, including socks, sheer hosiery and tights, fell 5.3 percent for the year ended Aug. 31, according to NPD Group, a research firm based in Port Washington, N.Y. The sheer hosiery category plummeted 15.6 percent, to slightly more than $1 billion, while tights slipped 13.6 percent, to just under $113 million. The socks segment was the only bright light; sales were up 3.5 percent to $1.6 billion.

"It's all about leggings and opaque [tights]," said Ed Burstell, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of beauty, jewelry and accessories for Bergdorf Goodman. "The silhouette for fall is covered up and [legwear] is very much in line with what's happening with [showing] less skin. There's a little more sobriety for fall. It's about restraint, but in a way, a bit of modesty can allude to a higher sexiness."

Carolina Herrera showed everything from day dresses with matching coats to whisper-light evening gowns with brown ribbed tights on her fall runway.

"I love stockings," Herrera told WWD in February. "I like it better than bare legs in the middle of a winter day. It's a good look."

Thakoon Panichgul, designer of Thakoon, used opaque tights and leggings on the runway to compliment the season's rising hemlines.

"It's about being covered up in a sleeker way, but not too covered up," Panichgul said. "Leggings enhance the sexiness, so you can see that sliver of skin between the legging and the bootie."

Anna Sui paired many of her runway looks with either demure ivory tights or retro-patterned hosiery with an orange background.

"Patterned or textured tights make an outfit look very fresh," Sui said. "It is a key trend of the season. Women who love the art of dressing up are most likely looking for new ways to accessorize."Estee Berman, manager of design and merchandising at Sara Lee Branded Apparel, which produces Donna Karan, DKNY and Hanes hosiery, said making a fashion statement in legwear is crucial to driving business.

"Women don't need hosiery anymore," Berman said. "We need to give them another reason to need it, and fashion pieces are an inexpensive way to drive a young consumer to update an outfit."

The Donna Karan and DKNY collections for fall include a range of options, from opaque tights in dark hues to floral prints and men's wear-inspired patterns updated with a metallic sheen. Donna Karan upped the luxury quotient by creating a cropped legging in cashmere. DKNY focused on layering, showing a sleeker version of a legwarmer in cotton meant to be worn over a solid tight.

The legging trend, which started to take off for this spring, caught Look From London creative director Tony Taylor off guard. The firm's footless tights business had been reserved until now for its European clients.

"Now a lot of [U.S.] retailers are asking for them for fall," he said.

Taylor expects a 35 percent jump in fall sales versus last year because of the appearance of footless tights, legwarmers and thigh-high styles on the runways.

"Stores that usually aren't buying legwear are now buying legwear," he added.

Julia Townsend, executive vice president and general manager of Kayser-Roth Corp., a parent of Hue and No Nonsense, agreed: "Leggings are doing amazingly right now. In terms of footless tights or leggings, our January 2006 sales were eight times higher than for January 2005. The footless tight phenomenon is going to continue to explode. Legwear looks right when you go into a dress moment, and we are in a dress moment."

Townsend said the firm was having success with solid opaque tights in red, bone, graphite, chocolate and eggplant.

Sweater tights and over-the-knee socks in solids and knit argyle patterns made an appearance in the presentations of Cynthia Steffe and Michael Kors.

"As a result of what happened on the runway, we put cashmere over-the-knee argyle socks in the line [exclusive to Michael Kors boutiques]," said Michele Slade, vice president of sales and marketing for socks at American Essentials, which produces Michael Kors and Calvin Klein legwear. "Also, layering has come back. We're pairing tights with knee socks to coordinate with short skirts."Slade projected the Michael Kors legwear business, which was launched in 2005, would grow 35 percent, and the Calvin Klein hosiery business would increase 25 percent this fall.

Wolford's opaque tights, sweater knits and crocheted tights were used in more than 20 shows here last month. In addition, the 55-year-old Austrian luxury hosiery and bodywear maker, recently signed agreements with fashion houses Missoni, Kenzo and Zac Posen for exclusive collections.

On Wednesday, the company reported profit for the nine months through January increased 144 percent, bolstered by cost-saving measures and more luxurious products. Net profit rocketed to 2.66 million euros, or $3.22 million, from 1.09 million euros, or $1.32 million, a year ago. Sales for the period rose 2.7 percent to 92.88 million euros, or $112.29 million, from 90.48 million euros, or $109.39 million.

"The updated and attractive product portfolio, as well as internal efficiency gains, contributed to this good interim profit," said Holger Dahmen, the firm's chief executive officer, last week.

The company said it reduced bank loans and overdraft charges during the period by 4.5 million euros, or $5.44 million. Wolford said it expected "positive" business through the end of April, and its goal was to reach full-year sales of at least 120 million euros, or $145 million.

"I'm pleased that the no-hose look has gone away," he said last month. "Ladylike, glamorous clothes don't look good [with a bare leg]."

Hot Sox has expanded its Comfort socks line to include more fashion colors like deep purple and mustard yellow. Susan Spindell, the firm's national sales manager, projected a 10 to 15 percent increase this fall in that category.

"We're predicting a bullish fall in tights and trouser socks," said Robert Sussman, president of ETC Hosiery, which produces Chinese Laundry, a junior legwear line. "People who used to carry hosiery and phased it out are now phasing it back in. What's new and different from the Eighties is that technology has improved."

JBT Group president Barry Tartakin expects his fall business to grow by 20 percent, adding that almost eight years have gone by without increases of that magnitude."Women are dressing up again and are looking for feminine looks," Tartakin said. "We feel strongly that leggings will carry into fall. Like a handbag or jewelry, [legwear] has become a trendy accessory."

Tartakin is responding to the demand by increasing the amount of deliveries of new fashion styles from every four weeks to every two weeks.

Searle, which has seven locations here, has doubled its hosiery buy, increasing its orders from Missoni, Wolford and Gallo. Owner Steve Blatt plans to merchandise the legwear with apparel.

"The major thing is to show [customers] how to wear [the legwear] with each piece in the store," Blatt said. "[Legwear] is growing a lot and it's colorful, bright and extremely strong. It's not something that competes with anything else."

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