By  on December 5, 1994

NEW YORK -- Coming off a sterling fall season, sock and hosiery manufacturers are working to make 1995 even better.

Several firms expect thigh-highs and over-the-knee socks, which spearheaded fall business, to strengthen spring sales, with the help of expanded offerings.

Meanwhile, sheer pantyhose manufacturers said their business is back on track after several seasons of sluggish sales.

Here's what some key makers in both casual and sheers are saying.

SOCKS

"If there was ever a picture-perfect season, it was fall '94," said Gary Wolkowitz, president of Hot Sox Inc., reflecting the mood of several makers of casual socks. "There wasn't any downside to our fall business. The fashion side of the business exploded beyond any conventional plan."

With business for the full year about 22 percent ahead of last year, Hot Sox, which produces its own brand of legwear, as well as the licensed Ralph Lauren and Ralph by Ralph Lauren hosiery lines, has had "its best year to date," according to Wolkowitz.

Thigh-highs and over-the-knee socks accounted for a $1 million increase -- four times more than planned, he said. To keep the momentum going next year, Hot Sox will introduce new packaging and advanced technology to get new designs under way faster, he said. It will focus on its European distribution, and plans to make Germany a major player in its worldwide operations, Wolkowitz said. England, Japan, Canada, Hong Kong and Australia are, in that order, the firm's top worldwide markets, he said.

With athletic sock sales 35 percent ahead of last year, Gold Toe Inc., a division of Bidermann Industries, plans to focus on athletic sock multipacks, according to Jodi Morine, executive vice president of women's sales. With more department stores carrying athletic socks beyond the summer months, there is room for substantial growth, she said.

"We see our number one opportunity in multipacks," Morine said. Trouser socks, knee-highs and over-the-knee-highs, boot socks, thigh-highs and spectator sport socks should be also be hot items for spring, she said, and Gold Toe is banking on new patterns and colors to boost business in these styles, Morine said."This year, I think everyone underestimated the potential of thigh-high and over-the-knee business. It was three times stronger than anyone anticipated," Morine said. "Going into spring, it's a growth area. Layering will be key for legwear."

The tights and socks firm Hue, which is owned by Kayser-Roth Corp., plans for sizable growth from its value packs of athletic socks and fashions, called Hue 3, according to Keith Mabe, vice president of marketing for Kayser-Roth. Three-pair packs are available in six styles and retail for $11 -- or a 35 percent savings compared with individual pricing, he said.

Short socks, shorter than anklets, textured over-the-knee socks and tights blended with chenille, angora or cashmere should be important styles for next year.

"Adding more novelty items should give us an edge," Mabe said. "This year, that part of the business blew everyone away. That should continue into '95."

SHEERS

With 1994 sales 8 percent ahead of last year, Hanes Hosiery, a division of the Sara Lee Corp., expects the resurgence of sheer pantyhose to boost spring business, according to Debbie Hobbs, vice president of merchandising for Hanes and its licensed Donna Karan hosiery. "Fashion is playing a huge role in our business because there were more feminine clothes on the runways," she said. "Sheers are back."

In 1995, Hanes will introduce at least three new colors and textures to each of its sheer pantyhose lines. The company expects to see "substantial" growth in 1995 for its plus-size lines, Silk Reflections Plus and Fitting Pretty, where sales are currently running 39 percent over last year, Hobbs said.

Hanes, however, is not staying in just a dressy mode. In the year ahead, DKNY's new athletic collection should generate a 15 percent increase for that legwear label. Building on the casual trend, Hanes also plans to launch a new 12-piece weekend collection under its Silk Reflections Casual line next year.

Ithaca Industries expects its newly licensed Vanity Fair intimate pantyhose to drum up $4.5 million in business in 1995, according to Joani Zeller-Claxton, vice president of hosiery design.

Having seen double-digit percentage increases for its licensed Evan-Picone hosiery this year, the company expects sheer sales to gain momentum this spring, she said."Our strength this year has been in ultrasheers. In 1995, we will focus on the Lycra portion of our business," she said. "We're not the player we should be."

The firm expects Evan-Picone Lycra products, especially its two new styles of sheers with Lycra in every course and its three control-top styles, called Sensilke, to increase volume, Zeller-Claxton said. More microfiber products will also be featured in Evan-Picone next year, she said.

Evan-Picone plans its first local radio advertising campaign this winter and is considering outdoor advertising for spring, Zeller-Claxton said.

Also taking to radio in the effort to build sales is Mayer Berkshire Corp., which produces and distributes Berkshire pantyhose. The firm launched its first local spots this week in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.

With sales 10 percent ahead of last year, Berkshire's sheer business should continue to increase through next fall, with control-top pantyhose charging business, according to Nympha Prijdekker, key account manager.

"Designers are finally helping us. A lot of the ready-to-wear on the runways was worn with sheers and high heels," she said.

Product samples, customized marketing programs, targeted direct-mail pieces and new technology are part of Kayser-Roth Corp.'s plan to expand in 1995, according to Keith Mabe, vice president of marketing.

Kayser-Roth produces No Nonsense and, under license, Hue, Calvin Klein, Burlington and Easy Spirit legwear. A double-digit percentage increase is planned for 1994, he said.

In addition to providing more free products -- as samples of new items in in-store giveaways, for example -- to consumers and store employees, Kayser-Roth is working closely with buyers to offer items that are suited for each respective area.

"Offering one program for the entire country won't work anymore," Mabe said. "We need to respond to each individual buyer's needs and establish an appropriate program."

To launch and promote products, Kayser-Roth will target the most appropriate customers by using retailers' customer lists. For example, a new over-the-knee style might be promoted with a direct mailer to customers who had recently purchased a trendy fragrance, Mabe said.

Reflecting the tough times for sheers, Pennaco Hosiery, a unit of Danskin, posted a 13.4 percent drop in sales for the six months ended Sept. 24, as reported. But the firm is working to increase distribution and improve delivery times, and expects sales to increase by at least 5 percent in 1995, according to Mitch Brown, Pennaco general manager.With sheers expected to make a comeback this spring, the company should do well, since each of its brands consists mostly of sheer pantyhose, he added. In addition to its own private label, Pennaco produces Danskin legwear and Round the Clock hosiery, and, under license, Anne Klein, Christian Dior and Givenchy. "We didn't know sheers could go as low as they did," he said. "But the good news is that the customer wants color again."

To improve retail sales, the company will offer buyers planograms for store displays to assure that hosiery is merchandised cohesively, Brown said.

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