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These are tenuous times for lingerie firms.

Early fall and back-to-school have been mostly completed after the drawn-out February market, but major stores and smaller specialty operations are holding out on finishing their holiday buys, generally waiting until the May market to address those programs.

The procrastination stems from the sputtering U.S. economy, which grew just 0.6 percent in fourth-quarter gross domestic product, and a credit crisis caused by the subprime mortgage implosion. The delay in holiday ordering also is spurred by concern over consumer spending. The Consumer Confidence Index fell to 64.5 in March — a five-year low — from 76.4 in February.

As a result, vendors and merchants are exercising caution as they try to figure out what will make consumers open up their wallets and decipher winning formulas for the second half of the year. Most of the talk in the market involves sticking to basics and replenishable product. Other experts believe fashion will be the stimulus needed to turn on the consumer.

Lee Chaden, chairman of Hanesbrands Inc., said in a recent interview: “Make sure you have a commitment to basics, whether it’s socks, T-shirts or underwear, and stick with market leaders. When retail gets sluggish, the retail reaction is to reduce inventories. What I’ve seen during these inventory-conservation periods is some customers end up out of stock on core items.”

Despite a sour economic climate, fashion items continue to generate the demand for innovation and newness, especially if the items offer special-looking fabrics, textures, treatments, updated silhouettes and fashion colors and prints, as well as styling and silhouettes that address a lifestyle image.

Marcia Leeds, chief executive officer of Richard Leeds International, said the company “overcame the dark and bleak landscape” in the market with the introduction of two new ideas: updated, softly tailored pajamas with feminine embellishments by French Jenny and a new brand called Comfort Food.

“We renamed our holiday collections Season 4 Ever because holiday orders keep dragging and I think buyers are very nervous,” Leeds said. “Our new brand, Comfort Food, will be in stores in fall. Its been well received because the whole idea of the line is it’s lightweight and comfortable like ‘I can’t wait to go home and put on these pj’s after a stressful day.’ Retailers liked the idea of pj’s, rompers and two-piece sets in fun colors in cropped silhouettes with novelty buttons and cozy fabrics like brushed cotton knit interlock.”

This story first appeared in the March 31, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Sizing up the demand for basics, Leeds said, “If you have something unique and very special-looking, the retailer will want to try to drive it as a key item and derive some sales off of it. Yes, they’re looking for replenishment basics, but they’re also looking for the next big story. It’s like, ‘Impress me, bring me the big new item and I’ll buy it.'”

Josie Natori, ceo of Natori Co., said, “Modern mixtures of different animal prints were the classic hallmarks of the Natori collection.”

A top item included an animal-print polyester slipgown and robe called Savannah. She noted that “beautiful water-color effects and burnout textures” were a hit with Josie Natori sleepwear. A key two-piece item was a hand-painted blue, green and gold animal print burnout pattern of silk and rayon.

In the Josie sleepwear collection, Natori singled out “novelty fashion items that go over anything.” Two best-booking items were an embroidered Moulin Rouge chemise of polyester and spandex jersey and lace-trimmed camis of polyester. A hit in Josie daywear was a Très Jolie cami and short set of circular netting nylon and spandex in pink with contrasting black lace. Popular items in the Cruz line featured “great drape that is not clingy, and embroidery that has a signature Natori look.” An animal-print chemise of polyester interlock called Zanzibar was a top item, she said.

Susan DeMusis, executive vice president and general merchandising manager at the Carole Hochman Design Group, said: “Basics are ongoing and we can replenish as business needs fluctuate. But our strongest response was to special items like our Leopard Devore baby doll by Betsey Johnson and our Flamenco Lace bustier by OnGossamer. Top sellers also include gift-giving cotton flannel knit pajamas in fun leopard prints. Buyers appeared willing to commit to fashion up-front to ensure ad styles and special assortments.”

Donna Nadeau, president of the Donna Nadeau collection at The Komar Co., said retailers are looking for a brand, a category or an item they can promote.

“Retailers are really interested in eco-friendly products,” Nadeau said. “We launched ‘The Green Side of Life’ as an exclusive in February at Neiman Marcus and it will be expanded to other major stores for fall. Upscale features include organic cotton knits mixed with a recycled polyester, which doesn’t sound luxurious, but it really is. This follows the successful launch in 2005 of The Comfortable Side of Life, eco-essentials such as pure bamboo and textured organic cotton robes that I call my signature classics.”

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