By  on December 27, 2004

NEW YORK — Despite the insatiable demand for fashion lingerie and for product that delivers comfort and innovation in the $12.4 billion intimate apparel market, 2004 has been a tough year for innerwear manufacturers and retailers. Whether it’s a Fortune 500 company or one of the few remaining midsize independent firms, the quest for the next big idea or hot item is constant.

As the year draws to an end, a number of executives are looking back at what strategies and product launches succeeded. They are also evaluating mistakes, such as pushing too many simultaneous product launches, or myriad introductions of new brands, collections and classifications that overwhelmed retailers who have limited space and financing. Another key challenge was cracking the volatile issue of safeguards as well as quotas from China, which will be eliminated Jan. 1. In an effort to bolster fall and holiday business, a majority of bra and sleepwear vendors accelerated shipments from China to the U.S. only to discover that the major share of goods, air-shipped at staggering prices, have been embargoed until after the New Year. The reason: U.S. customs officials do not want a glut of merchandise exceeding existing quotas before 2005 begins.

Here is what top innerwear executives said were their achievements and mistakes in 2004, and their goals for the New Year. Tom Ward, chairman and chief executive officer, Maidenform Inc.

“I guess a couple of things were pretty good for us in 2004. The sale of the $300 million Maidenform to Ares Management [an investment firm that manages assets in excess of $4.5 billion] was very positive for us, and they’ve been very supportive in building consumer brands. They’re giving us a lot of resources going forward. At the same time, Oaktree Capital Management [an investment advisory firm that manages assets of more than $29 billion]  has kept a share of the business, and that too has been very positive.”

Ward added that key product introductions, including Maidenform Full Support bras for full-figured women, have been a “big success,” as well as Maidenform’s One Fabulous Fit panty program. “We’ll be expanding product next year and will also continue to build on Maidenform’s multimillion dollar ‘I Dream…’ advertising campaign.”Addressing mistakes, Ward said, “It has been a learning experience. If you can grow your business and create innovation, you inevitably make some mistakes. We learned from our mistakes. I think the China safeguard issue was probably the toughest learning curve. The embargo situation made it even more difficult. It used to be you could roll out your quota to the next year, but there will be no next year to do that.”

“We want to continue to grow our business with product innovation in three core brands: Maidenform, Flexees and Lilyette. We are working very diligently with our designers and merchandisers to make that happen. And we plan to grow consumer awareness of our brands, whether it’s point-of-sale materials, hangtags and our ‘I Dream…’ ad campaign for fall 2005.”Josie Natori, chief executive officer, Natori Co.

Natori, sizing up the 27-year-old company’s biggest accomplishment for 2004, said: “As a company, we are totally focused on our brand, and I put 100 percent into it. This year was historic for us because of the number of our best-selling items that sold for fall — 60,000 units of the Marshmallow Robe at stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s and Dillard’s. This is a new high for us, something we’ve never done with our brands before. And we will be going forward with what we are calling an entire Marshmallow family of lifestyle items.” The Marshmallow Robe, a lightweight, ultrasoft polyester sweater knit, wholesales for $31.25 for short styles and $40.50 for long silhouettes.

Natori, whose company generates wholesale volume in excess of $40 million, added, “We’re going full steam with our licensed Natori Black Label and Natori White foundations at Dana-Co., as well as Natori Underneath, a panty program which will be expanded into bras.”

Regarding an unexpected challenge, Natori said, “Being embargoed was very annoying. It was the first time for us — 15,000 embargoed items — and that was extremely annoying from both a cost point of view and not being able to ship. Stores have been wonderful, but we could have shipped more for fall. We had to ship by air. However, by the time everything arrived, it was embargoed.”As for initiatives in 2005, Natori said, “We are introducing a new label, the Josie Natori Collection. It will represent a modern lifestyle concept, from bras to loungewear. Before it was innerwear as outerwear. I want to be able to define and articulate what modern lingerie is and how it should be. At the same time, I want to maximize the momentum of my bra business and continue developing my Cruz line of modern sleepwear and loungewear that’s affordable.” James Mogan, president of the Intimate Apparel Division, Kellwood Co.

Kellwood’s intimates business is not broken down in the overall corporate $2.34 billion reported in the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, 2004. But it was announced in Kellwood’s third quarter, ended Dec. 3, that intimate apparel sales slipped $3 million from last year. Mogan, however, said the intimates division is narrowing its losses with several “extremely successful” launches in the branded business: Oscar Pink Label bras, Sag Harbor Sleepwear, Izod Swimwear and Izod bras, which ship Jan. 30.

“We realized there was a tremendous opportunity on the branded side that would make a perfect balance with our private label business. It’s kept us on our toes,” said Mogan.

Analyzing mistakes this year, Mogan did not cite specifics. “It has not been a banner year for the bra business,” he said. “There have been a lot of product launches this year that have tied up retailers who don’t have the time or space for these launches. Some have done well, and some poorly. Some have actually prevented retailers from going after new initiatives.”

“The first goal next year will be to make money for the retailer and for us. We plan to capitalize on trends and give the ultimate consumer the right product at the right time at the right price.”Richard Leeds, chairman, Richard Leeds International

Leeds, whose sleepwear and daywear company specializes in licensed characters, said his “biggest hits” this year have revolved around the continuing infatuation with products that convey a vintage, nostalgic look. “Intimate apparel and sleepwear should be all about fun and taking yourself less seriously in the safety of your home,” he said. “Our greatest successes this year have been vintage Betty Boop, adorable Tweety, Winnie the Pooh’s doleful Eyore, irrepressible Mickey, and young, contemporary Barbie and David & Goliath.” The company generates wholesale volume of more than $100 million, according to industry estimates.Regarding any missteps, Leeds said, “It was a mistake we didn’t open our Los Angeles office sooner, like six months ago. It opened in November, and we hired a creative director at Disney, Soo Koo, along with an art staff. They’ve brought a lot of fresh new vitality to the business that addresses an active, younger market. And it brings us in touch with the [movie] studios.”

Leeds said he has “aggressive plans” for 2005. “We want to focus on the branded products that are performing the best at retail and move away from private label,” he said. “We want to build a layer of branded products, through licensing other brands that will complement our better brand, French Jenny, and continue with a strategy that is multitiered and multigenerational for young, contemporary men and women as well as girls. We also plan to continue to do exclusives for every retailer we service, which will be backed up by a full-service effort and analytical support.”Carole Hochman, chairman and design director, Carole Hochman Designs Inc.

Hochman made some brief observations, saying, “Our greatest accomplishments this year were launching and shipping three new brands — Betsey Johnson Intimates and  Lauren Ralph Lauren sleepwear and daywear — and taking on a new brand into our family, Stan Herman robes and loungewear. This was an amazing challenge. Our licensors are happy, our customers are happy, and we are happy we lived to talk about it.”

“What was the biggest challenge?” Hochman reflected. “Introducing three brands in one year — just kidding.”

A self-described workaholic, Hochman said her goals for the company, which generates estimated wholesale volume of more than $100 million, will be to “maintain the energy, enthusiasm and commitment to our brands that’s been generated by these new endeavors.”

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