By  on November 21, 2005

NEW YORK — Major retailers turned out in force at this month's market, with a goal of finding innovative product for back-to-school selling.

At the same time, there was a push for top-performing items and immediate merchandise for holiday, which is expected to be affected by negative variables, including soaring home heating costs. Another factor that has gained momentum over the past several seasons and was again evident this buying period is the way retailers have waited until the last minute to confirm orders. It gives them an opportunity to manage lean inventories, as well as plot trend and merchandise strategies.

There is continuing retail consolidation, particularly the merger of Federated Department Stores and May Department Stores, which is likely to have long-term implications on an industry that's been downsizing in the last decade.

Sizing up the mood of the market, Helen McCluskey, president of the Intimate Apparel Division of Warnaco Inc., said, "The market was spread out over two weeks. It was calm, no overload. I think we got to spend quality time with our accounts."

However, one thing is certain: There remains a demand for fashion lingerie, especially luxe merchandise and designer brands. At the moderate- and popular-price level, makers generally said the demand is high for products that offer function and fashion, as well as feel-good items that are warm and snuggly, or simply offer comic relief during difficult times.

David Martino, president and chief executive officer of Denton, Tex.-based Russell Newman Inc., said, "There's a lot of positive attitude out there. New fabrics and anything soft feeling is selling. Soft fleece robes by Cypress have been extremely strong for us at retail."

Martino said supersoft fleece robes are generating weekly sell-throughs of 10 to 12 percent, while other feel-good items such as snuggly, lightweight fleece pants by WillowWear are doing 9 to 10 percent weekly sell rates.

Marcia Leeds, ceo of Richard Leeds International, said reaction was strong to a new breed of licensed characters that are sophisticated and funny.

"Tinkerbell is very Goth-looking, with sayings like 'Spread Your Wings,' and Tweety is looking hip in a new way with an 'Up To No Good' saying," Leeds said. "And we've had really good reaction to a line featuring Johnny Depp and a 'Pirates of the Caribbean' movie sequel, 'Dead Man's Chest,' which breaks June 7."Victoria Vandagriff, president of Elle Macpherson Intimates, said, "It's really not just about Elle the celebrity, but more about her involvement with the product and her partnership with Bendon, a 50-year-old company. She'll come in and say 'I don't like this lace or this bow or color.' She gets it and it's working. The bras retail for between $65 and $85. Our goal is to exceed $5 million [in the U.S.] the first full year."

McCluskey of Warnaco said one bra group called TrueFit by Warner's received "excellent" reaction. Providing comfort, function, fit and fashion, the new bra style features three levels of support: a single custom-tailored two-way stretch panel, an additional wide layer of invisible two-way stretch support and a third support panel for cup sizes 34-38D and 38C.

McCluskey said Axcelerate Sports Bras Engineered by Speedo will be launched in December at 150 store doors.

Francine Braun, president and ceo of Miami-based On Gossamer, said, "Consumers may be coming to stores to buy Le Mystère and Wacoal bras, but we asked, 'Which brand are they buying in panties?' So, we came up with a wide variety of bottoms, from XS to XL, which we'll start shipping for spring. There's a lot of new focus on extended sizing for the sophisticated consumer who may not be a size 4."

Chris Lee, merchandising manager at St. Eve, said, "Our market week was very active with lots of positive feedback reconfirming the strength of basics and the layering of fashion basics within all fabric classifications. Softer and more luxurious fabrics such as micro Modals have become a basic commodity for some of our customers and is regarded as a fashion update for others."

In daywear, Lee said "cheekier" briefs, as well as hipkinis are top-selling items.

"We've also had a tremendous response to what we call our yummy robe, a very cozy and plush fabric," Lee said. "And we have extended our yummy fabric to coordinating separate tops and wraps, which can be mixed and matched with drapy knit pants."

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