NEW YORK — The May market could be summed up as anticlimactic.

It literally was feast or famine, with some showrooms bustling with traffic, and others relatively empty.

May typically is a pint-sized market that focuses primarily on Valentine’s Day programs and gift-giving items. But this year, it was smaller than usual, with the absence of scores of specialty boutiques that traditionally shop for immediate merchandise.

It was a decisive time for big-name brands to finalize the lion’s share of fall and holiday orders, and many said they did. But smaller to midsize firms, as well as those that don’t have that illusive “newness” in assortments or a national brand presence, are expected to continue waiting for last-minute orders until the end of the month.

While major department and specialty retailers did make the rounds, a number of makers of branded sleepwear and daywear were finding new strategies in dealing with the increased pressure and competition of private label, which in some cases is being pushed to more than 60 percent of total sleepwear inventory for 2004.

However, the highlight of the market was the tremendous effort by manufacturers to present more fashion, whether it was through fresh, upbeat colors, unique prints, unusual textured treatments, or innovation in new fabrics like lightweight microfibers.

Top ideas include:

Ivory and white combinations that lend a vintage look to sleepwear labels like Eileen West at Charles Komar & Sons.

Sheer, printed peignoirs that have a sophisticated glam look, such as the Boudoir Collection at Movie Star.

An evolution of Asian-inspired tea-party prints in daywear and sleepwear at Natori.

Resuscitated cartoon characters like Betty Boop, Speedy Gonzales and Pepe La Pew from French Jenny at Richard Leeds International.

New fusing and ultrasonic technology at Bali that features firm-control undergarments that are ultralight and sheer.

Contemporary new packaging and display concepts for women’s and men’s underwear at Jockey International.

An updated ad campaign at Maidenform that links the past and present.

Tobie Garfinkle, vice president of merchandising for Lily of France at the Global Intimate Apparel unit of VF Corp., said: “We had an upbeat market. But I know that’s not the case across the board. The Lily of France brand is trending well right now at retail, with ideas like the Dazzler group and value and style products.”Barbara Lipton, vice president of merchandising and design for the licensed DKNY Underwear and Donna Karan Intimates lines at Wacoal America, said, “It was the first time that we showed 1/20 through 3/20 deliveries complete and together, and retailers really liked that.”

Lipton said two bra and daywear collections by DKNY Underwear were well received: a seamless geometric lace group in aqua, black and white, and a woven and knit group of layered stripe and floral prints. Other top ideas included an expansion of DKNY Body, which featured a signature logo pointelle group of loungewear in buttercup, slate blue, lilac and medium pink, and “cheeky” boy-cut briefs and coordinating camis of stretch cross-dyed galloon lace.

“We continue to trend well at retail with the yoga-inspired Body Spa line by Donna Karan Intimates, and we are featuring more fabrications that are antibacterial and wick moisture away from the body,” said Lipton.

Manette Scheininger, senior vice president of merchandising and marketing at Maidenform Inc., said the company will spend between $6 million and $7 million on a new ad campaign created by Laspata/DeCaro. It breaks in the fourth quarter.

The concept is an oversized M logo in fashion colors on a black-and-white ground. Tag lines with dreamy-looking lifestyle visuals in soft black-and-white photography include: “Last Night I Dreamed He Loves Me,” “I Dreamed Everyday Was Sunday,” and “Ever Wake Up From A Dream So Real You’re Convinced It’s True?”

Regarding product, Scheininger said: “We had a lot of requests to do a value-priced [bra] line. It’s a way for department stores to be more competitive. So we came up with the I Value Luxury collection.” Suggested retail price for the bras — which include a ribbon embellished foam-cup bra; a soft cup and an underwire style of heathered micro Modal, and a low-cut demi lace number — is $14.99.

“All in all, the market shaped up well for us,” said David Komar, executive vice president of marketing at Charles Komar & Sons. “The Eileen West sleepwear collection was well received, and because of that, we’ve decided to devote a lot more marketing resources to promote her brand.”Komar added that the main incentives for promoting the Eileen West name are national recognition as a sleepwear brand, which he described as “unusual” in the sleepwear field, and limited distribution, which “will empower the brand.”

Victor Lee, president of NAP Inc., said the market turnout was mixed.

“We saw all of the major stores who finalized fall and holiday orders, but only a handful of boutiques came in,” said Lee. “The major stores were open to information exchange and they were relatively upbeat about where their business is going. They were interested in previewing spring 2004.”

Marvin Backer, chief executive officer of Flora Nikrooz Lingerie, said, “My Mideast accounts normally come in May. But this year, I have to do business by e-mail or phone.”

However, Backer said he expects a number of accounts from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates to show up at the Lyon, Mode City show in Lyon, France, scheduled Aug. 30-Sept. 1.

Susan Pink, senior vice president of the department store division for French Jenny sleepwear at Richard Leeds International, observed, “The retailers who are flowing newness — not going back to the same old thing — are the retailers who are doing well right now. The ones who are not doing well are the ones who are not choosing newness. I think bravery is rewarded through retail sales.”

Among the key ideas at French Jenny are knit chemises with whimsical contrasting ruffle trim and polyester satin cargo pants paired with novelty T-shirts with a “love” logo, she said.

Howard Radziminsky, senior vice president of sales and merchandising at Movie Star Inc., said reaction was strong to a “very elaborate pink and red and pink and black story” for Valentine’s Day selling.

“Stretch lace is a major classification, as well as printed meshs and burnout velvets,” said Radziminsky. He added that a top-booking item for fall is a cami of cotton and spandex with a built-in bra, sized 32A to 38C.

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