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Mixing Performers and Spectators

NEW YORK — With women’s athletics achieving new levels of respectability, powerhouse brands like Nike, Fila and DKNY Active are now targeting customers who lead an active life, but don’t want to leave their sense of style...

NEW YORK — With women’s athletics achieving new levels of respectability, powerhouse brands like Nike, Fila and DKNY Active are now targeting customers who lead an active life, but don’t want to leave their sense of style behind.

This story first appeared in the July 11, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Aware that 80 percent of all activewear purchases are never used for athletic purposes, sport brands are playing up their less competitive sides. For fall, the emphasis is on more versatile and relaxed looks like low-waisted pants, camisoles and printed body-hugging tops.

Instead of scoffing at the idea that nonathletes wear their products, companies are embracing it. Even Nike recently ran a full-page all-text ad in the New York Times, highlighting women’s take on being active — free from the colorful shots of muscular women exercising for which the brand is known.

As more nonathletic brands get into the women’s activewear business and more stores, including discounters and mass marketers, dig deeper into the category, women have become more “finicky” about what they buy, according to a spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers’ Association. Last year’s retail sales of women’s activewear were about $16.2 billion, and projections range from flat sales to single-digit increases this year, according to the SGMA.

Nonetheless, girls’ and women’s participation in sports and fitness activities are “nothing but solid,” the spokesman said. “That’s only going to go up. Women have made fitness part of their daily diet, along with breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

Caroline Kahn, U.S. merchandise manager for women’s apparel for Adidas, said: “We’re at the beginning of the next cycle where we’re being more competitive with fashion companies and retailers moving into the athletic market. We want to make sure we’re evolving.”

For Adidas, that means offering technical knits for training or everyday activities. The advantage in these items is that they help wick perspiration away from the skin, have more fitted silhouettes and a high comfort level.

The company is also playing up its “Mind and Body” collection of versatile items. Having a part-time yoga instructor work on the collection is a plus, especially since she wear-tests each item to assure a proper fit. A Lycra spandex blend tank, for example, has binding at the sleeves so it won’t slide up during yoga poses.

Reebok is also playing up versatility and more stylish items and has reduced its turnaround time to 10 months instead of 15 months, as was the case a year ago, said Nancy Chew, product manager for women’s apparel. In recent months, the company has whittled down its factory base to a handful.

“We want to be on a faster track, just like the fashion companies,” Chew said.

For fall and holiday, there are more prints, such as a geometric swirl and a camouflage and tie-dyed combination aimed at attracting more women, Chew noted. There is also a greater emphasis on its fit system concept, which features pants with various in-seam options. For spring, Reebok plans to extend the programs to tank tops and sports bras, with different bust sizes instead of standard small, medium or large sizing.

New Balance has overhauled its sizing to be more in sync with its competitors, said Jim Howard, who joined the company six months ago as global apparel manager.

“In the past, we were very male dominated,” Howard said. “Our women’s apparel was essentially takedowns of our men’s products. We kind of lagged behind with the consistency of our sizing.”

New Balance has also added “active lifestyle,” consisting of 16 styles of cross-training apparel that is more geared for yoga and other wellness-oriented activities than team sports. Retail prices start at $32 for tops and go up to $80 for jackets. The collection is expected to be a hit with gym-goers who tend to be more conscientious of workout wear than team-sport athletes, Howard said.

The company’s goal is to make women’s apparel account for at least 55 percent of its total apparel sales within the next two years, Howard said. It currently constitutes 30 percent.

Earlier this month, the first NikeGoddess concept shop, a colorful, fashion-oriented area, opened near the Polo Jeans, Tommy Hilfiger and INC areas at Macy’s Herald Square flagship. Instead of merchandising activewear by individual sports, the space features fitness with high-performance styles amid colorful framed photos of women in motion. Athletic brands such as Adidas and City Lights are available in the space adjacent to the NikeGoddess area.

On another front, this month Nike unveils Sphere, a sub-brand of items made of high-performance products. Like Burton, Puma and several other activewear firms with secondary labels, Nike understands that it must diversify its lines to attract consumers, especially young ones.

Everlast is also branching out with b. Everlast, athletic-inspired sportswear co-branded with sportswear firm Agnès b. The collection was launched last month at Agnès b. stores in the U.S. and will be rolled out to other retailers next year.

Under its own label, Everlast is getting into junior activewear this fall. The 15-piece junior group consists of “sexy, young, fitted styles,” like low-rise pants, baby Ts and appliquéd items that should generate about $2 million in annual sales, said George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer of Everlast Worldwide. The line ships to most of Everlast’s existing 20,000 doors this fall, he added.

On another front, the company is offering more plus-size styles — 18 pieces in total, including some yoga-inspired numbers.

“We all know it’s a hot category, but we haven’t made much noise about it until now,” Horowitz said.

Danskin is focusing on its Danskin Yoga line for fall and has doubled the doors that sell it, said Carol Hochman, president and chief executive officer. Unlike the higher-priced Zen collection, Danskin Yoga retails for less than half the price and is sold in sporting goods stores. Hangtags now have visuals of women practicing yoga.

“All signs point to yoga growing. Sporting goods stores don’t see it slowing down,” Hochman said. “Women go to work now how they used to dress for weekends. Weekend wear has dropped down a notch, and what we’re seeing is really gym clothes out on the streets.”

As part of its plan to remind women of its authentic sports heritage, Fila is adding more retro styles. Velour, terry cloth and other throwback styles now account for about 15 percent of the collection, said Kim Nelson, director of women’s and vice president of apparel marketing.

But Fila updates the look by using a Meryl stretch fabric that drapes for capris, torso tops and tanks in color sets such as pink and gray, or aqua green and pastel blue. These looks are showcased in new look books for stores.

“We’re more lifestyle-oriented with performance fabrics,” Nelson said. “We’re an authentic brand from the Seventies. We have the right to develop those retro products. We’re pretty proud of our heritage.”

Hummell, a Danish brand that dates back to the Twenties, is another label that has freshened up its athletic roots with more fashion. Inspired by that period when women began to publicly participate in tennis, golf and other sports and activities, the 10-piece line has halter tops and tennis skirts, said Jeanette Bronee, president of BB Co., Hummel’s U.S. division. Pastels and fashion accents like articulated waistbands will be more important for fall.

A sign of its nonathletic approach to business, Hummel’s recent catalog features scantily clad models smoking cigarettes and playing cards in suggestive poses. Hummell is also playing up its bumble bee icon — “Hummell” is the German word for bumblebee. That lifestyle look has helped the company to play up its fashion-forward image and get on the backs of trendsetters like songstress Nelly Furtado.

“Sexy, comfortable” clothing will be the focus for DKNY Active, according to Susan Davidson, president of DKNY Jeans, Active and Juniors. Cotton cashmere blends, stretch terry cloth, baby terry cloth and velour will be among the fall offerings. In terms of silhouettes, the brand is favoring slouchy bottoms with shrunken tops.

“For the longest time, the trend has been about tight, sexy jeans. That’s slowly changing to clothes that feel right,” she said. “It’s an extension of sportswear, and that’s when the market becomes explosive.”