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Moderate Gets Fashion Infusion

The heat is on for moderate firms to speed up their production to keep up with consumer demand for the latest trends.

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NEW YORK — On trend, on time and moderately priced.

Stores and vendors better be all of those things if they want to maintain a share of the moderate apparel market, now and for fall. Gone are the days when trends started on the designer runways and a season or two later trickled down to the mainstream floor.

As Paul Charron, chairman and chief executive officer of Liz Claiborne Inc., said at the company’s annual meeting last month, “As we look ahead, we must acknowledge that the one constant in our business is change and that it is happening at an accelerated pace. New fashion trends come to market faster. More than ever, consumers manifest declining channel loyalty and demand greater value, even as they spend less of their discretionary income on apparel and accessories.”

Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at the Port Washington, N.Y.-based NPD Group, agreed. “The world has become a smaller place as the Targets and Kmarts of the world are becoming more trend-driven, the moderate vendors are really starting to feel the pressure to match that kind of competition. They can no longer put just anything on the floor. They have to be fast and think more about fashion trends. Retailers aren’t taking the sorts of risks that they used to take, even private labels are no longer offering just the basics. These moderate vendors have to step up.”

With that said, Cohen said the moderate market makes up for a tremendous portion of the women’s apparel industry, which by the end of 2005 will bring in $97 billion in sales. He said while the designer market accounts for only 7 percent of what women buy, national brands make up 58 percent. The moderate market takes up about two-thirds of that 58 percent.

So for spring and summer, consumers want plenty of colorful, flowy embellished skirts, sexy camisoles and cropped jackets and pants. For early fall, they are only looking for more of the trends in heavier knits and embellished blouses.

“Skirts and lace tops are very strong, as well as the novelty jacket and cropped pants,” said Denise Johnston, president of Liz Claiborne Inc.’s Emma James and JH Collectibles moderate divisions. “Tunics and pretty blouses are very good for us, too. Feminine details continue into fall.”

With the customers’ need for trendier merchandise comes the need for speed from the design room to the retail floors — a real challenge for moderate vendors. “Speed is a way of life here,” said Jack Weinstock, president of corporate brands at Intertex Apparel Group, which produces the Kikit knitwear collection. “Stores are buying closer to season because they want as much information from the consumer as they can get. So we have to be more aware of the trends and be able to react at a very fast pace.”

Weinstock said with the help of modern technology, his company is able to produce faster.

“We’ve always felt that there was a great deal of fashion in the better department,” he said. “So we brought that styling and mind-set to the moderate market. We look heavily into the trends, not only the trickle-down process like we used to. We’ve come to realize that our moderate consumer isn’t less fashionable, she just wants to spend less money on fashion.”

For Apparel Holdings Group, which produces the moderate collection Caribbean Joe and the new junior line D.N.A., the aid of a young trend-watching staff helps the company move at a much faster pace than it did just a few years ago.

“In the old days, like five years ago, one would shop Europe for the trends, come back to report and we would produce merchandise based on those trends,” said Jonathan Spier, ceo of Apparel Holdings Group. “Now we are going directly from Europe, seeing the trends and developing product there. We also have an office in China and another in Guatemala. Understanding the need for international offices is important to speed up the process. It’s really helped us to replenish goods and cater to what the stores are asking for at a much faster pace.”

And to have a quicker turn from production to retail, paying attention to detail is key.

“Even though we are moderate, we attempt to be in stores with the same mentality as designer brands,” Spier said. “We stay on top of the trends, when we see a fabric, we jump on it early on, our youngest staff members come back with trends and suggestions. This customer is extremely value-conscious, but we think like a better brand, pay close attention to the elements and style seen in better, but at a value price point.”

Spier said while his company has managed to speed things up over the past few seasons, a continuing challenge is the need to keep costs down, which is of major importance for the moderate consumer. Neva Turi, vice president of merchandising for Kellwood Co.’s Sag Harbor brand, agreed.

“Consumers are looking for new and fresh. As a result, the retailer struggles to find new categories that will continue to pique the interest of customers to keep them shopping. The consumer is looking to get a lot for her money,” Turi said. “So the challenge becomes finding ways to add to the garment, either through fabrics or detailing, while providing them with a good price.”

That’s a challenge many moderate vendors are also beginning to face, but in order to stay in the game, the speed must continue.

“We continue to challenge design and production to turn around faster,” Turi said. “This will reduce lead times and enable the product on the floor to be as current as possible.”

Turi also mentioned the importance of keeping a close eye on weekly bestsellers in order to develop reorders.

According to Lynne Cote, group ceo of women’s moderate sportswear at Jones Apparel Group, its big challenge is to “provide lifestyle choices to dress her in one outfit from work to weekend and to give her appropriate style that is on trend.” With that said, Cote said the company as a whole is speeding up.

“We are focusing on fast tracks, reacting in season to trend,” she said, citing peasant looks as a key trend for summer.

Even for brands like Izod, which counts on much of its sales to come from the basic polo it is known for, speed is a major issue it faces.

“We are instituting a number of measures to improve speed to market,” said Suzanne Karkus, president of Kellwood Co.’s Izod Womenswear division. “We are clear on our key items, but we realize there is a need for these items to be updated each season.”

Karkus said Izod’s basic denim collection, which launched in 2003, continues to do well as it has gotten the fit right with the customer. But, she said, the challenge with the denim has been the ability for Izod to change with the trends in the market, to offer new washes and treatments that customers demand.

“After a year of having the denim in stores, we realized we didn’t need to overhaul the fit, but we did need to update our washes,” she explained. “And the same sort of thing became evident with the polos. We didn’t need to change the slim fit, but we did need to look at special buttons, new trims, embroideries — all to keep the customers interested.”

Karkus said for the denim, the company decided to begin using a denim that was easier to change; no matter how it changed the washes, the denim would wash well.

“By just using these new fabrics, we are able to inject newness into our key items,” she explained. “And in turn we are able to get them to stores much faster.”

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