LAS VEGAS — Women’s activewear appears to be fighting off the effects of recession better than most sectors, and exhibitors at the the Super Show, which ended its three-day run at the Sands Expo & Convention Center here Jan. 22, aim to add more punch by offering a strong combination of performance and fashion.

Conventional wisdom on the show floor held that activewear is a relatively small investment for women and too much an integral part of their lives to suffer much of a setback from economic jitters.

John Riddle, president and chief executive officer of show producer Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, pointed to research by The NPD Group stating that sports apparel, representing 21 percent of all apparel, has been doing well or better than the apparel industry as a whole over the past four years.

"We can thank women for that," said Riddle, noting women spent 1.9 percent more on sports apparel in 2001 than the prior year. At the same time, women’s activewear has been more resistant to discounting, a practice that’s sent total activewear sales declining 2.3 percent in 2001 versus 2000, though 3 percent more units were sold in that same time frame.

Companies such as Champion, Everlast and Under Armour have stepped up to the plate by offering technologically advanced fabrics. Goods with wicking capabilities or that keep moisture away from the body "[are] just the price of entry," said Heather Stefani, vice president of marketing at Champion.

To up the ante for fall, the Winston-Salem, N.C.-based company patented "friction-free" yarn for jog bras and tights to prevent chafing under arms and in the thigh area caused by running.

Fall fabrics at New Balance incorporate breathability, wicking and UV-protective coatings and weave to reduce ultraviolet radiation, or "aging and burning rays" of the sun.

But the merchandise has to be cute, too. About 80 percent of women don’t buy sports clothing just for exercise, according to NPD figures. They wear activewear at home, on the weekends, shopping, traveling or going to work.

So, New Balance’s heretofore boxy styles are being shaped and molded to the female form. Current samples include tight, low-waisted and flared yoga pants, capris and zip-up hoodies, including some with retro stripes. Nancy Desrosiers, New Balance’s apparel product manager, said total apparel sales (including men’s) for the company are on track to grow from $30 million in 2002 to $49 million in 2004."We’re seeing that basics as a rule are not retailing as fast as fashion," said Dottie Dye, Russell Athletic’s director of women’s merchandise.

The Alexander City, Ala.-based brand has a cotton and spandex blend designed to dry sweat four times faster than cotton, but the brand’s velour tracksuit has had just as strong sell-throughs, she said.

Everlast’s Serenity line features zip-front crewneck jackets, yoga pants with a sash at the waist, and a mock-wrap plunging V-neck top, all of which caters to the après exercise crowd, as well.

George Horowitz, chief executive officer of the New York-based manufacturer, said the women’s segment has had double-digit increases in the last year, but lamented not getting more space at department stores.

"So many fashion houses are using active product in their lines," he said. "Why don’t they get it from us where it’s real?"

At Sunday’s financial day, the show’s curtain-raiser, top sporting goods merchants outlined their plans to woo both sexes, expansion strategies and the need to continue to update the looks of their stores.

Several were keeping an eye on mass marketers and discounters. Hibbitt Sporting Goods almost always chooses strip malls with Wal-Mart stores to capture a greater share of foot traffic.

"Wal-Mart is our ally, not our enemy," said Mickey Newsome, ceo of the Birmingham, Ala.-based 356-unit retailer, noting that the store generally signs short leases to follow the giant wherever it goes. "Wal-Mart can change everything by moving to the other side of town."

Gart Sports, with 181 stores under the Gart Sports, Sportmart and Oshman’s nameplates, plans to acquire Kmart real estate from closed stores to put an additional 15 stores in existing markets.

"Kmart is going to give us market share," said ceo Doug Morton of the Denver-based chain. Buoyed by "real solid double-digit increases" in apparel, Gart will also put more funds to branded and private label apparel. Apparel is a growing segment for the retailer, now accounting for 26 percent of revenue, while other segments such as footwear declined in the year.Marty Hanaka, ceo of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Sports Authority, said the chain is on track to add seven stores to the 204-unit portfolio in 2003. Stores are getting better signage, lighting and fixtures, as well as concept shops and a full-service footwear department.

"Only 53 of the 204 stores have the new look," Hanaka said, adding that securing better brands and private label in apparel, accounting for 20 percent of the business, is another focus. "You have to have the right stuff."

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