LAWRENCE, Mass. — “Our swing top is great. It’s really getting a ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ reaction,” beamed, New Balance’s global apparel manager, waving a racy tennis top so its cutaway armpits flap open.

It’s an odd bragging point for a mild-mannered footwear and activewear company that spurns flashy celebrity endorsements and whose apparel presence has been borderline hushed. But that’s precisely what the 31-year-old company is after. New Balance’s apparel team needs to provoke a reaction, and to get noticed.

“I’m tired of hearing ‘I didn’t even know you guys did apparel.’ We can and do make beautiful clothes,” asserted apparel product manager Nancy Desrosiers, exhibiting the feistiness that characterizes the Boston-based company’s newly assembled design team.

Their corporate mandate: Ditch the boxy and boring, stop letting your competitors get fat on the athleisurewear gravy train and step up in apparel as the strong player that the brand already is in footwear.

Currently a posse of 10 (whose “veteran” is only 24 months on the job), the team gathered recently around a conference table in the century-old textile mill here that serves as factory and design lab to share their vision for reinventing the brand’s apparel. The category, they feel, is vital to New Balance’s premiere athletic brand status.

In WWD’s survey of the 100 most recognizable brands, New Balance ranked 32nd, an enviable performance but well behind arch rivals Nike and Reebok, which finished fifth and 12th respectively.

“We’ve been seen as very much a footwear company, as opposed to our competitors who are seen as sports brands,” Howard said. “From senior management on down, we’ve recognized our footwear growth needs to be complemented by a strong apparel business for us to be a true sports brand.”

The plan is to take the apparel business from roughly 4 percent of revenues, or $52 million of the company’s $1.3 billion total, to 10 percent within 18 months. Within five years, Howard wants apparel to produce 20 to 25 percent of gross revenues, in line with Nike and Reebok results.The first step is to stop relying on freelancers and hire in-house designers, including the company’s first women’s designer, Karie Torgeson, a former Columbia Sportswear designer. Howard has plucked talent from other competitors, tapping Thom Gridley, the former head of design at Vans, to manage design and development, and Tracy Byrnes from Pearl Izumi, for running. Howard, who heads the team, spent the past decade at Adidas and Nike. He is still filling positions at New Balance, planning for a 19-person apparel staff.

The second step is to hit the road. He’s been meeting with retailers, pre-lining merchandise and, mostly, listening.

“We’ve probably been in front of more retailers in the last six months as an internal group than in the last couple of years,” Howard said.

Currently, big-box sporting goods stores and the company’s 100 independently owned retail stores generate most of the revenues, but Howard sees huge potential in women’s-only outlets like Lucy, Athleta and Activa, the latter being a new online and mail-order business from Dick’s Sporting Goods.

Third on the agenda is to prune the deadwood. Howard clipped about 40 percent of the existing stockkeeping units, removing repeats of basic running shorts and shaping a focused basics package. Now that the company has a core, it is adding fashion to the 80-piece line. The aforementioned swing top, for instance, is part of a new tennis line, which bowed in March and has sold well in Southern California and Florida, key markets for the sport.

Along with tennis, the company produces running, training, active lifestyle and leisurewear apparel. Thanks to Torgeson, a new femininity infuses the merchandise, from curved hems and necklines to lower rises and closer fits.

After reviewing the spring line, Debbie Perkins, merchandise manager for Petaluma, Calif.-based Athleta, called New Balance’s direction “very solid.”

“What our women want is to be comfortable and look good,” Perkins said. “They appreciate details like princess seaming and flatwork seaming.”

Active lifestyle — a yoga-inspired collection — will be the fashion front-runner, said Desrosiers. Current pieces include a lettuce-edge striped wrap top, roughly $25 wholesale, over a ruched bra, about $17. While New Balance is now catering to sports that don’t even require sneakers, it isn’t running away from its roots.Byrne, who started July 23, is responsible for adding more technical chops to the NBX performance running collection. She plans to draw on her experiences at Boulder, Colo.-based Pearl Izumi, known for its garb for competitive cyclists. Perhaps the most obvious difference is punchy new color everywhere and the unexpected names the team attaches to them.

“The shorts and top are in racer and oxygen,” said Torgeson, pointing to red shorts with a wide wave of gray-green down the leg. The shorts coordinate with a dot-print tank top, making an engineered “oxygen” wave undulate on the wearer’s side.

“If you don’t have your color game on, it can really affect brand perception,” Gridley noted. “For us, it’s more than just color direction. It’s looking at commercially viable combinations and finding ways to extend them, so there is familiarity to the palette, but also freshness.”

The pencil gold-and-navy duo, for one, has been replaced by a brighter, greener yellow paired with a royal blue.

“People like to be younger. You can do that with color even if the style is more conservative,” he said.

Beyond new staff, New Balance is marshaling other corporate resources for apparel. A showroom and new design space adjacent to the footwear division will allow for more coordination between the two. An apparel-dedicated sales force has been hired and the company will spend $500,000 on its first apparel-only ad campaign, breaking in August issues of running magazines.

Even with advertising support, Howard knows his team has its work cut out for it.

“No one is going to just give us 30 percent of their apparel dollars, just because we happen to be 30 percent of their footwear business,” he said. “We’re going to have to over-deliver on every promise we make.”

To Read the Full Article
SUBSCRIBE NOW

Tap into our Global Network

Of Industry Leaders and Designers

load comments
blog comments powered by Disqus