NEW YORK — Better watch out — the new batch of better-priced sportswear lines has arrived, for the most part, andstores as well as vendors are projecting big things.

“It’s a good thing for the better customer and a good thing for the business,” said George Jones, chief executive of the Saks Department Store Group, of the new lines, which include offerings from Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., Jones Apparel Group and Tommy Hilfiger Corp.

The intense competition between the lines is good for the end consumer and good for the retailer, too, said Jones, noting it should keep vendors on their toes.

It will still be a while before the lines each get to show their true colors and the consumer decides which ones are a hit, but retailers and vendors say it could be a win-win for all the players, as each finds its own niche.

In a macro sense, the scene was set for a resurgence in the better area, given a few years of ho-hum performance and a return to more career-oriented looks.

It was the litigious transfer of the Lauren by Ralph Lauren license back to Polo from Jones that served as catalyst for the race to better this spring.

Lauren is now produced by Polo, while Jones came out with Jones New York Signature. Tommy Hilfiger Corp. brought its H Hilfiger line to department stores while Liz Claiborne Inc. introduced Realities.

Also, Calvin Klein, in conjunction with Kellwood and G.A.V., is entering the zone for the first time, hitting stores next month, while Michael Kors’ new better-priced line, Michael, will be in stores for fall.

Saks is now carrying Lauren and Signature and will pick up the more updated Michael in some of its doors for fall. George Jones was upbeat about both Lauren and Signature.

“It isn’t like each of them has done the same thing,” he said. “There is an issue that they’re both going after the same target customer, but the hope is that they both work and we sell more. They’ve been smart. They’re not trying to do 1,500 doors on these [lines]. They’re being properly discriminating in terms of how they select doors.”Saks isn’t looking for just more volume, but increased full-price selling. “There is a full-price better customer out there, for sure,” he said. “The right product for a better customer will sell at regular price.”

If the product is good, Jones, who hopes to increase the productivity of his stores, said he can make room for it. “We just have to edit our assortments,” he said.

Christa Michalaros, president of women’s wear at Hilfiger, said of the rollout of the new H Hilfiger line: “We’ve gotten really good feedback in terms of the way the product looks on the floor,”describing H as “a refined line with a little bit of a more hip aesthetic.”

The line’s been a full-court press for the maker. “Everybody in this company has been involved in this launch,” she noted. “It is one of the most important launches — we feel it will give a great halo to the brand.”

The newness of all the lines, said Michalaros, “is going to create a lot of excitement for the consumer and generate sales across the board.”

Newness is precisely what the better market has been lacking in recent years, she observed, noting the sector was very promotional, basic and key-item driven.

“That really was the demise of last year,” she said.

Stephen Ruzow, president ofKellwood women’s wear, said the rollout of the Calvin Klein better line is on track and set to hit the selling floor at the beginning of next month.

Ruzow said the major new lines “are all distinctive enough.”

Susan Metzger, group president of Jones New York, said the Signature rollout completed its first delivery “without any surprises. Most of our shops in terms of fixturing and visual are in place and we’ve been pleased with the results so far.”

The Perry Ellis women’s better offering also has a new look, thanks to its new designer, Patrick Robinson, who joined last April.

Dan Shamdasani, ceo of Public Clothing Co., which produces the line under license, noted, “This consumer has evolved in the last few years. In the past we were always afraid to [go too fashion-forward]. Now she’s responding. She’s much more sophisticated. She’s much more aware of what’s going on in the world of fashion and she’s responding to well-defined product.”Early selling information is positive, albeit largely anecdotal.

At Henri Bendel, the Perry Ellis trenchcoat, retailing at $228, sold out the first shipment of 20 over a weekend and logged 30 additional orders from customers. In the next few weeks, Public Clothing plans to ship the store another 50 units.

Henry McGuire, vice president of sales for Realities, Claiborne’s new line, noted, “The better zone, in my opinion, has really needed a shot in the arm — new brands, perception of product and that type of thing because, for lack of a better word, it’s been stale for the last few years.

“Fashion has to intrigue the customer,” he added. “It has to be an emotional experience.”

Besides a straight launch of Realities, Claiborne set out to do business in a new way that is more accommodating to retailers’ needs. Accordingly, the firm has streamlined the market process, forgoing a permanent showroom, a set market schedule and a large staff in an effort to be quicker and more efficient.

While the new lines seem certain to help the business at department stores overall, A.G. Edwards & Sons equity analyst Robert Buchanan said they can’t claim sole responsibility if sales improve.

“There’s going to be a boost irrespective of the new lines,” he said. “Whenever the fashion pendulum plays to the dressier, that favors the department stores.”

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