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Oakley’s Fashionable Women’s Fit

LOS ANGELES — Technology-driven Oakley Inc. still touts $230 magnesium shades on its Web site, but now it wants customers to see its softer side, too.<br><br>The Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based maker of sunglasses, apparel and other gear is holding...

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LOS ANGELES — Technology-driven Oakley Inc. still touts $230 magnesium shades on its Web site, but now it wants customers to see its softer side, too.

The Foothill Ranch, Calif.-based maker of sunglasses, apparel and other gear is holding court at a Hard Rock Hotel & Casino suite in Las Vegas during MAGIC to promote its 47-piece line of contemporary clothing, aimed at the 18-to 25-year-old woman, or one similar in mind-set.

Nancy Coons, Oakley’s apparel program manager, said the line isn’t defined by a sport or activity, a strategy pursued by competitors Quiksilver Inc., Billabong and O’Neill.

“We’re not looking to compete with [Quiksilver’s] Roxy or other Southern California surf brands — we don’t want to be lumped in that category,” Coons said.

Think zip-up knit sweaters, knee-length denim skirts, dirty-washed denim jeans, cotton miniskirts, blouses with kimono sleeves, and low-rise, canvas cargoes with front and back pockets. The mix is detailed with snap-front closures on denim HotPants, keyhole openings on tunic-style blouses and off-set zippers on miniskirts. Lifestyle looks also include soft fleece yoga outfits and velour athletic sets with zip-up hoodies and johnny-collar tops in burgundy, charcoal, ice blue and black.

The collection has more than doubled from its spring 2003 test launch, Coons said, and will be priced from $42 retail for tops to $60 for the jeans, velour and yoga pieces.

So far, existing accounts such as Sport Chalet and Pipe Dreams Surf in Hawaii have expressed interest in the line. Oakley expects the apparel to hang in 60 to 70 new doors in the U.S.

“It’s incredibly cute and shows great quality,” said Dylan Hawley, an assistant buyer at La Canada, Calif.-based Sport Chalet, who’s still negotiating the buy with Oakley. “The price points are a little high, but we’ve found price doesn’t matter if the customers, especially women, really like it.”

Pipe Dreams Surf owner Jason Chang said the line’s prices seem fair and he planned to place a $20,000 to $30,000 order.

“Oakley is never known to be cheap — their quality stands out,” Chang said. “We joked with the sales reps that someday people will say they didn’t realize Oakley made sunglasses because their fashions are so strong.”

Oakley has been making men’s and women’s apparel for the past six years, but has recently begun taking the category far more seriously. It beefed up its men’s fashions nearly two years ago with denim, corduroy and cargo-styled pants and launched a men’s surf line to a “huge response,” Coons said.

Next, they brought on sportswear designer Maia Andersen to clean up the women’s side. And last month, Oakley hired Jenny Earnshaw to manage women’s apparel sales, a domain formerly relegated to men.

“We looked to bring more credibility to the brand by hiring women who understand women’s needs of fit and quality of product,” Coons said.

Even with the new direction, the question remains if the $490 million company — late into the fashion game — can stand out among the maddening crowd of competitors.

“Fashion always has room to grow, and they’ve been able to test the waters with men’s which performed really well, so I think it’s a good move,” said Mitch Kummetz, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles.

Kummetz also points out that it’s usually positive when businesses diversify to ease pressure when another category stalls. Sunglasses, which have posted weaker sales, make up about 75 percent of Oakley’s business. “It’s always good to be involved in more than one business, as long as you don’t stray too far away from the brand,” he said.

Another departure for the company is its upcoming, $500,000 marketing campaign. Known for its aggressive images of sponsored athletes tackling monster waves, Oakley has opted to feature surfer Kira Sheppard in more serene settings. The ads will break in Shape, Fitness and SG in April.

“It’s the first time we’re not focusing on an in-your-face image,” Coons said.

Oakley hopes the message will provide a boost to its apparel division, which is expected to grow 35 percent next year. To date, women’s accounts for 12 percent of apparel sales, but Coons said that can double with the help of the new line that should generate at least $7 million. Oakley just reported that 2002 apparel sales increased 49.3 percent to $56.6 million, although the golf, surf and biking markets drove the increase.

Apparel could prove to be a shot in the arm for Oakley, which is coming off a tough quarter. The company posted a fourth-quarter profit of $487,000, or 1 cent a share, down from $3.3 million, or 5 cents a share, a year earlier. The quarter included a restructuring charge of $1.8 million, or 2 cents a share. Sales shot up 14.1 percent to $102.9 million in the three months.

Company officials admit that chasing the volatile world of fashion isn’t exactly the safest venture, but they remain positive.

“If we stay true to our design heritage and we’re telling a good story, I think we’ll be just fine,” said Oakley president Colin Baden.

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