SALT LAKE CITY — From the looks of the fall merchandise shown at last weekend’s Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, women will soon not only look better on the slopes and the rocks, but they will be more comfortable.

Solid sales of women’s apparel is driving the interest in stylishness and function for the outdoors crowd.

"Anything women’s" was the second-highest product category to footwear, according to a retail survey by SNEWS, a gear and apparel trade for the outdoor and fitness markets.

Tim Boyle, chief executive officer of Columbia Sportswear, said even though the women’s business isn’t immune to the "general retail malaise," business, east of Chicago anyway, has been positive. The company has focused on selling to larger department stores to supplement its specialty business.

"This kind of casual, rugged outdoor apparel is doing quite good," Boyle said. "Getting outdoors is an inexpensive way to spend time with the family, and people still want to dress to reflect what they do in their spare time. If you play basketball, you probably wear Air Jordans. If you are an avid hiker, you want to dress like a hiker."

Keith Reichelderfer, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for Gart Sports, said the women’s business is a growth objective. For the past 18 months, the retailer has been investing in the category.

"We definitely want to continue to increase the penetration in the women’s apparel business across every category, from lifestyle to outdoor to snow sports," he said. "Women have always been in our store, but we are now addressing her as a customer. We want to have top-of-mind awareness instead of her as a secondary customer."

Show attendance rebounded to more than 13,600, compared with last winter when the winter show was held in Las Vegas due to the Winter Olympics. There were 650 brands represented and 2,266 retailers turned out.

"Being back in Salt Lake City and being in the right buying cycle time-wise garnered a 25 percent increase in attendance over the 2002 winter market, and yet fell shy of the 2001 show by approximately 15 percent," said Peter Devin, OR’s trade show director.Bob Yearick, vice president of Polo Sport RLX, said the women’s business is up significantly, but it’s going to take a focused effort to retain that business.

"There are ladies out there with fashion sensibility in the outdoor stores," Yearick said. "A year ago, we offered a small package of women’s sportswear and got a great response. We expanded it even further this fall. There is still some uncertainty, but the little bit we did last year blew through stores."

More manufacturers understand that women don’t want to wear men’s small sizes or scaled-down silhouettes in technical apparel and are offering more flattering shapes. Brands such as RLX, Patagonia, Columbia and Moonstone Mountain showed a new emphasis on women-specific design and construction. Some even introduced new women’s silhouettes.

At Isis, a women’s-only brand, a spokeswoman said, "They are very selective and careful about what they buy. It has to fit, be flattering and it has to be the right color. They are willing to pay a little more for it because they know they are going to wear it. In the past, women have been stuck in men’s ski pants that don’t fit. Not anymore."

Joan Hurley, senior vice president of communications of Galyan’s Trading Co., walked the trade show floor with her team looking for versatility.

"One thing women are looking for are pieces they can take from one activity to another," Hurley said. "They are very lifestyle-conscious. There’s more stretch, more soft-shell products and more fashion."

Beyond feminine shapes, look for a bold color statement in everything from base layers to hard-shell performance outerwear, this fall. Replacing the bulkier fleeces of past outdoor performance garments is the soft shell, which doubles as a layering piece and a water- and wind-resistant outerwear piece that can be versatile with changing weather conditions.

Reichelderfer said he came to OR to see how vendors had improved the fleece category. Nike ACG, Columbia, The North Face, Hot Chillys and Brooks are among the brands that introduced soft shells this year. Manufacturers said they are versatile, functional and can totally eliminate an additional layer. Like a similar product from Patagonia, manufacturers said this piece will function 80 percent of the time in outdoor conditions, and many are shaped specifically for women.Rich Hill, vice president of product development at Patagonia, said, "It starts with a technical aspect. Less fabric means it doesn’t flap in the wind as much, it weighs less and it makes women look great."

There was also plenty of fashion-oriented sportswear that can also resist water, wick away sweat and offer a little bit of stretch, all without sacrificing a clean look and soft hand.

RLX, for example, continues on the success of its chino, which offers a lower rise in the waist, an articulated knee and mesh pockets, but still doubles as a well-constructed pair of khakis. Top that off with a merino wool zip-front cardigan with natural water repellency and a woman either has some nice dinner attire or a flattering style for a mountain hike. It’s what RLX’s Yearick calls a "great marriage between semitechnical and sportswear."

Patagonia has had success with its Body Program seamless performance base layer made of Capilene.

"It hasn’t been easy," said Hill. "The climbing people in the company keep saying, ‘Why are we doing women’s underwear?’ but this is absolutely appropriate. The industry has never done true underwear layers for women. We are in a wool sock and Birkenstock industry. So we said let’s do something comfortable, durable and is a future strategy for us."

Brands like The North Face, known for vibrant colors, are offering more feminine pieces this fall. The North Face is offering styles in pink bubblegum, powder blue and even white. The company also introduced its first A5 fall collection, a climbing-inspired line. Funkier styles are doing well, said Kevin Gallager, A5’s product manager.

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