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Reinventing Bridge: Sector Sees Revival As Definition Widens

NEW YORK -- The consumer mindset today is all about value and that has led to the return of an old standby: bridge. Only recently derided as "dead," the category seems to be suddenly back in style.<P>It's been a short five years since the pioneers...

NEW YORK — The consumer mindset today is all about value and that has led to the return of an old standby: bridge. Only recently derided as “dead,” the category seems to be suddenly back in style.

This story first appeared in the June 19, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

It’s been a short five years since the pioneers of bridge sportswear and ready-to-wear — labels like Emanuel, Adrienne Vittadini, Mondi and Andrea Jovine — fell victim to a category that quickly unraveled, the novelty of designer-looking career clothes at more affordable prices having worn off due to overexposure and too much similarity between the collections.

In a segment where margins were already tight and profits dependent upon delivering the right look that could generate high-volume sales, a string of bankruptcies and failed ventures cast such a pejorative connotation onto bridge that few of the remaining vendors in that arena would still use the term to describe their clothes today.

But the concept of diffusing a designer aesthetic into wearable, trendy items at accessible prices still has its appeal, drawing a number of new launches this season from companies as diverse as Ralph Lauren, Bill Blass and Richard Tyler. Retailers are saying the category has picked up steam once again, theorizing that during periods of economic uncertainty, customers are likely to shop with value as a higher priority. Industry estimates put the bridge sector at about $2 billion-plus at retail.

Still, the category is going through a major transition from the perspective of what labels are carried in department stores and the look of some of the establishment bridge powerhouses, such as Ellen Tracy, Anne Klein, Eileen Fisher and Dana Buchman. These labels have quickly adapted to the decline of structured career apparel with broader collections that incorporate more of a lifestyle bent, in some cases at the hands of a new designer.

Also causing the traditional boundaries of bridge to blur are designer diffusion concepts such as Marc by Marc Jacobs, Kors or Miu Miu that only resemble bridge in terms of price. On top of that, department stores are also attempting to differentiate themselves from one another by picking up exclusives with once obscure bridge labels, such as European brands Ted Baker, Votre Nom and Philippe Adec, which have made dramatic inroads into the U.S. in the past few years.

Plus, Mondi and Vittadini are back, both with new owners and new fashion concepts.

For lack of a better term, bridge lives on, but it now crosses wildly different rivers than the divide between designer and better-priced merchandise. Its sudden revival has resulted in a retail dilemma, however, as shrunken denim jackets from Marc by Marc Jacobs suddenly share floor space in some stores with classic navy blazers from Ellen Tracy. That raises the question of whether the “new bridge” can be all things to all people or whether it’s likely to result in more confusing scenarios for shoppers.

“The stores are dividing bridge into two,” said designer Elie Tahari, who restructured his 27-year-old company last year to better address the item-driven, lifestyle shopping patterns that emerged in his retail sales reports.

“There are the old-lady, boring clothes and there are those that stores are calling modern designer,” Tahari said. “I had fallen into the trap of making boring clothes, just to compete. Not only did I not enjoy it, I became very unsuccessful. So I’m going back to my roots.”

Customers still expect high-grade fabrics and construction from bridge resources, making the category one of the most competitive in the market in terms of making a profit for the resources. For Tahari, the restructuring was aimed at improving the look of his merchandise, while also better controlling the risk of producing expensive sweaters and skirts that might not sell. What Tahari did, and what has become increasingly common throughout apparel retailing, is to break from the traditional concept of two or four seasonal collections to ones that are monthly. Those lines only represent half of the company’s business, with the rest coming from “repeat business” — items that are instant hits on the selling floor that can be quickly produced in bulk and stocked in the stores.

“We found peasant tops and denim were selling, and we were able to increase our production,” Tahari said. “It’s like the stock market. You’ve got to be on top of your business all day long. It’s no longer a designer’s world where you finish a collection and go on vacation. Now it’s a merchant’s world.”

Bridge is also a world where value has become as much of a key component as good design or quality. With many designer lines offering denim, T-shirts and accessories that are less expensive than their core product and better-priced lines carrying more cashmere blends and higher-priced jackets, even that certain $200-to-$500 retail price range no longer belongs exclusively to bridge.

“It’s hard to characterize the bridge customer today,” said Anne Klein designer Charles Nolan. “You look at the vendors out there and they’re all servicing different customers. There are different issues at retail that vary from store to store and how they present the product, but from the design perspective, it’s really about trying to get into a customer’s mind-set, rather than just a bridge concept. If you make a product that works, the customer will find it. The world has gotten so much more complex that we don’t want to be categorized anymore.”

Wendy Chivian, president of the brand, added: “Price isn’t really an issue in bridge. Bridge started as diffusion, but bridge is really more about quality and fashion now.”

Few categories show more depth today than the diversity found in bridge. Some vendors have campaigned to change the name or to break out as a subset known as something else, such as the “gold range” for the upper end, although that never really caught on. Others have suggested the “modern zone,” but really, that’s derivative toward the designer and contemporary departments that want to be modern, too. For a lark, the French labels such as Votre Nom, Philippe Adec and Gerard Darel could be grouped together as Le Pont Neuf, but most designers acknowledged that such industry jargon rarely makes an impact on the customer’s appetite to buy, anyway.

Linda Allard, design director for Ellen Tracy, which is reportedly in the midst of a change of ownership, has seen the bridge category change a lot to mean many different things since its heyday in the Eighties, when the definition was simple: jackets. Still, Allard said her Ellen Tracy customer is loyal and the company is experiencing one of the strongest spring selling seasons at retail, with its brightly colored suits and separates performing the best.

“What happened [in the Eighties] and what we were doing just coincided with what others were doing — and bridge was born,” Allard said. “Our concept was that all these women became important in the workplace and they needed clothes. Before that, we were doing more sportswear; but then it seemed appropriate to wear suits and be taken seriously like men.”

Today, however, Allard said that with women’s ascension in the workforce, they are more confident and therefore do not need to dress to impress in the same way as before.

“Instead of women being in lower echelon positions, they are ceo’s and presidents, so the clothes they need are different today as they are more confident and savvy,” she said. “They are saying, `Let the boys be boys’ and they want to be feminine.”

So, while suits and jackets are still important at Ellen Tracy, Allard said they are more feminine looking. Reflecting this change in attitude toward dress, structured looks only constitute about 25 to 30 percent of the business today compared with nearly all of it in the Eighties. The collection is now dominated by sportswear-related separates.

“The bridge market has had its ups and downs, and over the years, bridge has changed,” Allard said. “But what’s continued to drive our business is that we’ve stayed loyal to our customer. Not only does she come back, but she’s extremely loyal. So the business has been building, and when you see 50 to 60 percent sell-throughs per season, that’s great.”

Dana Buchman, designer of the 15-year-old namesake brand, a division of Liz Claiborne Inc., said while her line still produces career-type clothes, the more casual way women are dressing has influenced her designs.

“At the beginning, bridge was more career, and now career is still important, but career can mean just a fantastic linen jacket over pants,” Buchman said. “It’s not necessarily suits, where the top matches the bottom, but polished pulled-together looks.

“Bridge is more complex today. But there is a core of women who only buy bridge and it’s the foundation of the bridge business. The business now is about dressing that woman for all her lifestyle needs. She doesn’t go to the Gap for casual and can’t go contemporary because she might not be built like that.”

Buchman said since this customer wants fashion and appreciates the extra details and workmanship, she places more emphasis on special features like embellished trims on pants, decorated waistbands and maybe a photographic print on more casual cropped pants.

“Bridge is not the $4,000 jacket but the $400 jacket, and this customer loves that,” she said. “There are women who can afford designer, but think that it’s more appropriate to buy bridge. There’s sort of a puritanism there.”

Making personal appearances is also important to Buchman, who travels all over the country to meet her customers.

“There are huge differences from city to city, but there’s an underlying theme: these women are smart and energetic and want to look beautiful,” said Buchman, whose biggest market is in New York, but also has a strong following in Chicago, Washington, Atlanta and Dallas.

Maria Viccaro, president of Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, said just because a company might be classified as bridge, it doesn’t mean it should lack fashion.

“You’ve got to create a demand, and if it isn’t fashion enough, why should she buy it?” Viccaro said of the seven-year-old company that models its look after the designer’s collection. “Not everyone can afford bridge. It’s not inexpensive by any means. But I think there was a problem in that people denoted her as a career uptight woman wearing a button-up blouse. There is a stigma about bridge, and unfortunately, it’s not only about a price point.”

Viccaro’s answer is to infuse as much fashion as possible into the product, as long as it stays consistent with designer Oscar de la Renta’s vision. She said, “This customer wants beautiful, sophisticated, modern fashion — she is not afraid and aspires to and has the same [designer] taste level.”

Lafayette 148, a six-year-old label, is projected to hit $40 million in sales this year, an achievement largely aided by owning its production in Chinatown, where the firm developed with a strong designer image out of a factory business.

“From Lafayette’s point of view, we have had tremendous opportunity,” said Deirdre Quinn, president. “We were told the jacket is dead and the bridge business is dead, but the strength of this company is our manufacturing and design base. Our niche is that we’re fast.”

The brand has expanded at a rate of about 30 percent per year, which she also attributed to designer Edward Wilkerson’s approach to include styles that are young and fun, as well as those that are sophisticated. A $3,000 perforated skirt on the fall collection, for instance, was designed as a fun showpiece for image and far from the traditional bridge concept. At trunk shows, however, Mendoza was stunned to take more than 40 orders.

“That tells me you can put the product out and let the customer decide what they want,” she said. “I’m always open-minded to say, `Let’s see what they want this season.’ The market is so competitive that success is based on how you’re selling. At the end, it’s up to us to watch and analyze what’s selling.”

Similarly, Monica Forman, president of MAG by Magaschoni, an 11-year-old firm, said she doesn’t approach her business within the perimeters of what “bridge” means or meant at one time.

“We approach the business through our customer, who is about 30 to 60 years old, young in attitude,” said Forman.

The business was refocused about five years ago, and a new design team was hired to add more style to compete with other categories in the then-struggling bridge sector. Still, the fit could not become as skinny as some contemporary lines, nor as generous as more traditional bridge makers, Forman said.

“The bridge customer is almost designer,” she said. “I’m glad that more [bridge] makers are coming into the mix.”

Apart from Lauren’s Blue Label launch, which is projected to develop into a $100 million business in its first year, Richard Tyler is launching a bridge collection and Bill Blass Ltd. formed a new company in partnership with Brad Saltzman, president and ceo of the contemporary sportswear brand Urchin, to target the knitwear segment of bridge with Bill – Bill Blass.

Mondi, a victim of the bridge meltdown in the late Nineties, was recently relaunched under the ownership of Fehmi Chama, a Munich-based agent and distributor.

Vanessa Chama, managing director of production and creative designs, said the line has returned to its original mission of focusing on key items, with patchwork details of gray denim, floral prints and satin, or novel trims, such as a heart motif applied in Swarovski crystals, embroidered on a sleeve or outlined with subtle stitches. Anette Vogt, who designed the original Mondi collections two decades ago, was brought back as chief designer.

“We’re not planning to grow fast, but to bring the brand back to the market and to maximize the name, while making sure the market backs it up,” said Skender Perolli, president of Mondi’s U.S. operations, noting that a key marketing strategy has been to stage trunk shows at specialty stores around the country, “to let the customers know we are back, but also to show the retailers we could back up the product with the appropriate deliveries.”

He expects to generate sales of about $25 million globally this year, with $3 million to $5 million based in the U.S. Among the immediate goals for Mondi are to open a couple of anchor stores, possibly in New York at Columbus Circle; in Short Hills, N.J.; Las Vegas, or on Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue.

“There is definitely a growing market for bridge,” Perolli added. “Some of the brands are overpricing themselves right out of the market, and customers are not getting their money’s worth. People are asking for bridge because it’s more economical right now.”

Ted Baker, a 14-year-old firm that started as a men’s line about five years ago, has also taken a distinctive approach away from the traditional bridge template since it entered the U.S. about two years ago. The line features contemporary-styled women’s apparel, including suits and separates, which represents about 50 percent of the firm’s total business, that are cut with a bridge fit.

Funny sayings written on labels, such as “Made in Heaven,” and interesting details such as pockets for lipstick and airline tickets, help set Ted Baker apart from other bridge companies, said Gary Furey, director of sales, who projected a volume this year of about $1.5 million for women’s in the U.S.

“We’re not a separates business, we’re a collection,” said Furey. “Whether you call it bridge or modern, there’s a niche here and a customer who’s willing to pay for quality merchandise.”

Furey said the main challenge with bridge is that no one quite knows how to define it. He said, “Everybody gets lumped into a category and if you don’t fit into that category, retailers get fearful that the customer is not going to gravitate toward that product.”

Ted Baker is gearing its business toward department and specialty stores and was launched in a major rollout over the past year in a partnership with Jacobson Stores. The company also has a store in SoHo in New York, and just expanded the space to encompass about 5,000 square feet, featuring women’s and men’s apparel. In the U.K., where the company is based, there are 17 Ted Baker stores and 23 concessions.

French firm Brunzack Corp. counts the 13-year-old Votre Nom label among its brands, as well as offshoots Jeans Votre Nom and Votre Nom Sport, all of which are based in Paris and Los Angeles and produce $50 million in worldwide sales.

“The bridge market has adapted over the past few years by jumping on the item bandwagon,” said David Guez, president. “Yes, bridge is about suits, but it’s a very individual and itemized approach to dressing. Jackets are still a key component, but they’re a little sexier, more novel — a zip-front jacket here, a wrap jacket there. If it’s a pinstriped jacket, it’s cut on the bias.”

Guez feels that retailers like Banana Republic, J. Crew, Club Monaco and even Ann Taylor, which initially attracted a broad sector of the core bridge customer away from department stores, are now skewing much younger with their collections. Department stores have a major opportunity to rebuild that business and give the category a future, he said, “if the departments would add the word `emotion’ to their buys.”

“Our mantra is, `The bridge customer buys on impulse,’ so we will continue to design clothing that inspires the customer to do just that,” he said. “The contemporary customer doesn’t have a monopoly on impulse buying. `Bridge’ still applies if you’re talking strictly about price points, but it doesn’t apply if you think bridge is boring suit looks.”

At Philippe Adec, also based in France, president Aby Saltiel agreed that the biggest change for the company is a return to more separates with a contemporary feel and away from a collection of suits.

“The woman who is buying in the bridge department is more contemporary,” Saltiel said. “For fall, it’s all separates. We find the woman who is the bridge client wants to wear everything broken and mix and match with new things. She’s wearing more advanced bodies, but doesn’t have the body of contemporary.”

Younger in style than a more traditional bridge line, Saltiel said it’s important to feature career and casual separates in the collection.

“Before, there was a clear cut between bridge and contemporary, and now it’s becoming very cloudy,” he said. “Now in bridge, you see jeans. Basically, it’s the lifestyle that has changed.”

Isabella president Howard Aubrey, whose company distributes the European bridge collections Basler, Bianca and Gerard Darel, said his approach is to focus on specialty stores in the U.S. because he cannot justify giving markdown money to department stores.

“Our philosophy is to sell to a few stores in depth rather than a lot of stores with small orders,” said Aubrey. “We protect our clients but in turn they give us good representation.”

Barbara Desser, sales executive for the German-based Bianca, added: “Because they’re European lines, they’re not flooded all over the market.”

The 10-year-old Renfrew Collection has also evolved to feature a more modern, contemporary look, said Joseph Pascale, designer.

“Renfrew used to be known for suits, but today, women aren’t buying as many suits and they want more blouses and causal novelty jackets,” Pascale said. “I would love to see a return to suits, but I doubt that will happen. Customers want modern daywear, more lifestyle, and women overall are dressing younger and more modern.”

Kellwood Co.’s Bill Burns and Jax bridge divisions have also made significant advances by incorporating innovative styling and image, taking a cue from successful contemporary departments, but not going overboard.

“Classic updating” is how Karen Pirritt, president of Bill Burns, describes the approach. “Women want to look young, and contemporary [dressing] is here and here for good. Whereas in the past, like with the Dana Buchmans, Ellen Tracys, Anne Kleins and even Bill Burnses, the answer to next fall was a newer version of last year’s bestseller; today, it’s whatever the new trends are, but done in a way that isn’t contemporary. Its classic updating. If contemporary has become a constant, bridge needs to be more updated.”

Whether it’s new, innovative fabrics, details like a different lapel or extra seams, Pirritt said the bridge customer is ready for more fashion and is not so traditional.

“It’s about taking the lead from the designer market and interpreting it for this customer,” she said. “My strategy is filling in the gap between more traditional bridge lines and the more updated and contemporary.”

However, the main challenge with bridge, Pirritt said, is managing the lead time for a mill to make the fabric because the yarns and fabrics are typically from Italy. Due to this, the company has started using factories in Italy.

“The lead time for a mill to make a fabric is so much farther ahead than the contemporary market, and that’s where contemporary is having bridge’s lunch,” she said. “The challenge to bridge is, `May the bestseller be the first one back in the stores because in most traditional bridge houses, it takes 10 to 12 weeks to get back.”

Meanwhile, as the sea of what defines bridge continues to evolve, Mark D’Angelo, vice president of U.S. sales for Jax, said he thinks the traditional bridge customer — the lady who lunches and wears pulled-together looks — is still alive and present and has been neglected in the pursuit of younger and faster sportswear.

“Bridge hasn’t really changed in the sense of its definition. It’s the price between better and designer,” D’Angelo said. “But in terms of bridge and the resources, there are a variety of women today who fall into its consumer, who want to buy the designer look at a price.”

The Vancouver-based Jax originated about 26 years ago. Prices range from about $75 for a sweater to about $200 for a jacket. The line is sold at specialty stores, as well as chains such as Nordstrom and Jacobson’s.

Since women today want to constantly update their wardrobe, but perhaps are not that trendy, vice president of merchandising Jill Lubinski said it’s important they keep the collections moving, but not that important to jump on every trend as soon as it hits.

“Our customer has confidence and will adopt the trends, but it doesn’t have to be the peasant blouse the minute it hits Zara,” she said. “She’s going to wait a little longer, and if it survives the next turn, maybe she’ll buy it.”

As many new bridge lines have developed and more traditional firms have refocused their collections, Eileen Fisher has also maintained a look of her collection since emerging with the namesake label about 18 years ago.

She describes the unstructured style of her clothes as “relaxed elegant,” that can travel from day career into dressy evening.

“I guess I’m pretty consistent,” Fisher said. “I’m probably cutting the clothes a little closer to the body now and using a little more stretch, so they’re still easy. But they’re not so different. I used to do more head-to-toe outfits, and now I’m mixing more.”

The company did about $129 million in sales in 2001, up 20 percent from the previous year, including sales from its own stores.

“We haven’t changed our strategy,” Fisher said. “Our customer wants comfortable clothing, with free movement and ease. I think women, at least my customers, want to feel free and comfortable, whether that’s at a fancy affair, at work or at home.”

Launched in 1993, Yansi Fugel no longer sells her namesake collection to major department stores, after exiting that business about five years ago. Today, her line is focused on specialty stores and has about 500 accounts nationwide. There are also two Yansi Fugel stores in suburban Bergen County in New Jersey, where Fugel spends a lot of time to tap the needs and wants of her customer.

“We’re customer-obsessed and there’s too much insulation between us and the customers at the major stores,” said Fugel, whose firm did about $15 million in volume last year and is expected to increase to about 15 to 20 percent in 2002.

Over the years, her collection has evolved to reflect the changing needs of her consumer, Fugel said.

“It was much more ensembled when we started, more collection-oriented,” she said. “But as we moved forward, it became more based on the customer’s lifestyle, which means there are times when she wants a suit and times when she’s more casual. So, we are trying to be more versatile and multifunctional.”

A part of addressing her customer’s lifestyle is featuring easy-care clothes, she said, which means items that can be washed and don’t require ironing. Another part is not losing focus on this diverse consumer, she noted.

“Women are so well traveled these days — they may live in Baton Rouge, but they travel to Europe and across the country,” Fugel said. “So they don’t fit the typical suburban profile. This fact makes designing for them more fun.”

Overall, Lloyd Strauss, vice president of sales at the 11-year-old line Debra de Roo, added that bridge has moved away from structure and more toward carefree clothing — in attitude and maintenance. But Strauss said de Roo has always been a casual-inspired line featuring denim separates, knit tops, blouses and pants, even when bridge meant more suits and structured looks.

The firm is focused on specialty stores. Strauss said the designer spends a lot of time traveling to meet her customers, contributing to about $5 million in volume last year and an expected 20 percent increase this year.

“Debra makes a lot of personal appearances because she wants to get the pulse of her customers,” he said. “She travels to Milwaukee, Washington and Strausburg, Pa. — that’s where some of our biggest trunk shows are.””