By  on March 11, 2002

NEW YORK -- When Katie Couric accessorized her suit with a pair of black lace tights on NBC's "Today" show last Thursday, she confirmed to legwear vendors what they had been preaching all along: Fashion tights are a hot trend and a timely way to update a wardrobe.

Bearing that in mind, many executives were hopeful that the category's downturn has finally bottomed out, and some even claimed that this was one of the strongest markets since sheers were still common business attire in the late Eighties.

That said, many stressed that the real work to rebuild some of the damage of the past few years now starts, which will likely include:

A continued focus on marketing to further strengthen consumer awareness of legwear as an accessory.

Efficient inventory management to make sure popular styles can be shipped to stores quickly.

An emphasis on helping retailers merchandise their hosiery departments.

"The stores are still keeping inventory very low and they are missing opportunities," said Karen Schneider, president of Wolford USA. "If you have an 80 percent sell-through, the customer is responding, but the reordering is too slow. Stores missed much business this past fall."

Wolford's fall collection is celebrating America with each style named after a U.S. city, state or icon such as Alaska, Montana or Christopher Columbus. Top-booking styles included Wall Street, fine pinstripe tights; Central Park, graphic tights with different layers of Op Art stripes and Rodeo Drive, tights with a thigh-high floral pattern.

"In fall 2001, pattern was such a strong sell-through that most retailers said they could have had more business if they had had more inventory," said Pat McNellis, president of women's brands at Royce Hosiery Mills, which makes the licensed Nine West and Dockers hosiery lines.

Royce introduced its new licensed line for Nine & Co., which consists of fashion socks retailing for $5 to $7.

"Fashion continues to be a key direction for fall," said Regina Littles, national sales manager at Gerbe, which offered a variety of styles, such as polkadots, vertical textured stripes and leaf motifs for fall. The company also introduced 15-denier invisible sheer tights at $11.10 wholesale."Women are dressing more, and the ads have such a different tone about them," said Carol Hochman, president and chief executive officer of Danskin, the maker of Pennaco hosiery.

Hochman noted that even junior contemporary companies are portraying a dressier look in their spring ads.

Meanwhile, many vendors said a continuing challenge is the downsizing of legwear departments at many chains.

John Flynn, vice president of sales at Levante USA, said: "Many major stores decreased their legwear departments by 15 percent. It will get down to who will get the message across with the most innovative type of products."

Flynn noted that "wellness" is a popular theme, with top styles including a knee-high with a textured sole that massages the foot, and a sock with a graduated compression feature to improve circulation.

Julia Townsend, vice president and general manager of the department and specialty division at Kayser-Roth Corp., the owners of Hue legwear, said retailers are looking for ideas that can be incremental to grow their business, such as luxury, knee socks, novelty socks and slipper socks.

Townsend said Hue's slipper-sock assortment accounted for 12 percent of Hue's business, and the company hopes to double this in fall.

Also new to the market was Italian designer Emilio Cavallini. Based in Florence, the firm is looking to build its U.S. presence. The line consists of 17 styles, including legwarmers and black crocheted tights, at $7 wholesale.

United Legwear, which produces a number of junior lines, was focusing on back-to-school styles. The firm introduced socks under the Puma brand, including roller-skating socks that go up to the knee, as well as low-riders cut below the ankle, done in a variety of colors. Maggie Hoban, a sales executive, said top performers at market were reverse knits with fringe and fake fur socks, as well as styles with pom-poms.

The Hot Sox Co., meanwhile, introduced a group of colorful computer-print images called Robotics.

"With everybody still stuck to grays and dark colors, this is a kick and allows our customers to have fun with legwear," said Gary Wolkowitz, president of Hot Sox.Fall's Best Leg Looks

Luxury yarns and metallic touches.

Knee-highs and slipper socks.

Subtle textures, dots with lace and three-tone stripes.

Men's wear and prairie influences.

Colors: Brown, red, green.

Leaf and other foliage-inspired motifs.

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