By  on August 27, 2007

Call it survival of the smartest.

Looking to 2008, many women's sportswear lines are counting on innovation to carry them through or grow their customer base. That innovation ranges from offering buyers the opportunity to shop for wholesale goods online to presenting eco-friendly fabrics and providing constant freshness by unveiling new looks each month.

To boost business, Tianello, for example, introduced a new wholesale Web site, tianello.biz, allowing buyers to do their shopping 24 hours a day.

The move counters a decline in trade show attendance, said Tianello's chief executive officer Steven Barraza. "It's expensive to go to shows," he said, noting that rising gas prices and escalating hotel costs in New York and other destinations have cut into buyers' budgets. "Going to a show has become a luxury."

Buyers and retailers have trimmed the number of shows they attend, registering for only the biggest events, like WWDMAGIC, he said. In turn, the company does a strong business at WWDMAGIC, but has seen sales level off at regional markets. Regional sales reps are also less likely to take to the road, he said.

"Buyers are changing the way they purchase goods," Barraza said, noting that more specialty stores want clothing for immediate delivery.

"We can do that because we're domestic," he said, adding that the company keeps undyed garments on hand so that they can quickly respond to orders.

Barraza, meanwhile, reported a "phenomenal response" to Tianello's wholesale Web site. The company initially produced the site to make it easier for current customers, but found representatives from old accounts asking for a site password.

"We're hearing from people we haven't done business with in five years," he said.

In turn, the Los Angeles-based company, which specializes in garments made with Tencel, said it is adding more fashion photos to the site in addition to line sheets.

"We're romancing it," Barraza said of the Web site. "We're going more for people who don't know who we are."

Now retailers can shop at their leisure, representing a perk Barraza believes is critical to compete in today's climate."Right now, it's truly necessary," he said. "I think 2008 will be a challenge. This year's been a little flat for us."

In recent years, Tianello posted 15 to 20 percent annual sales increases, he said, while this year the jump has been smaller, closer to 5 percent so far.

"For people who don't have a distinctive, different look, it's going to be tough," he said of 2008.

Tianello differentiates itself through its use of Tencel and bamboo, and by focusing on specialty stores in tourist areas. For example, the company recently introduced a group of activewear sets, including a beach poncho, easy pants and hoodies in bamboo-cotton, and Tencel-cotton blends, he said. Wholesale prices run from $40 to $80.

A relative newcomer to the U.S women's sportswear business, Sojrn Ltd. also has found success in promoting its use of natural bamboo in silk cashmere sweaters. Natural bamboo provides protection from UV rays, possesses wicking properties and attracts eco-friendly customers because bamboo cultivation does not involve irrigation, fertilizers or pesticides, said Doug Stone, vice president of sales and business development.

That's proven a strong selling point with buyers. "I didn't realize there were that many people committed to the Earth," he said of the fabric's popularity.

The Kennesaw, Ga.-based knitwear company entered the U.S. market two years ago, focusing on tops, Stone said.

Expected top sellers for the line this spring include cashmere-blend sweaters in cap- and three-quarter-length sleeves, and scoopneck and lower V-neck styles in bright blue, red, yellow and bright pink. Pieces wholesale for $40 to $50. Sojrn's collection of worsted cashmere represents a higher price point, at $80 to $120 for a hoodie. The line also creates soft, lightweight cotton cashmere polo shirts and sleeveless looks.

"We're feeling fairly strong with being the new girl on the block," said Stone, who worked his first two shows with the line earlier this year in New York and Chicago. "The attention we've been getting is positive."

The company is trying to extend its reach to the Midwest and West Coast after building a client base in the Southeast and Northeast, said Stone, noting that the line also may approach better department stores about private label opportunities.For industry veteran Karen Kane, the need to grow is not so urgent. Instead, the 28-year-old company looks to maintain and monitor its existing accounts, growing in a calculated manner.

"We need to maintain our credibility," said Lonnie Kane, president, "and not go to doors that are going to generate markdowns."

The company, which sells mostly to department stores and some specialty stores, is attending WWDMAGIC to open some new accounts, but overall, business is stable.

"The first six months are consistent with last year," said Kane, who added that the line may investigate teaming with more e-commerce vendors to incite growth in that segment.

The company's sense of urgency, meanwhile, is channeled into its fashions. "Our approach is to keep changing our product mix," he said. "Do not get content."

In turn, Karen Kane produces 250 styles over a three-month period. "As long as we can present newness, we have credibility with our buyers," he said.

Kane predicted more emphasis on tops for this spring. "It's a great year for tops," he said. "There's a more tasteful use of bling, beading and attention on wovens more than knits. Prints play a pivotal role this spring as well. When it's an exciting line," he said, "you get growth from that."

Karen Kane's retail prices run from $40 to $100 for tops and $80 to $100 for pants.

Esprit also recognizes the power in building positive momentum. Although the company has flourished abroad, it has struggled in the U.S.

"We didn't do a good enough job of explaining who we are," said Jerome Griffith, president of Esprit North America.

Now the brand plans to reeducate buyers by hosting a fashion show at WWDMAGIC and presenting its lineup of constantly updated merchandise.

"We do 12 collections, one new one each month," Griffith said. "We keep a flow of goods coming. We treat our merchandise like fresh flowers."

In the past, that has confused some buyers who were used to ordering the traditional way, generally from two collections: spring and fall."We have to educate people how we work," Griffith said.

At WWDMAGIC, Esprit plans to show slim pants with voluminous draped jersey tops and long, feminine blouses. Its palette places an emphasis on navy along with light gray, white and an assortment of bright colors.

Prices run from $39.50 to $79.50 for tops, $39.50 to $99.50 for bottoms and $49.50 to $119.50 for dresses.

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