NEW YORK -- As the erratic pace at retail continues, sportswear manufacturers are bracing for a tough second half.

Nevertheless, it's a period for which many forecast sales gains of 10 percent or more.

One strategy is to develop a constant stream of strong items -- such as jackets, shorts and knits -- that will overcome what some say is retailer reluctance to reorder. Another challenge is the maintenance of price points in the face of rising natural fiber costs, an issue that is seen as particularly crucial in the moderate and better-price arena.

Bridge and Designer

Buoyed by an early rush of business at trunk shows, designer collections presently seem to be a particularly upbeat sportswear segment. Bridge lines are sharing some of this optimism, although makers acknowledge the category has gone through some rough times lately.

Andrew Rosen, president of the Anne Klein Group, said Anne Klein II's fall bookings are flat with a year ago, but he expects the line's retail performance to be much better than last year's.

"Last fall and resort, the whole bridge category was a disaster. I believe this year our line is better. It's focused on the career segment," said Rosen.

Turning to the Collection, designed by Richard Tyler, Rosen said, "It's been tremendous. Bookings are almost double a year ago. At retail, we've held some early trunk shows that were fabulous, doing $100,000, $125,000, $140,000."

He further noted A Line's bookings will be up 50 percent versus a year ago. "The line is much more focused, and its a purely casual business."

"Our business is very strong," said Stuart Kreisler, a consultant to Ralph Lauren Womenswear at Biedermann Industries Corp. Kreisler said the Collection will do twice as much business in the second half as it did a year ago. This includes a new Classics segment added to the Collections business that is currently being shipped to stores.

The Ralph business, which also includes Ralph active sport, accounts for 80 percent of the Lauren Womenswear business. Fall represents the second season for Ralph, and for fall, the line was "92 percent sold out at full price. We're currently booking holiday-cruise and expect the same proportion."Also reporting an "excellent" fall start at trunk shows, Susan Sokol, president of Calvin Klein Collection, said the season is running 20 percent ahead of last year.

Sokol said April was a tough month, but May was good for Klein's business. Some of the spring shipments had been delayed, due to backups at Italian fabrics mills, she said, but fabrics were booked early for fall, so no problems are expected.

Herbert Gallen, chief executive officer of Ellen Tracy, said the bridge collection will generate a 25 to 30 percent increase in business in the second half. He attributed this to "the reception we've had during this market for resort and early spring. It's the best we've had in a long time." He said the Company Ellen Tracy line should grow by about 10 percent.

Discussing business in general, Gallen said, "I think it's slowly coming back -- it's not as fast as it could be. It's picking up."

Allen B. Schwartz, chief executive officer of ABS, Los Angeles-based bridge sportswear firm, said he's looking conservatively for a 10 to 12 percent increase for the second half. "We're talking about a very tight year. We've hit some good items, such as longer jackets and suspender looks," said Schwartz. New items for fall also include dandy jackets, patchwork jackets, lots of stripes and A-line skirts, as well as varying widths on pants. He also noted that his price points for fall are 15 percent below last year.

"Retailers are playing it pretty tight. It's been a very rough 90 days -- April, May and June," said Schwartz. He noted that the dress business, particularly evening looks, however, has been very strong.

"It's a day-to-day thing," he said. "It used to be if you had the [right] merchandise, it would retail. Reorders used to drive the business, but not anymore. In sportswear, they want to go forward. In dresses, there's still a reorder business."

Mary Ann Wheaton, president of Wheaton International, a partner in Byron Lars, said, "January, February and March were very strong. April and May have slowed down. If our market hadn't been April 1, retailers wouldn't have placed as strong as they did." She said the Lars business is showing between a 38 and 40 percent increase versus a year ago."We have to hope for another surge," said Wheaton.

Better and Moderate

With consumer skittishness still looming, better and moderate apparel makers noted that the big hurdle over the next several months will be keeping prices stable, in spite of recent price hikes in natural fibers.

"This is one of our biggest challenges," noted Mark Birnbaum, Western regional vice president at Koret of California, San Francisco, which has not raised prices in three years. It has fought fabric price hikes by negotiating with mills and developing better sources. He added that in certain cases, Koret is taking lower margins on the goods. "We are catering to a working woman whose income doesn't go up drastically," noted Norton Sperling, president of Norton McNaughton, which makes moderate-priced career clothing. "It's a tough economic climate out there. Interest rates are climbing and there are stock market jitters."

He added that his company has not raised its prices in more than three years and is hoping it can continue to keep prices at the same level. "We are absorbing a lot of costs," he noted. "We tend to think backwards. We ask ourselves, 'What would retail customers pay for the item?"' He added that if the firm is forced to increase prices, it will be modest. While holding price, moderate firms say it is imperative to keep merchandise fresh and new.

"The moderate customer is changing," noted Dick Baker, president of Bernard Chaus Inc."She is now responding to updated fashion, not only price."

He also emphasized, "You can't be a generalist in the moderate zone to survive," noting that in the next six months, sales in the category will continue to be driven by items. Some items that he expects to stay hot are knit dresses, sweater tops and tunics. "You can't look backward for trends; you have to look forward," said Sperling. He noted that the firm is planning to launch an updated suit line called Kate McNaughton, to be in stores for spring 1995.

Moderate resources are also benefiting from an increased focus on moderate apparel from department stores, including those of R.H. Macy & Co. and Dayton Hudson Corp., and that pattern is expected to gain momentum over the next six months.Helped by this trend, Koret's orders for fall have increased 8 to 11 percent, Birnbaum said, and those gains are expected to continue for the full second half.

At the same time, better-price manufacturers are feeling a bit of a squeeze, as department stores decrease budgets on better-price merchandise to make room for their expanded moderates departments.

"Our sales have been flat from department stores for fall, mainly because of this new focus," noted Bruce Ross, president of JH Collectibles. He added that he also sees continual pressure from stores to keep prices low.

Classic-style looks in softened, drapey fabrics are expected to be a key idea for the next six months, according to makers in the moderate-to-better range. "There's going to be an interest in sweaters -- in place of jackets -- and softer pants," added a JH Collectibles spokeswoman.

Denim

Denim manufacturers are starting to sound like the other sportswear producers. They are putting more emphasis on items and coordinated looks, which they hope will entice customers to buy.

While makers said their products are checking, they added that retailers are hesitating to reorder. One vendor suggested that retailers may be waiting for a trend to emerge over the summer. Shorts, all noted, continue to check.

Levi Strauss has noted in the past that there was growing interest in its logo knit tops, and Margie Hanselman, merchandise manager for the company's women's line, said that interest has only grown.

"Logo T-shirts and knit tops are still really key," she said. "We've gotten great response to anything rib, fleece or jersey."

Another area that she said has been surprisingly busy for Levi's is items.

"We are offering a little denim dress in the Silver Tab line, and also a cropped vest," she said. "Our denim jackets are still selling, as are skirts, and a suspender jean that we did in a chino color." In the basic business, Hanselman said she's seeing lively interest in indigo washes at both ends of the spectrum -- very light and very dark -- while natural colors have slowed.Gary Dawson, vice president and general manager of the Lee Brand, said that going forward, Lee will emphasize coordinated looks at retail in its misses' lines, as well as "a variety of fits and finishes."

"That's what the retailer needs to stimulate the customer to buy," he said. "It's more important for retailers in general to offer a coordinated look. The customer is definitely looking for that." Dawson noted that Lee is putting more weight behind its woven tops line, which will include brushed rayons and soft cotton tops that have feminine touches such as shaping and shirring.

Guy Schuman, vice president of retail marketing at Marithe & Francoise Girbaud, agreed that newness and coordinated looks are important for retailers. He noted that Girbaud has seen strong sales in styles other than basic five-pocket jeans.

"We've gotten as much, or more play from our X-yoke short as from our basic five-pocket, which demonstrates to me that the retailer and the consumer are looking for newness," said Schuman. "When you can offer newness -- whether it's a wash, a silhouette or a treatment -- that helps. Denim is no different from any other category."

"It's very interesting out there," said Dick Gilbert, president of Zena, who noted business is about even with last year. "Our product is selling really well, and you would think we could just sit back and watch the reorders come in. But everyone is nervous -- I think they're waiting to see if a trend emerges over the summer."

--LISA LOCKWOOD, ANNE D'INNOCENZIO and JANET OZZARD

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