Despite lingering doubts, sportswear and dress vendors are planning for growth.

A retail rebound and a recovering economy are helping to put sportswear and dress firms in a more optimistic mood, despite concerns about the impending election, ongoing war and a constant push to stand apart from the competition.

Vendors are making cautious growth plans by offering a broader assortment of products, including new styles and new categories, stepping up the fashion quotient with trendier collections to appeal to misses’ customers who crave a contemporary edge and revving up customer service with a diverse range of marketing tactics, such as colorful catalogue-style line sheets, Internet initiatives and intensified customer service programs.

SORTING THINGS OUT

Broader assortments are helping designers branch out and target specific customers. “You need a highly diverse product line to grow and focus on different niches within the company and fully service a diverse marketplace. We continue to grow the line each year with a collection that can dress a woman for work, a cruise or a New Year’s Eve party,” said Jeff Belluck, regional sales manager at Joseph Ribkoff, a Los Angeles-based dress and sportswear company that is planning sales volume gains of at least 10 percent in 2005. Wholesale prices range from $39 for a top to $160 for a three-piece dressy ensemble.

At Nina Austin, a formalwear company based in City of Industry, Calif., giving customers a choice is a key part of the growth strategy. “We’re offering a range of new styles for spring to appeal to a broader range of women, from age 20 to 55 and up. We believe in a diverse product range and catering to niche needs of women, from prom dresses to contemporary mother-of-the-bride,” said Sahar Rokhsar, principal. “We have at least five groups within each seasonal collection. It’s one of the ways we’re growing business.” Wholesale prices for the line range from $79 to $139.

At Von Saken, a Los Angeles-based sportswear firm, growth is all about giving customers a fresh crop of looks each season. “We’re always adding to the line, and for spring the newness includes more knits, including scarves, more cut-and-sew styles and adding accessories such as pendants to our sweaters,” said Joel Martinez, sales manager. “Newness is a way to excite buyers and bring energy to the collection.”FINDING THE FASHION EDGE

Muse, the New York-based dressmaker, plans to boost business this spring by closely following the fashion trend toward feminine dressing. “For spring, we’re doing more jacket dresses and styles that are younger and hipper, such as halter dresses with built-in bra cups,” said Kathleen Kelly, designer. “Women really want to stand out and seem to be getting tired of overly casual styles. They want to look pretty, and we’re continuing to respond. We’re even adding pendants and jeweled embellishments to some of the dresses for a really complete look.” Wholesale prices for the spring collection range from $78 for a jacket to $150 for a jacket and dress ensemble.

Color and luxurious fabrics are key to keeping trend-conscious customers happy at Nina Austin. “Women are really asking for more color, and we’ve expanded our palette to include a wider range of brights. We’re also using more sophisticated fabrics, including silk burnouts and rayon georgette,” said Rokhsar.

Even the decidedly less dressy Nomadic Traders, a resortwear specialist in Berkeley, Calif., is upping its fashion quotient with a more vibrant color palette; updated trendy prints such as batiks, embroidery and beading, and sophisticated fabrics such as silk georgette, silk and linen in fashion prints, explained Len Shemin, co-owner with his wife, Anna Shemin. Wholesale prices range from $17 for a tank top to $47 for an embellished dress.

MARKETING MANEUVERS

Apart from their designs, vendors are also reaching out to new business with wholesale expansion into new domestic and international markets, Internet initiatives and compelling marketing collateral such as colorful catalogues and user-friendly line sheets.

InGauge Design Group, a New York-based moderate and better sportswear, related separates and dress company that launched in August 2003, is expanding with an intensified wholesale outreach across the United States, with showrooms in all major regional markets, said Uri Israel, co-owner of the company.

InGauge also has a new Web site, which its sales reps use as a selling tool. The site includes virtual line sheets that reps can show retail buyers, as well as order forms that can be completed online and zapped to the fulfillment source, enabling speedy delivery to retailers.InGauge produces under four labels: La Vie Boheme (fashion-forward casual sportswear), Modern Curves (updated misses’ casualwear aimed at women over 35), Prima Bella (trend and novelty fine-gauge rayon sportswear) and M.T.W.T. 9-5 (career-related separates). Wholesale prices for the most part range from $28

to $69.

Von Saken is another firm looking to cover the regional markets. “We’re always looking to find new accounts and expose our collections to more stores by expanding into new wholesale territories. We just opened in Atlanta and are currently looking for a Midwest representative,” Martinez said.

Joseph Ribkoff has sales forces in Europe, Asia and elsewhere worldwide, a presence Belluck said is key to delivering solid customer service. “We’re always open and looking for new territories for expansion. Staying in tune with stores’ needs is paramount to our growth,” Belluck explained. “We are seeing very strong increases, thanks in part to our intense approach to customer service, whether we’re dealing with a single-unit store or a multiple-unit specialty chain.”

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