NEW YORK — Bigger, busier, and more intense than ever.

This month’s spring 2004 market, typically a big draw, has grown longer and become a challenge to cover adequately, say retailers.

Many stores blanketed the market with high-level management and were searching for power brands, fashion looks and new product that will stimulate consumers to open their pocketbooks. Plus, a plethora of new names have entered the lingerie arena and venerable labels have been resuscitated.

All of this frenetic activity — accelerated by two lingerie trade shows, Lingerie Americas and Intima America —led top executives and fashion directors to accompany buyers and divisional merchandise managers from major department and specialty stores to nonstop meetings from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

In some cases, the pace of the market was so frenzied that innerwear executives said they did not have the time or resources to canvas the market in its entirety, nor were they able to service the overload of showroom appointments or attend numerous events like the fashion runway shows at Lingerie Americas and Intima America and trade show seminars.

Adding to the action were such events as breakfasts and informal fashion shows staged by Fashion Forms, which highlighted its best-selling product, The Nu Bra, a backless, strapless number that adheres to the breasts, and a Trade Politics 2005 seminar hosted by the Intimate Apparel Council and the American Manufacturers & Footwear Association. This was topped off by the annual HUG Awards gala, which drew over 600 guests.

Top attention-grabbers included:

  • Diane Von Furstenberg’s launch of silk printed and solid daywear and sleepwear.

  • A line of reversible sleepwear in cotton interlock by Willow Creek called

  • The new Natori Black Label bra collection with signature Natori embroideries at Dana-Co.

  • An expanded line of whimsical Mickey, Minnie and Betty Boop sleepwear at Richard Leeds International.

  • Rampage’s sleepwear debut at Vandale.

  • The first collection of Fiorucci intimates at David R Lingerie.

From a retailer’s perspective, Mary Krug, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel and hosiery at NeimanMarcus, said: “It’s become a challenge to cover the market. Having the two trade shows at the same time does complicate the matter. We could have a solid half day and get a jump-start if the trade shows were to start on a Saturday, instead of a Sunday.”Ann Caetano, dmm of intimate apparel and hosiery at Saks Fifth Avenue, said: “This market has been running three weeks for us, and it’s not over. It’s been absolutely insane. Our appointments are becoming much longer, and we’ve been splitting up for the trade shows. We’ll do whatever we have to do for more quality appointments.”

“But,” she continued, “it’s becoming impossible to complete those appointments. You can’t do a market in one week, and I don’t know how stores are writing a responsible buy in one week, You’ve got to be able to understand the product, the fit, and ask, is this product right? We have that luxury because we’re in New York.”

Diane Von Furstenberg said reaction has been “very strong” to her expanded collection of sleepwear and daywear pieces, noting, “It very much has a ‘Butterfield 8’ look.” Distribution is aimed at major department and specialty stores as well as the designer’s namesake boutiques in New York, Miami and London, which opens at the end of September.

Eric Wiseman, vice president and chairman of VF’s Intimate Apparel Coalition, said the sports bras going up to a 44DD cup size by Curvation by Exquisite Form were among the top ideas for spring. Distribution of the full-figure line, which currently is distributed to 2,600 Wal-Mart doors, will be expanded next year to Kmart and ShopKo, he said.

Curvation’s spokeswoman, rapper and actress Queen Latifah, noted sports bras for fuller figures will support a classification that has been unaddressed: “A lot of curvacous young women who are athletic don’t have access to sports bras. I certainly didn’t when I was growing up. This will fill a need.”

Queen Latifah said VF is hosting a contest on for consumers to write a 250-word essay about women who have inspired them. The winner will be selected in October and will receive a trip to New York, tickets to a Broadway show, and a “chat” with the entertainment diva.

Ann Jardine, vice president and general manager of the Curvation brand, said two new bra styles also received good reaction: a front-close underwire minimizer with crisscross back straps for no slippage, which will be available in a DDD cup, and a soft-cup “underarm smoother” style with a low-cut back treatment.Jeanette Cantone, senior vice president of merchandising and design at Natori Co., observed, “This has been our biggest market yet and we showed the entire spring collection in all of our brands. Buyers [reacted well to] balanced assortments covering key categories and key items, and they liked the dressy categories in Natori White Label.”

She added there “seems to be a shift toward dressy product, and we were poised to offer conducive product. Knits — cotton-based, woven cottons and soft, drapy Modal blends — continue to be strong categories.”

Robert Zarabi, president and chief executive of Chatsworth, Calif.-based Felina Lingerie, said, “This market has been unbelievably busy. All upper management from our accounts came in.”

Zarabi said ultrafeminine lace bras and coordinating panties with embroidered butterflies by Jezebel were well received, as well as rose-embellished mesh and tulle undergarments by Felina.

Susan Pink, senior vice president of sales for the French Jenny line at Richard Leeds International, noted, “Retailers had been a little nervous about young contemporary, but they are now going after young contemporary sleepwear and loungewear.”

Pink said weekly sell-throughs of character prints like Betty Boop have averaged 30 percent to 40 percent over the past several weeks. “Character prints are exploding. Our number one selling item right now is a Betty Boop top with a racer back. And character interaction like Sylvester chasing Tweety has been strong.”

“Retailers have been in good spirits and business has been picking up nicely,” said Susan Feldman, president of sales for the licensed Lauren by Ralph Lauren sleepwear at Carole Hochman Designs Inc. “Retailers have been reacting to the romantic feel of the [Ralph Lauren] products.”

Tobie Garfinkle, senior vice president of merchandising at Chelsea Design Group LLC, said, “The biggest reason for the positive response we’ve received to the new Liz Claiborne [bra] collection is simple: stores are looking for new products that offer innovation and volume potential. And the Liz name offers that.”

Donna Hunter, vice president of the women’s division at Jockey International, said two product launchesreceived positive reaction: a pants program of cotton and Lycra spandex called EveryBody that has the seamless benefits of The No Panty Line, and a new bra of nylon and Lycra called Flawless Curve, which is available in a soft-cup and underwire style and features a microthin “memory” foam cup that doesn’t crush.Hunter further noted that the price structure of Jockey bras has been lowered: Basic non-padded styles will now retail at a suggested $20, instead of $22 to $25, and lightly padded bras that were formerly tagged at $26 to $28 will top outat $26.

Sonja Winther, managing director of Chantelle USA, said the French bra firm experienced “record order-taking” for spring.

“We haven’t seen cutbacks in overall budgets. But we’ve seen a shift in how retailers concentrate on newness. For fall, there’s been a shift toward replenishment and maximizing sell-throughs on fashion items. For spring, everybody walked out positive about the line. But nobody could give us firm plans yet.

“That tells me upper management hasn’t finalized spring plans,” Winther opined. “I think they will ultimately be conservative and will most likely find the money for the brands they want.”

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