NEW YORK — Major sportswear companies are going for a heavy dose of reality in their spring advertising.

Whether it’s the lasting effect of Sept. 11, the flagging economy, unsteady world politics or a jolting combination, brands such as Liz Claiborne, Jones New York, Kasper, Sigrid Olsen and Emme maintain their customers want to see relevant images rather than surreal fashion shots, at a time when family and friendships are a high priority.

"Now is a good time for a reality check," said Lynda Greenblatt, creative director at Liz Claiborne Inc., who oversaw the company’s new ad campaign that breaks in March. "We all have an aspirational image, but what we are really striving to do is reinforce the personal connection with our consumer. There’s a move away from that perfect look and there has to be room for variety, for women of all sizes, ethnicities and ages. I think in the past, we sort of only studied one woman and now we realize this is not the way."

Ellis Verdi, president of the DeVito/Verdi ad agency here, said companies are taking a more inward, personal approach during these times of stress.

"We’re at a point of time where you have an economic problem, a problem with a lot of people out of work, war and fears associated with that, and there’s overall a degree of instability in an area that’s uncontrollable," Verdi said. "When that happens, people deal with that by having a more inward rather than outward euphoria."

Shot in Harbor Island, Bahamas, Liz Claiborne’s spring campaign features a new face to the company, Vendela, along with her actual family and friends laughing and goofing around on the beach. The end result is a series of candid photos that have the feel of a personal photo album. The campaign was shot by Cliff Watts with Gotham agency. It launches Claiborne’s new tag line: "Live for the Moments."

A combination of two-page spreads and four-page and eight-page inserts, as well as cover gatefolds, will appear in March and April in O Magazine, Redbook, Vogue, Real Simple, Martha Stewart, In Style, Marie Claire and Elle. In total, Liz Claiborne spent about $23.7 million on its media budget in 2002, according to CMR, and the company said it should spend roughly the same this year."There’s more of an emphasis on home and family, so the campaign focuses on these relationships," said Al Shapiro, senior vice president of corporate marketing, who noted that the company flew Vendela’s husband, two children and parents from Sweden to have an authentic "real family" feel. "Our research shows us that our consumer leads a multifaceted lifestyle. We’re showing various moments in her life and how our products relate to those moments."

After about six months of intensive market research that led company executives into some 20 customers’ closets and numerous consumer study panels, Jones New York executives concluded it’s time to wake up and show that the customer is boss through its advertising message.

The first result of this refocus is the brand’s new ad campaign, which features Angie Harmon, who actually modeled for Jones about 10 years ago when she moved here from Texas. Stacy Lastrina, senior vice president of marketing at Jones Apparel Group, said Harmon’s classic beauty and refined style made her an obvious choice to represent the brand. She also was a name that came up time and again after consumers were asked who best exemplified the Jones brand.

"She’s approachable, elegant, an actress, wife and involved in philanthropic efforts. She lives the lifestyle of our consumer — at an elevated level of course," Lastrina said. "She’s a real person and the perfect choice to represent the new face of Jones New York."

The ads, which feature a combination of Jones Collection and Sport images, breaks in February Vogue, followed by March through May placements in In Style, Vanity Fair, O Magazine, Real Simple, Redbook, Grace, Lifetime and Self. Jones Apparel Group spent about $19.3 million on its media budget for last year, according to CMR, and should spend about the same this year, the company said.

This campaign was shot in a Manhattan studio and loft by photographer Patrick Shaw in team with A/R Media. The images feature Harmon wearing "real, yet aspirational" clothes, such as a blue oxford blouse with white pinstripes and white pants at work, but not sitting at a desk, and looking very relaxed in a pair of cargo pants, white T-shirt and utility-inspired jacket."It’s all about making the brand more approachable," Lastrina said. "So someone looking at these [ads] would say, ‘Yes, I could see myself dressed this way.’ It’s a little bit more grounded and more inviting."

Jones’ new marketing strategy will also involve events such as personal shopping days scheduled nationally at major retailers, featuring a celebrity guest; an online panel being assembled with about 1,000 women across the country who will be asked where they shop and what they wear to work, and sending out useful information such as guides for creating a seven-day wardrobe. The bottom line is that attracting and keeping the consumer has to go beyond the advertising, Lastrina said.

"It’s very important when you’re a big brand that you don’t lose sight of the consumer," she said. "Time is her number-one challenge. We’re dealing with professional women, women in the workforce and she’s in control. We have to work closely with her."

Spring means a return to fashion ads for Kasper, which is trying to boost its image as a sportswear and career brand. Kasper is aiming to keep its traditional suit-wearing customer while also attracting another audience through its more stylish and item-driven sportswear line. The company, operating in Chapter 11 bankruptcy court protection, hasn’t advertised in two years.

Selective magazine placement and the right ads are important in achieving that goal, said Dee Salomon, senior vice president of marketing.

"We wanted to develop the brand," said Salomon, noting that the new tag line, "A Career in Living," sums up the message of where Kasper is going. "For the most part, the collection is really suits, but more and more women are looking for practical solutions to their life. A suit can fit that role."

The ads, which were created in-house, will break in March in O Magazine, House Beautiful and Vogue and were shot by photographer Paul Costello, who has done a lot of home interior work. There will be three one-page inserts, featuring model Lucy Kemp, all in real-life scenarios — such as trying to fit a tricycle in the trunk of a car, playing with her child at home and leaving for work in the morning while a worker is busy renovating."We love the way [Costello] presented people within a context and we want to show clothing on a woman in her life," Salomon said.

While Sigrid Olsen’s ads usually are more natural in feel, the namesake designer said the spring campaign is even more colorful and less staged than usual.

Shot on a beach in New England, the ads feature simple backdrops like shingles on a barn, sand, flowers and beachgrass. They were then digitally enhanced so the color is even more dramatic, said Olsen, whose brand is owned by Claiborne.

"This season, my collection is really all about the contrast of color and texture," she said. "We made the most of a beautiful location near my home. I wanted to take something that felt authentic and close to me personally and then give it color so that the effect was optimistic, sunny and straightforward. Nothing gimmicky. It’s just a very uplifting campaign."

Olsen said spending was up about 50 percent from last spring. The ads were shot by Rocco Laspata in conjunction with Manhattan agency Laspata DeCaro. A combination of three double-page spreads will break in March in about 10 books, including Vanity Fair, In Style, Elle, Real Simple, Marie Claire and Glamour. The campaign features model Eugenia Silva, who has worked with the company for about six years.

"We’re happy with her look and she’s evolved with us," Olsen said. "She’s natural and very graceful and looks fabulous in the clothes."

Emme, a large-size division of Kellwood Co., will also take a more spontaneous approach with her ads this season. The model, author and businesswoman said it’s all about being relaxed and natural this season to help send the message that women should be happy and accepting of their body no matter what size.

"These ads are intended to be warm and inspirational. For example, I’m sitting cross-legged on modern furniture, just relaxed, easy and showing that it’s not just a merchandise shot," Emme said. "We never had a campaign that was so free. I’m just hanging out, laughing and giggling. This time, I said I really wanted to loosen it up, loosen up the hair, have a looser smile and the makeup to be warm."The campaign features six one-page ads, which will break in February in People and In Style. The tag line is "Celebrate a Woman’s Body." The campaign was shot in a Manhattan studio by photographer Melanie Dunea, working with agency Phillip Aronson.

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