NEW YORK — The warm-weather months are always a tough time for the legwear crowd, but for the 2004 spring season, makers are fighting back with a vengeance.

At last week’s market, companies throughout the industry showed a range of bold and unusual items to entice women back into legwear departments.

Hue, for example, introduced a pedicure kit that comes with a foot tube, while E&E Hosiery is among those who now offer flip-flops designed to be merchandised in the legwear department. Legale launched a special sock designed to be worn with flip-flops, and firms such as Soxland have stepped up their styles with Valentine’s Day themes to generate more business from that holiday.

“As the socks business weans off in the summer, we are trying to supplement with other products, and stores are now putting flip-flops into the sock department,” said Elie Levy, president of E&E.

Spring and summer sales typically account for about 30 percent of total legwear volume in the U.S., which are estimated to be about $3 billion a year. This season generally has a shorter selling window than fall and winter, and the last few summers have been particularly rough for legwear due to the prevalence of the bare-leg trend, as well as the dominance of flip-flops and open-toe shoes worn from the boardroom to the beach.

Nonetheless, most makers said they were feeling slightly more optimistic about business as they brought out their new spring offerings. As retail floors transition into fall, many stores are playing up legwear, not shying away from the category as they have in recent years. The prevalence of legwear on the runways for fall and in a variety of fashion magazines has helped catapult the sector back into the limelight.

Saks Fifth Avenue, for example, is currently featuring fall legwear in the windows of its New York flagship and plans to have a legwear event at the store in early September, said a company spokesman. Hosiery also is featured prominently in the new Saks catalogs and on the store’s Web site, the spokesman said.

Barry Tartarkin, vice president and general manager at Danskin’s Pennaco division, said some stores already have been reordering fall product.“We haven’t seen this much interest in legwear in about five years,” Tartarkin noted. “People want fashion and they want color. Our hope is that the momentum will continue through spring.”

Although legwear is stepping back into the limelight, offering value remains important and was a key theme during market week. Companies across the industry continue to push socks and hosiery sold in two- and three-packs as a way to give customers an extra reason to purchase legwear.

Another current business trend is toward licensing. While many companies do a significant amount of private label, recently there has been a return to licensing, and a number of makers said they are searching for meaningful licenses to round out their assortment. Hot Kiss, The Girls, New Balance, Vanity Fair and Lily of France are among the brands that have recently licensed their names to legwear.

Hue’s showroom was filled with novelty items. In addition to the pedicure kits, the company, a division of Kayser-Roth Corp., introduced a new line of flip-flops that tie around the back of the foot with a grosgrain ribbon, as well as a new crop of flip-flop thong tubes designed to be worn around the foot. The pedicure kit, called the Happy Feet Care Kit, retails for $12 and is available in three different groups: one designed for athletes, one for problem feet and one created for everyday use.

Another new Hue product called FootGelz is designed to be worn inside shoes and to reduce perspiration. Some styles of the gels are scented, while others are cut to fit different shoe sizes. This product also carries a retail price of $12 and along with the pedicure kit, is designed to be sold in the legwear department, not footwear, asserted a company spokeswoman. Hue’s sock offerings include pastel colors, nautical-inspired themes, florals and tropical looks.

K. Bell, meanwhile, is offering monogrammed sock styles, reflecting the popularity of initial logos on all manner of accessories and apparel, said Karen Bell, chairman of the Los Angeles-based firm. “Twenty years ago we had monogram socks and now they are back,” she noted.

At K. Bell’s licensed L.E.I. division, new products include Sixties-style tie-dyed looks, as well as plenty of stripes and knee-highs. The company also showed buyers its new licensed products from The Girls line, including 20 cotton, nylon and spandex styles.Novelty prints were in full abundance at both Legale and Soxland, both of which are known for their conversational legwear. Socks with hearts, flowers, animals, stripes and polkadots are among the key offerings.

Pennaco also showed a number of new looks, including black-and-white socks, some of which go above the knee, as well as open-work tights, in its Ellen Tracy offerings.

Hanes introduced a range of new products and updates, including a denim-inspired look in its Body Enhancers line and new packaging in its Silk Reflections. After 18 years in white and burgundy, the packaging will feature legs and be color-coded by leg type.

In addition, the firm launched a line called Topz, which is essentially seamless tube tops that carry retail prices of $9.99 to $24.99.

Howard Upchurch, president of Sara Lee Hosiery, which includes Hanes and L’eggs, said, “It was a strong market for us. We have come off a tough year, but we are feeling more optimism in legwear now and reaction was strong to our new offerings.”

Levante’s focus for the new year is also on shaping products, which have become a more important category for the brand, as well as on more textures, fishnets and toe taps.

“The American consumer is ready to embrace fashion in legwear, especially shaping products,” said John Flynn, vice president of sales at Levante USA, who expects sales for spring to be up about 15 percent over this year. “Almost every order we get now has some sort of control top.”

Spring Legwear Trends

Athletic socks with fashion twists.

Foot tubes, toe caps and no-show silhouettes.

Tie-dyed prints.

Flowers and Hawaiian themes.

Open-work tights such as fishnets.

Flip-flops from legwear makers.

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