NEW YORK — The outlook for legwear isn’t as bleak as previous seasons, but after years of steady sales declines, makers and retailers aren’t being lulled into a false sense of security.
While many anticipate a stronger-than-usual holiday season, they know there’s still a lot of work to do to turn this fall’s legwear boomlet into a real cycle next year.
The $3 billion category continues to be challenging, as casual dress still proliferates and retailers shrink their legwear departments or move them away from prominent main-floor locations.
In recent weeks, the sector has also been subjected to ownership changes, as consolidation spreads in the marketplace. Fashion investment firm Keystone Holdings acquired Royce Hosiery Mills, Delta Galil Industries bought Kellwood Co.’s Auburn Hosiery Division, and Danskin Inc. sold most of the assets of its Pennaco Hosiery unit to JBT Legwear LLC, a new entity created for the acquisition by Barry Tartarkin, Pennaco’s vice president and general manager.
How the category as a whole will play out next year is anyone’s guess, but vendors remain hopeful that fashion trends such as miniskirts, sling-back and mary jane shoes, and designer interest in hosiery, from bright opaques to colored fishnets and floral textures, will help trigger consumer demand in 2004.
“People are starting to understand legwear is an important fashion accessory,” said John Flynn, vice president of sales at Levante USA. “Years ago, it was just a necessity, but now they’re looking for color and fashion.”
Maria Basquil, Wolford’s national sales manager, said, “The skirt and the pump are back, which will hopefully bring my sheer business to another level next year. Women want to wear color on the leg. They have held back for a while, but now they are ready.”
“There is a lot of fashion selling now and we think that this is a good sign for 2004,” said Pat McNellis, president of women’s brands at Royce.
Many are making changes to their routine to zero in on opportunities next year, from adjusting their delivery schedules to launching new collections to lure more shoppers into legwear departments.Hot Sox, for instance, is shipping some of its groups earlier than anticipated, including its Underground group, which features Eighties-style tie-dye socks and slipper socks with a face motif.
“You have to treat business differently in the first three months,” said Susan Spindell, national sales manager for Hot Sox. “Stores want to do their business early. Once the weather gets warm and shoes start opening up again, it is very hard to plan a sock story.”
Doris International Inc., a private label manufacturer, is launching Dream Soles, its first branded collection featuring casual trouser, dress and sports socks with a sole that uses reflexology pressure points, for spring.
“In order to communicate this level of comfort, it needed a great package that communicates it and we have done that,” said Mitchell Brown, Doris’ president, on why he entered the branded business. “When you have a story to tell, it needs a strong package. With your own brand, you can do what you want.”
The collection has 10 styles at $2.45 wholesale. Distribution is aimed at better department stores, though Brown declined to disclose sales projections.
This spring, Levante USA is launching the Jonathan Aston line in department and better specialty stores. Levante took the U.S. license for the English label in October.
The collection hones in on color and open looks, and features such fashion styles as Cuban heels with a back seam. Wholesale prices range from $3.50 for one-size semi-opaque tights to $7 for patterns and fishnets. Flynn couldn’t give sales projections, but said that distribution targets will be similar to Levante’s, which is carried in over 2,000 specialty stores, and department stores Bloomingdale’s, Van Maur, Parisian and Proffitt’s-McRae’s.
In 2004, Levante’s goal is to step up its core brand in department stores, while building the Jonathan Aston business.
“With significant additional distribution, we are gearing up to meet the projected demand,” Flynn said. “We increased support staff by 30 percent and we almost doubled our distribution staff.”
Several firms are increasingly thinking of expanding into legwear-related categories to help counter any potential declines in hosiery sales.“Next year will be a continuation of our strategy to diversify our distribution and market shares in the stores by adding different classifications such as intimate apparel and venturing into areas besides legwear,” said Basquil at Wolford, which plans to open partnered Wolford boutiques, including a unit at Boston’s Copley Mall in February and plans for two more in Canada.
Wolford is also upgrading a selection of styles with a new logo and a knitted waistband for comfort, and the company is repackaging its classic legwear and bodywear assortment for fall with new images shot by New York-based photography team Markus Klinko and Indrani.
Hanes Hosiery, meanwhile, is launching Tops, a line of nylon spandex tops made on hosiery machines. It will be sold in hosiery departments for spring. The company is also planning to launch a denim-like hosiery product for its Body Enhancers line, which targets department stores for January.
Nadine Hall, vice president of marketing at Sara Lee Hosiery, the maker of Hanes Hosiery, said as some of the core products such as sheer hosiery, are a tougher sell, the firm’s plan is for less basic items to offset the falloff.
Kayser-Roth has been working on legwear-related concepts for legwear departments, too. For spring, its Hue division is offering flip-flops, anklets, Moroccan thongs and pedicure kits.
“We have to think of new things, particularly for spring when people abandon legwear,” said Molly Mott, vice president of sales for Kayser-Roth.
Hue launched sleepwear, panties and daywear like camisoles this year and the company looks to expand that business next year.
“We started out for spring for sleepwear in 400 department store doors, planning to increase that in 2004 to 1,200,” said Mott. “In daywear and panties, we started in 500 doors, and we plan to increase the doors to 1,200.”
Main-floor space and material costs will continue as the key challenges next year.
“A lot of stores have reduced so much space,” said Brown at Doris. “Now that we are back in a legwear cycle, they will have a difficult time displaying and making a fashion statement with the real estate.”Jim Williams, president and chief executive officer at Gold Toe Brands, stated, “Raw materials costs increase because cotton demands, particularly in China, are outpacing the cotton market. That’s a real challenge. We want to keep the margins there and we are contracting out for a very long time to protect where we are today at the available market rate.”
Since stores had planned this fall conservatively, many are now finding themselves chasing the business and vendors will try to prevent a similar situation next year.
“As a manufacturer, planning the inventory levels accurately will be a challenge,” said Spindell at Hot Sox. “We came a little short this fall because we all planned it a little too conservatively. So our challenge will be to work really closely with the retail partners and make sure we have the right amount of stock. It’s all about adequate forecasting and good planning.”
McNellis at Royce said that one of the key challenges next year will be continuing to offer newness, while controlling the number of price points on the floor.
“Right now, the retailer is focused on not having too many price points,” McNellis said. “They are trying to simplify merchandising in order to enhance the shopping experience. The biggest challenge is to find a way to get newness on the floor without over-complicating it.”
For March’s fall market, Royce will add tights to replace sheers at Nine West.
“Sheers were in such a state of decline that it did not make sense for retailers who are moving their departments to smaller real estate to continue with another brand,” she said.
Legwarmers and leggings.
Colored fishnets and floral textures.
Texture combinations, such as a fishnet with a rib, chevron or herringbone.
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