NEW YORK — The attention being given to athletic-inspired apparel in designer collections is giving the $16.2 billion activewear category some more muscle in department and specialty stores.

Over the years, the category has found sporadic space in those distribution channels. Then an injection of interest came on the spring runway shows that occurred in the fall, where designers such as Anna Sui, Balenciaga, Miu Miu and Chanel sprinkled their presentations with sportif looks. Yohji Yamamoto’s much heralded collaboration with Adidas and their launch of Y3 this spring is expected to add further cachet to the sporty set.

In the past, retailers relegated activewear to its own shops and departments, but now they’re mixing items in with casual sportswear, just as their customers have done for years. They are also opting for the more versatile and stylish pieces offered by athletic brands like Nike and Adidas.

Julie Gilhart, vice president and fashion director for women’s at Barneys New York, said: "The biggest and best one that personifies it so great is Y3. There’s so much energy to it. So many of the spring 2003 collections have a thread of sport in them."

That element makes them more appealing to the masses, Gilhart said.

"Sport is not like designer, which is a very exclusive country club," she said. "Everyone does sports — from low-income to high-income people."

More affordable athletic labels are also catching on with fashion-conscious customers. At Henri Bendel, Puma and Adidas are among the top labels attracting shoppers to its 700-square-foot active area, said merchandising manager Allyson Krowitz. This spring retro looks like three-stripe track pants and logo T-shirts should be key items, especially in red, green and blue, Krowitz said. Red Line is another label that does well at the Fifth Avenue store.

Nuala continues to be the anchor business for the third-floor active area. The yoga-inspired brand has such a loyal following that the store’s sales people call select customers when new shipments arrive, Krowitz said. Along with yoginis, the Christy Turlington-designed line has gained a less limber following. Nuala’s roll-down pants, coats, cashmere sweaters and a yoga mat by Marc Jacobs are top performers along with sweatsuits.With the exception of the signature fixtures and photos in the Nuala concept shop, there isn’t anything that designates Bendel’s active area, and that’s a good thing, Krowitz said. Part of the reason the retailer posted a slight increase in sales of athletic-inspired clothes was it did not flag the third-floor area as an activewear zone, she said.

"It’s not so different from the rest of the store," Krowitz said. "We still want it to be fashionable or sporty chic. If I went full force with every activewear label out there, it wouldn’t flow with the rest of the store. Depending on what your store is like, it could wind up looking cheap or like you’re shopping at a sporting goods store."

To keep the merchandise fresh, Bendel’s is always on the prowl for new lines — Jake’s Dry Goods and Bella Dahl are two newcomers this season. Adidas and Puma sneakers are also sold in the area.

Next month, Barneys plans to throw a bash at its Madison Avenue store to launch the arrival of Y3. Gilhart expects the collection to be a major draw with the athletically inclined fashion force.

Barneys already sells Juicy Couture, Prada Sport and Scout in its Co-op, where women are buying sports styles for athletic purposes or to wear with their designer sportswear. Scout, a year-old label founded by former Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman buyer and private label designer Dori Hurwitz, features such items as fleece tops, running pants and yoga pieces. Hurwitz said stores like Barneys comprise 35 percent of her business.

"They want cute things that complement the lines they already have," she said. "In the last couple of years, people have become tired of wearing black or drab clothes or their boyfriend’s things to workout in."

More than anything, Barneys selects labels that "fit in nicely" with other merchandise in the high-end specialty store, Gilhart said.

"It has to be an integrated community," she said. "There’s so much energy to Y3. That’s how we start with the definition of sport."

Unlike most of its competitors, Nordstrom offers activewear, swimwear and outerwear year-round from such labels as Nike, Adidas, Puma, Fila, So Sporty and Danskin in one specific area."About four or five years ago, we took a more aggressive stance with large active brands and have been building the business ever since," said Tina Kuntz Tonja, vice president for activewear, swimwear, lingerie and hosiery. "We’re not looking to turn our active areas into sporting goods stores. Everything has to have a sportswear feel to it."

The active areas vary in square footage from 1,000 to 3,000 square feet. The 80-unit chain has Nike concept shops in a little under half of its stores and plans to convert them to Nike Goddess shops. Having "informative" salespeople, a dedicated area and such special events as body-fat testing, step-aerobic demonstrations and athletic appearances has helped build a loyal customer base, Tonja said. In addition, the February issue of Fitness magazine has an eight-page advertising spread touting some of its activewear.

Tennis star Anna Kournikova is expected to attract a crowd when she visits a few Nordstrom stores this spring on behalf of her sponsor Adidas.

Last fall, Macy’s Herald Square moved women’s activewear from MacySport, its lower-level athletic department, to the second floor near sportswear labels like Tommy Hilfiger, Polo Jeans and its private label INC. A NikeGoddess shop is the cornerstone of Macy’s active area on the second floor of its Herald Square flagship. It occupies space previously used by Polo Sport.

In the Nike Goddess shop, mannequins, which are hard to find in most active departments, model Nike apparel. In the adjoining area, Puma, Adidas and City Lights are some of the other labels offered.

Yamamoto’s pairing with Adidas has fueled the category’s comeback in nontraditional athletic stores, said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president of Bloomingdale’s.

Puma, Adidas and Fila are a few of the brands selling well at the store, with running pants, ringer T-shirts and cargo pants among the more popular items, he said. Instead of housing those labels in active departments, as was routine a few years back, Bloomingdale’s is merchandising them in its contemporary sportswear area.

"We think this will be one of the mini-trends for spring and will sell well," Ruttenstein said. "If that continues, we will put those labels in our SoHo store when it opens this fall."Saks Fifth Avenue also interprets the trend in a more general way. Instead of setting up a separate area, the store prefers to mix in athletic-inspired items like those from Donna Karan’s yoga line and Juicy Couture. Shoppers can find outfits that would be appropriate for golf or yoga, but the focus is more centered on more versatile pieces that can be worn on an everyday basis.

Even Gap is taking a more subtle approach to merchandising activewear.

Instead of cornering off specific areas in its stores, the chain prefers to mix in athletic-inspired pieces with sportswear. The fact that seasonal variations of the hoodie — something to which skateboarders have long been attached — are offered as testimony to the mainstream acceptance of athletic looks, a company spokesman said. Whether served in velour, terry cloth or cotton, hoodies are always available with coordinating pants, he added.

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