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STORES STIR THE MIX

Over the last several years, bridge has evolved at retail to include a broader spectrum of traditional career labels, edgier diffusion collections and trendy contemporary lines.<P>This change has prompted retailers to rethink their approach to the...

Over the last several years, bridge has evolved at retail to include a broader spectrum of traditional career labels, edgier diffusion collections and trendy contemporary lines.

This change has prompted retailers to rethink their approach to the category and in some cases remerchandise and rearrange their bridge departments. This rethinking of the category hasn’t come without some confusion.

The contrast of lines like Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman versus Marc by Marc Jacobs and See by Chloe has led to some less-than-coherent adjacencies. National department stores with areas devoted to bridge have revamped these sections in order to differentiate between traditional, modern, contemporary and diffusion lines.

Even smaller, specialty retailers, many of which deem bridge an outdated term and don’t typically classify lines priced between designer and better as such, but carry designer diffusion lines or contemporary labels that fit the bridge price point, have found creative ways to merchandise these offerings.

At Saks Fifth Avenue’s New York flagship, the fourth floor is devoted to bridge. However, Saks has divided the floor between traditional bridge labels like Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman, and modern bridge lines such as Kors by Michael Kors and Elie Tahari. But other labels that can be classified as bridge due to their price points — Catherine Malandrino, Marc by Marc Jacobs, D&G and See by Chloe — are located on the contemporary floor.

In the interest of strengthening the visual appeal of the bridge floor, which can be difficult given the wealth of merchandise, Bill Lynch, senior vice president of merchandising, is in the midst of differentiating one label from another by creating a distinct image for each.

“Our goal is to develop a new way for bridge to look,” said Lynch.

By creating a strong, succinct presence for each label, Lynch hopes to enliven the entire bridge floor. In addition, Saks began implementing a specific fashion trend in the Saks Suggests Shop.

“For spring, it was the white shirt,” he said. “This is what we suggested was the fashion trend this season.”

The strategy also pushes bridge as fashion forward, instead of just traditional career clothes without a fashion-forward bent, said Lynch.

Bridge is also being displayed in the retailer’s 49th Street windows. Each window profiles one bridge designer and a quote about their favorite summer moments. For example, the Kors by Michael Kors window reads: “I love the golden hour of 5 o’clock at the beach — all oily, salty and sandy. Everyone looks gorgeous and all seems right in the world,” was Michael Kors’ contribution.

“We put bridge in our windows because we really support our bridge business,” said Michael Macko, director of publicity at Saks.

Neiman Marcus has also divvied up its apparel categories.

“With the emergence of new contemporary lines, we broke our floors more by lifestyle and customer type,” said Ann Stordahl, senior vice president, general merchandise manager for women’s ready-to-wear at Neiman Marcus.

More fashion-driven labels like Theory, Laundry, Tahari, DKNY and all denim pieces fit into the contemporary category, while Ellen Tracy, Dana Buchman, Anne Klein, St. John Sport and Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, fall into Designer II.

Both bridge areas are typically adjacent in Neiman Marcus stores. However, at the newer Neiman’s stores, more individualized areas have been created for the bridge departments.

“We’ve always had the designers very boutique-like, but bridge had been kind of presented in one big room,” said Stordahl. “We’ve had one of the strongest seasons this spring in terms of regular price selling in the bridge areas. I attribute much of that to the product looking better, more updated.

“I think because the category has struggled, people were really looking to reinvent themselves. I actually think they’ve done a pretty good job addressing more product needs and making the product look a little bit more updated. Designers have been much more attuned to the product than they have in the past.”

Seattle-based Nordstrom has long been dividing its labels into lifestyle departments.

“For us, that means we want our customer to be able to shop in one or two departments in terms of their style, taste and price-point needs,” said a spokeswoman. “They shouldn’t have to go that far to find what they need.”

The store’s Savvy department consists of fashion-forward lines such as Marc by Marc Jacobs, Theory, Triton by Tufi Duek and Betsey Johnson. The Via C department is made up of what the retailer calls its “rising star designers,” such as Catherine Malandrino, D&G, Tufi Duek and Moschino. But Nordstrom’s classic bridge merchandise is housed mostly in the Studio 121 department, which consists of Dana Buchman, Eileen Fisher and Garfield & Marks.

However, some of the merchandising choices depend on consumer feedback.

“Our vendor mix varies from store to store because we want to react to what we’re hearing from customers,” said the spokeswoman.

At Bergdorf Goodman, the approach to bridge is quite different. There is no bridge floor per se, but the contemporary area, located on the fifth floor, houses all of the brands that can fall under the bridge umbrella. This includes Kors, See by Chloe, Elie Tahari, Marc by Marc Jacobs and Catherine Malandrino.

According to Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf’s, the retailer takes a specialty store approach to buying bridge.

“We buy it with a very distinctive mix of core fashion, fashion basics and the runway,” Burke said. “We’re not necessarily going to go in and buy the whole collection. So we’re putting it together the way a specialty store merchant would put it together.”

Beyond that, the store assembles key items from different labels and combines them to create new looks as opposed to only showcasing head-to-toe ensembles from a single designer. For example, there are several walls on which merchandise from different labels is assorted together, such as a bottom from Tahari, a top by Marc by Marc Jacobs, a blouse from Jessie Della Femina and Jill Stuart denim.

The significance of where brands are situated at Bergdorf’s is key.

“Adjacencies are enormously important because one can be quite different than the other,” Burke said. “The success of a contemporary designer floor is how you line up your adjacencies because you have to know your customer. If they are buying a Catherine Malandrino or Jessie Della Femina top, what are they going to want to buy for a bottom?”

Burke also emphasized the impact of the Marc by Marc Jacobs line.

“Marc Jacobs has been very innovative in his approach to bridge,” he said. “He’s taken that jeans lifestyle and done it in a very hip way.”

Henri Bendel divides its brands into two basic categories: designer and ready-to-wear.

The majority of lines that would fall under the bridge umbrella at Bendel’s is in the rtw areas. These lines include See by Chloe, Paul Smith Pink, Anglomania by Vivienne Westwood, Kors, Just Cavalli, K2 by Katayone Adeli and Versus.

In the fall, Bendel’s will also carry Tyler, Richard Tyler’s new secondary line. Bendel’s second floor is anchored by in-shop boutiques from House of Field, D&G and Diane Von Furstenberg, while denim and T-shirts are located there, as well.

Ed Burstell, vice president and general manager at Henri Bendel, however, doesn’t consider any of his labels bridge.

“Bridge is such a 20-year-old term,” he said. “We like to think of it as shopping according to moods, rather than bridge versus contemporary. Those restrictions are no longer there. You can’t put all those brands in the same mix and call it bridge.”