NEW YORK — There’s a new landscape in legwear.

In recent weeks, there have been significant shifts in ownership: Kellwood Co. agreed to sell its Auburn Hosiery Division and European operations to Delta Galil Industries; Danskin Inc. sold most of the assets of its Pennaco Hosiery division to JBT Legwear LLC, a new entity created for the acquisition by Barry Tartarkin, Pennaco’s vice president and general manager, and fashion investment firm Keystone Holdings LLC acquired Royce Hosiery Mills.

The flurry of activity comes at a time when legwear seems to be on a rebound. For the past few years, the $3-billion category experienced a significant downturn as bare legs became de rigueur year-round and open-toe sandals and flip- flops started ruling the sidewalks in spring and summer.

For fall and next spring, designers have embraced femininity with baby doll dresses as well as lace and crochet looks and miniskirts, which generally help trigger hosiery demand. Legwear-friendly mary jane and slingback shoes are experiencing a renaissance, and magazine editors who have long shunned legwear have rediscovered socks, tights and pantyhose as key accessories for the coming months, featuring them prominently in editorial spreads.

During last week’s transition market, most legwear makers agreed that while the past year was challenging, sales of bright opaques, fishnets and over-the-knees have picked up in recent weeks, and many are hopeful that the trend will continue through spring.

“It was a tricky year because people weren’t shopping and the stores didn’t see turns,” said Susan Reese, vice president of sales at Soxland International Inc. “But in the past month, business has picked up, and now the stores are scrambling for goods. Many are looking for immediate deliveries. We have started flying product in from Asia as opposed to boating it to get it here quicker.”

This market is typically smaller and less significant than the March and August editions, and many use it to review last spring’s selling and round out orders for next spring— though the lion’s share of that business was already put to bed by September.

“This market is more about business meetings,” said Jody Eskenazi, Hue’s marketing director. “Retailers came in to discuss what is going on. They have written orders, and now they are addressing issues and opportunities. Stores are looking for immediate deliveries of tights, based on their success at retail.”At Hot Sox, the assortment of footless tights, fishnets and opaques in brights was expanded for spring.

“There is a sense that the economy will rebound,” said Susan Spindell, national sales manager at Hot Sox. “Stores had [anticipated] a good fall, but many cut their plans, running with 20 to 30 percent less stock. Now they are chasing the business.”

Tricia Casey, national sales manager at Ralph Lauren Hosiery, which is licensed to Hot Sox Co., added: “A lion’s share of the spring business happens from January to March. To jump-start the transition, we have started shipping some of our spring ’04 to be on the floor in early December.”

American Essentials, meanwhile, is in the process of repositioning its licensed CK Calvin Klein sock assortment, starting with adding many logo designs for spring, and expanding its trouser sock and tights offering for fall.

“It’s time to put status back into the status brands,” said Jordan Lipson, president and chief executive of American Essentials. “We had been very focused on value equation and multiple packs. Our feeling is that we have to differentiate ourselves.”

Pat McNellis, president of women’s brands at Royce, which makes the licensed Nine West and Dockers lines, said many stores increased their spring orders for fashion sport socks this market.

“Stores are more enthusiastic about the fashion sport category than ever, based on the spring results that they wouldn’t have had during the August market,” McNellis said. “They now reviewed spring, and many increased their orders for multifashion packs for sport socks.”

McNellis added that this market also underscored the importance of the extended size business.

“Over 30 percent of sales in Dockers’ core styles are in extended sizes and it’s increasing,” she said. “This market, we reviewed our spring results and increased our forecast in extended sizes based on them. That way, we will be in a position to replenish and maximize the opportunities.”

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