NEW YORK — The concept of comfortwear has had a long rise, but it shows no sign of reaching its apex.

Innerwear, retail and marketing executives said the demand for clothing that offers an enhanced comfort level, particularly stretch-microfiber undergarments and multipurpose sleepwear, robes and at-homewear that combine style with soft, feel-good fabrics, has grown dramatically in the past year.

The appetite for comfortable, feel-good clothes was given added impetus following the trauma of Sept. 11,when a cocooning effect swept the nation. Consumers focused on home-related products ranging from entertainment to items executives are calling security blankets: warm and cozy pajamas, cuddly bathrobes and easy, at-homewear separates.

Also growing in importance is a wellness approach that encompasses the world of beauty, bath and body products, and apparel that is spa-inspired, such as bath wraps and slippers of fluffy cotton terry. As a result, a number of major stores such as Bloomingdale’s are launching yoga-inspired environments in innerwear departments, and Donna Karan Intimates is introducing a yoga-influenced line called Donna Karan Body Spa. Key items include a variety of tops, pants and jackets that are softly tailored and cut slightly roomier than traditional workoutwear.

A main factor in the comfort formula is the new generation of softer, multifunctional microfibers that have properties ranging from wicking moisture away from the skin and keeping a body warm, to shape retention that gently moves with the body and knit-in engineered control for problem areas like the tummy and thighs. There’s also a new breed of brushed applications that gives traditional fabrics such as flannel an ultrasoft hand and a wider variety of silk-like textures.

Overall, executives generally believe the combination of contemporary styling and high-tech, feel-good fabrics that often are used in ready-to-wear and innerwear is further blurring the lines between apparel categories. The end result is sleepwear that looks like at-homewear and lounge sets that resemble activewear or casual sportswear. A key example can be seen in the junior departments at Kohl’s, where drawstring pants of lightweight cotton terry — traditionally sold as pajama pants — are being sold.

Marshal Cohen, president of NPDFashionworld, a consumer marketing firm, said: "Comfort is in big time. My instinct is it’s a growing trend. It’s based on an emotional factor and is a carry-over of the casualization of America. First, there’s a style like a seamless bra, then it’s how do we make it comfortable, followed by let’s make it fit right."Before, it was just about the style. But comfort has become part of the style. It’s also an issue of people wanting to feel warm, comfortable and safe. People are looking to cozy up right now, rather than slinking down in silks or rayons."

Outlining his point, Cohen said in the first six months, sleepwear sales at all channels of distribution were up 9 percent against the same year-ago period, totaling $2.8 billion. During the same time frame, the average suggested retail price for a pair of "warm and fuzzy" pajamas was up $3, while pajamas of silk or rayon retailed for $3.25 less.

"Either consumers are buying silk and rayon pajamas at a cheaper price or the retailers have been promoting it," he said.

Cohen said the youth market drove the growth of the sleepwear and at-homewear businesses in the first half, primarily multipurpose items that are updated and contemporary looking. In the 13-to-17 age range, retail sales at all channels were up 35 percent. In the 18-to-34 age group, sales rose 21 percent, while sales were down 8 percent for consumers 35 to 54 years old, and off 9 percent for those 55 or older.

Meanwhile, sleepwear and at-homewear at mass merchants gained 9 percent in the first six months, totaling $880 million. Sales at specialty stores edged up 25 percent to $589 million, while national chains gained 26 percent to $505 million. Sales at department stores, though, slipped 10 percent to $389 million. Sales figures for off-pricers and outlets were not available.

Cohen noted that technological advances in fibers and fabrics are playing a major role in the comfort ratio.

"Stretch is an integral part of of the entire concept of comfort," he said. "It’s now four-way stretch versus two-way stretch. It’s enhanced softness for shape retention and control."

Donna Wolff, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel and hosiery at Bloomingdale’s, said: "We haven’t even scratched the surface when it comes to comfort. We are setting up Relaxology areas — concept statements of comfort — in our intimate apparel departments. These areas mirror what’s been happening with athletic items in sportswear."Wolff said many of the comfortwear items are yoga-inspired, noting that key innerwear vendors include Calvin Klein Underwear, DKNY Underwear, Champion Jogbra, Polka Dots and Tart, a new label Bloomingdale’s is testing.

"We’re not talking about your mother’s caftan. These are items you can work out in, lounge in or wear out to the grocery store or post office," said Wolff. "There’s a lot of potential and this category has helped drive the [innerwear] business overall. We did our research. We wanted to know what the young East Sider and young contemporary customer is wearing at home, and these are the types of items she’s likes to wear.

"Our robe business has improved, but in the bath-wrap category. Robes technically are not part of the Relaxology shop, but it shows that the trend is spilling over into other lines of business."

Anne Caetano, vice president and dmm of intimate apparel and hosiery at Saks Fifth Avenue, said the combination of updated styling, a younger, more contemporary look and lightweight fabrics that have a softer hand are key factors in the comfort-fashion formula.

"Before, loungewear had an unkempt appearance and was not flattering," Caetano said. "Now, it’s dressier, cleaner looking and more put together. It’s not just to cozy around the home in; it’s something you actually look good in and wear outside of the house for casual activities."

With this idea in mind, the Saks flagship will stage a Donna Karan Body Spa promotion Oct. 23-25, which will highlight the new line of yoga-inspired separates by Donna Karan Intimates. The line features Santoni seamless knit microfibers.

Bob Pawlak, vice president and dmm of intimate apparel at Carson Pirie Scott, said: "I think the entire concept of comfort has become a way of life and it continues to be important. It was important pre-9/11 as well as post-9/11, but the tragedy put people in their homes more and they like the soft, easy concept of comfort in everything from gel-strap bras to cozy pajamas."

Pawlak said he expects customers to continue "cuddling up" in CuddlDuds, a traditional loungewear brand, noting: "It’s become a very important business for us and customers are buying it because it has a very soft hand of cotton on the outside and a silky feeling on the inside.""We are also pushing lounge sets this fall, a number of different styles with flannel bottoms and pile tops that are either plain or have special motifs and trims. Nautica has been a real growth area for us," said Pawlak.

Barbara Lipton, vice president of merchandising and design for the licensed Donna Karan Intimates and DKNY Underwear businesses at Wacoal America, said: "I believe this whole trend of comfort and comfort fabrics will continue to get stronger over the next 18 months. As fabrics become more technologically advanced, we are seeing brushed finishes and textures we haven’t seen before."

Jim Noble, senior vice president and general manager of Jockey International, said: "I don’t believe comfort is a trend; it’s now a requirement based on what happened [Sept. 11] last year. There’s been comfort food, comfort clothes and a general staying-at-home feeling. But we didn’t market anything differently because comfort and fit have always been a requirement at Jockey."

Among Jockey’s comfort applications are heat-transferred labels that don’t scratch the skin, and seamless panties called No Panty Line and No Ride Up.

"I think comfort has become a way of life," said Karen Neuberger, president and designer of the sleepwear line that bears her name. "The media has become more aware and so has the consumer. That makes the stores take notice of sleepwear and at-homewear. An area that’s not been well funded in the past. It is now."

David Komar, executive vice president of marketing at Charles Komar & Sons, said: "The idea of comfortwear is evolving into a new way of dressing. There’s a lot more crossover and the lines between sleepwear, at-homewear, casual sportswear and activewear are becoming more blurred."

Regarding foundations, Chuck Nesbit, president and ceo of Sara Lee Intimate Apparel, said: "Consumers are becoming more demanding with respect to comfort features. I expect this trend to continue indefinitely and I anticipate the consumer will continue to challenge manufacturers to raise the standard of comfort."

Nesbit said the Hanes Her Way brand has been airing a national TV ad campaign featuring a "comfort message" with a Body Creations stretch foam bra. A national print ad campaign supporting the Barely There brand is "all about comfortable microfiber fabrics and the comfort benefits the seamless Santoni knitting technology delivers."Nesbit further noted that the Bali Shoulder Strap bra, which incorporates a gel comfort strap, will be one of 10 products honored this year with the Chicago Sun Times Innovation Award at a ceremony on Oct. 9 in Chicago. The gel comfort strap concept is being introduced in the Playtex 18 Hour bra line and will be supported by national TV ads.

Looking at the shapewear business, Michael Fitzgerald, ceo of the Delta USA unit of Israel-based Delta Galil, said: "We’re trying to develop what we call comfort shapewear with a special team in Israel. There will be allover seamless styles and seamless and cut-and-sew styles."

Fitzgerald said the comfort concept will be used in private label, as well as brands such as the licensed Danskin name. Deliveries are scheduled for fall 2003.

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