By  on June 1, 1994

NEW YORK -- When jeans sales started to slump last year, denim manufacturers pinned their hopes on shorts as the category that had the potential to earn high marks in an otherwise lackluster market.

Now, as spring segues into summer, both retailers and manufacturers say that shorts sales are more than making the grade -- and that the category is becoming a year-round business.

One selling point is that shorts are a relatively new look in a market that's searching for a fresh jeans silhouette to get the consumer excited again. A demand for new styling within the category also gets partial credit -- early in the season, women seemed to be looking for styles that could be worn slightly oversize, over leggings or tights, and with heavy boots that made them wearable even in chilly weather.

"There's more fashion in shorts than in the five-pocket business right now," added Eric Rothfeld, president and owner of Sun Apparel, which makes the new Code Bleu and X-Am lines, as well as Sasson jeans. "There's a variety of lengths. There's the frayed cuff and the rolled cuff. There's a button waist or a plain waist."

Executives on both sides expressed surprise at how early the shorts season started -- in some cases, in February. That's what happened at Parisian in Birmingham, Ala. "It was still cold here," noted fashion director Arlene Goldstein, who said that slightly longer lengths, around five to seven inches, lead the pack.

Although retailers declined to give specific units sold, they all said shorts had become one of their hottest spring sellers, in both misses' and junior categories.

"Denim was absolutely the headliner of the shorts department, with linen running a distant second," she said. "We were very pleased with the Grass Rags, Levi's 550 and Chazzz lines."

In addition to the classic indigo, white and natural were key colors, and Goldstein added that her customer was not as interested in the frayed hem, preferring the neater cuffed and tacked or clean-seam finishing.

"She doesn't want a lot of bells and whistles," said Goldstein. "She can be funky up top. We're selling a lot of eco-inspired T-shirts."Terry Rice, the buyer for misses' bottoms at J.C. Penney, said that the store has seen "substantial" gains in shorts, which have grown to represent 40 percent of a denim business that's been strong for the past three seasons at least.

"By adding color, just as we did with our five-pocket jeans business in the fall, we saw significant increases," she said.

In addition to basic denim hues, Penney's has brought in shorts in khaki and natural and is shipping versions in darker colors such as hunter green, burgundy and dark brown for summer selling.

"In the five-pocket version, the 8 1/2-inch inseam has been popular, and in the baggier styles, it goes a little shorter -- 5 1/2 or six inches. We didn't get as many stores to try the shorter shorts. I would think that would be more of a junior business."

Another boost for sales has been the placement of coordinated tops such as pique T-shirts near the shorts.

"Our stores have told us that we're doing a good job blending the color tones and merchandising the tops with the shorts this season," Rice said. "People are buying outfits."

Rice expects shorts to continue strong for fall, based on bookings from Penney's stores in Florida, which are already planned through the season. At Macy's East, fashion director Benny Lin said that shorts were measuring up to and even exceeding the store's plan. The key style has been a five-pocket look with a deliberately frayed hem. Best-sellers have come from Bongo Jeans and Breaker Jeans. Another variation that's hot for the new season is short overalls, also known as shortalls. And styles featuring the cargo pockets are starting to check out in the urban stores.

Although Lin anticipates a slowdown in sales as fall approaches, he predicts there will be "some corduroy for back-to-school."

For their part, manufacturers also expressed surprise at how early the shorts season started, noting that some stores were actually reordering in February.

"We got our first reports of sell-throughs in February," said Richard Davis, vice president, consumer marketing, at Girbaud. "We thought that was a little strange, but it's continued. The X-yoke shorts have been very good, as have the five-pockets, which are a little more relaxed. We've also been selling a two-inch short short, but that's mostly to the junior customer."Davis said the category's popularity is prompting the industry to look at shorts in a different vein.

"In the past, we stopped delivering after May, but now retailers are asking for the nine-inch and 10-inch lengths so that kids can wear them back to school. Certainly, people are looking at them as a year-round product. And some of them are so long they shouldn't even be called shorts. They end where the Doc Martens begin."

"We've had excellent shorts business this past spring," said Danny Gladstone, president of the denim division of CK Calvin Klein, which manufactures the designer's jeans line. "It's due in part to a different pricing strategy, where we've put shorts at $40 with no promotional price. We realized that there is a perceived value in the consumer's mind for shorts, which is a lot less than for a pair of jeans, even though they cost about the same to make."

"We also did a more classic style," said Gladstone. "But the real pop in the business has come from short shorts and frayed hems." The best-selling frayed style comes in three colors: double stonewashed, white and black.

He noted that CK Calvin Klein will be keeping shorts on the line throughout the year, particularly to service the Southern stores. A spokeswoman for Guess said shorts have become the company's fastest-turning classification, with basic looks outselling other styles. Key colors are stonewashed blue and white.

"The 971 style, our basic short, is on our Quick Response, and we're getting weekly reorders," she said. "And the surprising thing is that it's not just in the Southern regions -- it's all over the country."

Margie Hanselman, merchandise manager for women at Levi Strauss & Co., said shorts have been a boom category for the company.

"We could have sold 50 percent more if we had them," she said. "We had to stop because we're already in fall production. I've heard we had sales rates of 12 to 20 percent a month."

Hanselman said one of the bestsellers is black jeans shorts. What's sold for Levi's has varied depending on the price, the style and the region. The company has three lines at different prices -- Orange Tab styles wholesale at $15, Red Tab are around $18 and the more fashion-forward and expensive Silver Tab line goes for $21."The seven-inch short is a little more mass, while the short short has a little more of the fashion element," said Hanselman. In the company's Silver Tab line, Hanselman said, "we just shipped a hip-hugger short with two-inch inseam that did very well. It didn't sell a lot of units, but where we placed it, it sold."

Gary Dawson, general manager of the Lee Brand, thinks there's more growth ahead. "Shorts haven't peaked," he said, "although we're getting to the point where we move a lot of goods at the counter.

"We have a 50 percent increase door-to-door in takeout units over last year," Dawson continued. "We're looking for a big shorts season."

No one style is outperforming the others; although short shorts do have a customer, even more conservative walking styles are selling.

Colored denim shorts, he said, are more popular in the girls' division while the traditional denim fabrics are more popular in the women's division.

"Shorts have been great," said Dick Gilbert, president of Zena. "Like everybody else, I wish I had made more. The first week of May, sales dipped a little because it got chilly, but demand will skyrocket when it gets hot."

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