By  on January 31, 2005

NEW YORK — The lingerie market this month was packed with fresh ideas, but retailers showed some trepidation about investing in new brands or concepts for fall-holiday selling.

Merchants and vendors said fourth-quarter business, which typically represents the lion’s share of annual sales, was strong for major specialty retailers and smaller operations that took fashion risks with key items, updated color and prints, and a new generation of soft microfibers. However, it wasn’t as good for major department stores that relied on traditional private label and promotional brands that were said to be risk-averse to new ideas and concepts.

A strong turnout of senior retail executives and buyers of sleepwear, robes and at-homewear from major stores, including Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Neiman Marcus and Federated Merchandising Corp., as well as smaller, independent operations hit town. But there was an air of disappointment in the showrooms over the holiday season.

Top-booking ideas included:

  • Woven and knit cottons, which are now regarded as a year-round business.

  • Hybrid boy-cut pants that are cut high and have the look of a tanga.

  • Anything that can be folded and merchandised on table tops, from panties and pajamas to camis.

  • Asian-inspired prints with tea party motifs, exotic florals and colorful costumed figures.

  • A new breed of soft sportswear-inspired separates in soft fabrics that can be layered or worn as a dual-purpose item.
“The newness was not in silhouettes,’’ said Linda LoRe, president and chief executive officer of Frederick’s of Hollywood. “It was in interesting fabrics, techno fibers, ribbons, beading and handcrafted embroideries. There also were a lot of uneven hem lengths, something everybody was showing in their lines.”

Addressing the question of fashion versus traditional looks, LoRe said: “We have a heritage of innovation. It is incumbent upon us to take risks. I heard from many stores, whether department or specialty stores, that intimate apparel business was generally soft for holiday. There are very similar intimate apparel looks like baby dolls, see-through ponchos and corset looks being done by the women’s apparel industry, and it’s crossing over across the board.”LoRe noted that Frederick’s long-established line of “fantasywear” is being revamped with more “sophisticated seductivewear.” She said the “Harem Girl” costume, which pushed out “French Maid” before the Iraq war as the number-one fantasy item, is being discontinued. “French Maid will be an ongoing number,” she said.

Sizing up fourth-quarter business, Donna Wolff, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel and hosiery at Bloomingdale’s, said, “There were a lot of issues with deliveries and it was also very warm. Some key players had delivery problems and some launches didn’t take off. That hurt business. But I have to say I had a very good sleepwear month in December and beat plan because I had key items.”

Assessing the market from a smaller specialty retailer’s point of view, Pam Williams, owner of Night Gallery, a ready-to-wear and lingerie boutique in Chapel Hill, N.C., said: “We came up to buy ready-to-wear, but we also saw Eileen West [sleepwear] because she always has a large line and it always sells so well. We also saw Nick & Nora, but they are really gearing up for the March market.”

Williams said she has edited the number of lingerie brands at her store to the “top performers.” In the luxury category, bestsellers include Christine of Vancouver, Van Tisse and Pluto.

“I was doing fall,” said Pam Fitzpatrick, owner of Candle Night Shop in Ridgefield, Conn. “The colors were great and I loved all of the pretty, feminine looks in cotton and Modal. I thought Natori looked smashing and Flora Nikrooz looked great, especially her bridal looks. We started with Pluto [robes] last year and I plan to expand assortments at the Lingerie Americas show in March.”

Regarding celebrity brands, Helen McCluskey, group president of Warnaco’s intimate apparel businesses, acknowledged that the JLo Lingerie by Jennifer Lopez collection had some challenges in its initial launch, primarily with the bra line. But she noted that “a lot of modification” has been given to the collection, with an emphasis on lifestyle items that can be mixed and matched.

“It’s very interesting what’s been selling, from very sexy baby dolls to core sweats,” McCluskey said. “It just speaks to the very broad appeal of the brand.”Top-booking items include a snuggly, lightweight terry wrap robe in mint, pink, pale blue and pale lilac with contrasting border and a signature baby doll of georgette with coordinating thong.

McCluskey said reaction was strong to “very romantic” themes that incorporated sequins and beads, blurred florals, sheer insets, gauzy-looking printed lace and printed pinstripe tweeds.

Richard Leeds, chairman of Richard Leeds International, said the French Jenny line of sleepwear “has evolved dramatically over the past six months and has more of a lifestyle spin, a branded approach with the look of a total collection.”

Best-booking ideas include a French violette print in pink with side ribbon treatments on sleep shorts, a perfume-bottle print, heathered cotton knits with lace trim and an ultrasoft sanded cotton rib-pattern robe, Leeds said.

“To me, the market really appeared to be upbeat and we we’re very happy with the turnout,’’ said Todd Demakos, ceo of St. Eve International. “There actually were more customers in the showroom than I expected.”

Demakos noted that his company’s best-selling idea at retail for holiday were tabletop programs of folded novelty panties and pajamas.

“They were selling not only as gift-giving items but as items women buy for themselves,” he said. “The tabletops are in the aisles and they run right into it. It’s a simple buy. We’re not known as a robe resource, but we have $1.5 million in orders so far for the year, compared to $100,000 during the same time frame a year ago.”

He attributed soft, cuddly microfibers as the main reason.

Molly Mott, vice president of sales for Kayser-Roth Corp., which markets and distributes hosiery and lingerie by Hue and No Nonsense, said two new initiatives received strong reaction: an underwear program by Hue featuring three pairs of viscose and Modal panties for a suggested retail price of $21 and three pairs of cotton panties for $16, and the first line of Hue robes of lightweight cotton jersey, which wholesale for $15.

Karen Neuburger, designer of the sleepwear that bears her name, said a new product called CoolDryComfort Sleepwear was a “hit” with retailers.“It’s a breathable fabric that offers comfortable sleep options for women who experience  night sweats, hot flashes or trouble sleeping,” Neuburger said.

She said that, while the majority of wicking fabrics are made from man-made fibers, the “cotton-rich fabric offers a soft touch and eliminates shine.”

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