The rush to moderate-priced, more affordable sportswear will likely continue into the new year, as the economy remains weak and consumers continue to be cautious with their dollars. Companies that provide the right amount of fashion at a value are the ones that will win in the competition for business.

The moderate and better sportswear market represents 55 percent, or $40 billion, of total women’s sportswear, not including juniors. This market is expected to grow 3 percent in 2003 — all based on the premise that consumers are gravitating toward value, said Marshal Cohen, co-president of NPDFashionworld, the Port Washington, N.Y.-based national consumer tracking firm.

"We’re going to be in another consumer’s market," Cohen said. "Women will continue to buy a few items here and there and price will be a driving factor."

Case in point: J.H. Collectibles will return to retail shelves this spring after a six-year hiatus, and in its new incarnation at Liz Claiborne Inc., the line has matured along with its customers. The collection is brighter and more relaxed than its previous career life. Denise Johnston, president of J.H. Collectibles, said: "It’s all about being modern and versatile."

The relaunched and redesigned J.H. Collectibles will be in about 584 retail doors, with the goal of making it a leader in the moderate-priced, soft-dressing category. The line is geared toward women 35 to 65 years old, roughly the same customer who wore the brand during its heyday in the Eighties and Nineties. But this time, Johnston said, it has come back with a more casual spirit that will accommodate that woman’s fast-paced lifestyle.

Banking on the philosophy that brands with a strong name can extend beyond their origins, Jones Apparel Group will launch Bandolino apparel as a complement to its footwear line in department stores next fall. Like the current footwear brand, which was founded about 30 years ago, the apparel line will be moderately priced and target a fashion-conscious consumer.

The goal is to open Bandolino apparel in about 375 to 450 retail doors next fall. The company declined to give a first-year sales estimate, but analysts said it has potential to reach a volume of $100 million in several years.Perhaps a reflection of consumers’ thirst for value, Jones’ Boneparth said the company’s moderate business has seen growth, particularly at Kohl’s and J.C. Penney Co. He expects a high-single-digit growth rate in the moderate area overall, with some brands like Norton McNaughton expected to achieve single- to double-digit increases, while Nine & Co. is the company’s fastest-growing line.

Lisa Minardo, president of the moderate, updated Biyaycda line, which does about $40 million in sales, said she expects business to be up in the new year. Her bookings are already ahead 30 percent so far.

"What has happened is that everyone has started to finally get it. Before we were considered too fashionable or too updated, but people started recognizing this is not just about making elastic-waistband pants for this customer," said Minardo, whose pieces wholesale from $12 to $14.

Business might be slightly more upbeat, but an air of conservatism still prevails up and down the food chain, noted Jamie Gorman, vice president of sales at the moderate-priced Ninety.

"Buyers are being cautious through the end of the year; however, they do need spring goods and are booking orders," Gorman said recently. "Business is consistent — not up, not down. I am planning on doing better next year, however, because our business has grown."

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