By  on December 8, 2004

NEW YORK — After trending up for several years, the better knitwear market is set to expand further next year with launches that seek to grab market share with new takes on the novelty top.

The two dominant names in the area, Joseph A and August Silk, are being joined and pressured by a slate of new competition, which sees opportunity to carve out niches.

This spring, stores will begin selling NicKnits, produced by Donnkenny Inc. as part of its licensed Nicole Miller business. Likewise, Ralsey Group, which was acquired by sourcing powerhouse Li & Fung in October, will reintroduce its signature knit line at retail. Other firms, such as Spex Clothing Co., maker of the moderate Lemon Grass line, are putting together knit lines, which will be first shown to stores next year.

Last year, Kellwood Co.’s New England division, in an uncommon exercise of internal brand building, launched the lighthearted Pink Poodle brand into the category.

“The fact that you have more people coming in makes it more competitive,” said Jack Weinstock, president of corporate brands at Intertex Apparel Group, which produces Maurice Sasson and other lines. “There will be a fallout, there has to be a fallout. I don’t think this is different from any category that trends up.”

Dominated by rayon-nylon blends, the market has thrived partly because of knits’ versatility as layering pieces, said Weinstock, who cofounded August Silk in 1988. He left the firm for Intertex last fall.

Fashions in the area, which years ago was basic driven, are dominated by novelty looks, often with beading or embroidery. The trend component gives new entrants an opportunity to take share, should they be on target.

The consolidation at retail, however, means players have to be ready to meet the needs of powerhouse retailers such as May Department Stores Co. and Federated Department Stores Inc.

“The small guy is going to have to be darn right at the beginning, and if he’s not, he’s going to have a problem because the stores are looking to do big business,” Weinstock said.

Burt Damsky, vice president of sales at Spex, noted, “Every day, you see people opening up lines. The market’s starved, really, for fashion and quality, and the stores are looking for solutions.”

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