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.”Spex is working out the final details of its knit line, set to hit stores next fall.

Ralsey is looking to set its signature line apart with more updated styling, a direction the apparel market on a whole has been headed.

“We want to bring some warmer-handed yarns and newness to the department,” said David Alpern, sales manager for Ralsey’s branded division.

Alpern said the warmer yarns, such as spun rayon, would translate into softer, warmer fashions.

“We felt that there was a bit of a void in the sense that a lot of the market was looking very much the same and very similar to moderate,” he said. “We felt the department could use an uptick as far as styling goes.”

Ralsey has a 10-person design team and is infusing its line with embellishments such as the combination of beading or sequins with lace.

With prices that often fall into the $30 to $50 range at retail, better knits often are used by consumers to spruce up their look with the latest trends or colors.

For instance, shoppers wanting the look of a fringed bouclé jacket can get a knit that approximates the style at a fraction of the price.

“It’s a great place to do fashion at a price because it’s not complicated,” said Barbara Cavanagh, who oversees the Pink Poodle line as president of Kellwood New England.

For the consumer, she said, “it’s a no-brainer in terms of them buying a great top to update their wardrobe.”

Pink Poodle, which is marketed with a cartoon poodle, had a good first year, said Cavanagh, who described the line as feminine, pretty, sexy, embellished and conversational.

“We are trying to build on this icon of the poodle and give her more of a personality and exemplify that in the knitwear,” she said.

The increased competition has shaken up the old guard and helped move the market forward.

“Now the category of knitwear, in terms of sweaters, has turned into quite a fashion business and the increased competition only gives companies such as August Silk the opportunity to branch out into other categories that we probably would not have chased,” said Ellen Dawson, corporate vice president of August Silk.Dawson said the changes have helped move knits into prime areas of the department stores, freeing them from being folded up and left on tables. The knits are now often on fixtures and placed in high-traffic areas, such as at the top of escalators.

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