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Legwear Execs Forecast Resurgence

After years of flat sales, growing optimism after higher runway profile.

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After several years of flat sales, executives at legwear and sock firms are feeling bullish about the first half of 2011.

This story first appeared in the November 29, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

While the rising costs of labor and raw materials, primarily cotton, have affected companies, legwear uses petroleum-based products and has not taken a major toll, executives said.

There’s also a strong feeling that legwear, especially sheers, are making a comeback after a hiatus of at least five years. The main reason is the huge injection of fashion from the catwalks in Milan, Paris and New York, where legs were showcased in sheers, opaques and textured looks underneath slouchy dresses, asymmetric hemlines, pencil-thin short skirts, dresses and gowns with slits and playful shorts. Run-resistant technology is expected to be a big hit, and the popularity of leggings over the past year is also a positive sign.

A resurgence of legwear is a much-needed boon for the industry. According to The NPD Group, dollar volume of total legwear was off 5 percent from October-September 2010 compared with October-September 2009, with sheer hosiery down 13 percent, socks minus 3.7 percent and tights sliding 16.8 percent. Total sales volume in the same period was $3.05 billion.

Valerie A. Mackie, marketing director for legwear at Invista Inc., said she anticipates a renaissance in the market after several years of women not wearing sheer hosiery or tights in warm or cold weather.

“What will be key for us in 2011 is our new Lycra Fusion Fiber, which is run-resistant…the technology can be used in opaques as well…the technology brings innovation to the marketplace, and the timing is good especially with the prevalence of short skirts and dresses in fashion,” Mackie said.

“Sheer hosiery remains strong in key markets in Europe, particularly England, Italy and Germany,” she said. “But I think what’s fueling the renewed interest is a younger consumer who hasn’t worn hosiery in the past…that’s why thigh highs are so strong at Victoria’s Secret, with the Silks brand in Canada, and in countries like Spain, where thigh highs represent as much as 50 percent of total sheer hosiery business.”

Cathleen Moxham, designer of Hanes legwear at Hanesbrands Inc., predicted 2011 will be a bounce-back year for legwear.

“In terms of a resurgence, I feel ready-to-wear is on our side…hosiery looks new in terms of a fashion accessory for both spring and fall,” she said. “We are seeing at runway shows the whole rtw and legging concept with the leg layered…it’s all part of completing the look.”

Moxham said the newest introduction for spring 2011, Hanes Silk Reflections Ultra Sheer, has received strong response because of its proprietary run-resistant technology and second-skin texture.

“Whether it was fashion week in Milan, Paris or New York, there was a huge emphasis on the legs, with short skirts, slits, asymmetric hemlines and scallop edging,” said stylist Phillip Bloch.

Mitch Brown, president of Doris International Inc., which makes shapers by ShaToBu and private label socks, shapers and underwear for Duane Reade, said business was up 30 percent against 2009 and he projects a “strong 2011.”

“We’re introducing new categories such as fashion Flats to Go [gold and silver flats at Duane Reade] and Dream Soles [fake snakeskin and perforated fake leather flats on QVC],” he said. “But the challenge will be to maximize space [at drug chains] and keep in stock because we change styles maybe twice a year.”

But Julia Townsend, executive vice president and general manager of Kayser-Roth Corp., said she foresees the economy continuing to be “unsettled.”

“In this economy, newness becomes even more important, so we must continue to deliver it in the brands we offer and present it at retail in a very compelling way,” she said.

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