By  on August 6, 2007

After a stellar year at retail, legwear manufacturers are prepping for another strong fall season by tuning into runway trends and thinking outside the box.

Metallics, layered knits and chunky sweaters are a few fall ready-to-wear looks that have inspired the season's legwear collections. Well-aware that hosiery is no longer a simple accessory, legwear brands are creating innovative styles and exhibiting confidence and momentum that retailers are readily buying into.

"Fall tights are huge," said Mimi Merkin, legwear designer director for Hue. "We've had double-digit increases for months and months starting from last fall, continuing into spring 2007 and into this fall. The runway coverage has been great. Legwear is now meant to be noticed, where in the past, it was meant to be invisible."

Ann Watson, vice president and fashion director for Henri Bendel, said, "The runway has revitalized the legwear business. Designers have re-embraced the leg with more energy and creativity, which created more of an assortment for fall. Legwear has become more diversified and novel as a fashion item."

Legwear companies such as Hue and Calvin Klein's cK label are cashing in on the layered trend by incorporating legwarmers and over-the-knee socks into their offerings.

"Legwarmers are up about 200 percent," Merkin said. "This fall is the first time it's really being bought as a trend and buyers are open to buying more styles. One used to be enough, now we can do several. Over-the-knees also went up several hundred percent."

"We're referring to it as leg decor," said Michele Slade, vice president of sales and marketing for American Essentials Inc., which produces legwear for brands such as cK Calvin Klein and Michael Kors. "It's taking that little extra thing, like thigh highs, and scrunching them down to do a boot-topper with a miniskirt. It's a cool, edgy way to wear things. In every fashion magazine I pick up, any shoot has tons of layered legwear. It's so encouraging after years of a bare-leg look."

Legwear designer Hannah Byun of the emerging label Hansel from Basel has also struck gold on funky thigh highs and over-the-knees, picking up select retailers such as Barneys New York, Anthropologie and Opening Ceremony for fall."My over-the-knee socks are really popular," Byun said. "I do them in bright colors and graphics, and the brighter the colors, the more interesting they make the outfit look."

Hansel from Basel's sales have increased 50 percent in the last six months.

Chunky sweater knits seen last fashion week at shows, including Anna Sui and Phi, have also made the leap into legwear. Ed Miccinati, design director for StockinGirl Legwear, is doing them in an array of colors and fabrics.

"We do sweater knits in cables, ribs and pointelle," Miccinati said. "We also do them in cotton, chunky cotton and merino wool. We had enormous success with them last year and they continue to be very good for us."

Miccinati said knitted hosiery may even go the distance into warmer seasons.

"We believe in sweater knits and are going forward with colors like the pastels for early spring," he said. "Last spring, everyone moved away from heavy looks too early. We believe it can carry over."

Even luxury knitwear company Wolford, known for its sheer hosiery and sexy fishnets, is producing trendier sweater tights.

"The crochet sweater-knit look is a funkier alternative for our brand and tunes into one of fall's biggest trends," said a Wolford spokeswoman.

Wayne Lederman, president of Leg Resource Inc., which manufactures legwear for Via Spiga and Anne Klein, said: "We believe luxury cashmere tights are very strong and very important for fall and holiday. We also have a tremendous assortment of over-the-knees and tights in sweater fabrics, in cashmere and wool Modal."

Lederman's sales are up 18 percent over last year with one market left to go.

"We anticipate getting quite a bit more business in the legwear category," he said. "We also anticipate quite a bit of re-order over initial placement."

Leg Resource's Betsey Johnson legwear label is just one that has embraced what is may be the biggest legwear trend of the season — metallics.

"It's going to be a shiny holiday," said Susan Reese, vice president of sales at Soxland International Inc., which produces hose under the Davco and Chinese Laundry label. "We're all going to be sparkling all fall and through the year's end. I'm not sure if it's more glitz or futuristic, but everyone wants metallic yarns. We're leaning toward more silver, bronze and pewter than gold."John Flynn, vice president of sales for Levante USA, is also shining on this season.

"We're doing a micro-metallic mesh for fall," Flynn said. "Our bronze has been the most successful."

Some designers are combining trends. Tony Taylor, creative director of the Brooklyn-based Look From London, is layering knits with metallics.

"We created metallic brown and gold hose with a stone cotton cable knee sock on top of it," Taylor said. "We want to create the Flash Dance look, with legwarmers over a pair of metallic, shiny tights."

In terms of new materials, bamboo is gaining speed as a new hosiery fabric, a response to today's eco-friendly movement.

"Our biggest push is with bamboo, organic cotton fashion tights" said Jerry Perry, vice president of merchandising and design for Legale. "Bamboo is soft and comfortable, and good for the environment. It's pesticide-free."

Soxland is also moving forward with the fabric.

"Bamboo yarn continues to grow and we've done it in athletic shapes, too," Reese said. "Bamboo requires very little water and no pesticides, and takes very little of the environment, but gives you a lot to work with instead of cotton. It's an easier plant to grow."

Gold Toe will introduce bamboo tights this fall. The firm hopes to expand its hosiery business, which makes up about 5 percent to 7 percent of its volume. Its socks and knee-highs include other trademarked inventions, such as AquaFX, a moisture-managing system that moves moisture and sweat to the outside of the foot.

"Technology is important to us," said Trish McHale, Gold Toe's executive vice president of marketing. "In addition to AquaFX, we also patented A.D.C. — All Day Comfort — technology on the athletic side. It prevents moisture wicking and it's antimicrobial."

Mitch Brown, president of Doris International, which produces Kushyfoot socks, is marketing the first dress knee-high with a cushion sole and arch support.

"We were inspired by our arch-support socks," Brown said. "When women get dressed up, they can wear a knee-high that doesn't pinch their toes."But trends and technology aside, some retailers are focusing on the luxurious simplicity that a great pair of black hose suggests. Saks Fifth Avenue is marketing the black opaque leg for fall.

"Every designer returned to the idea of glamour, of dressing up, so it makes sense that she would have a covered leg," said Elizabeth Kanfer, fashion market director at Saks Fifth Avenue. "The look seems finished — head to toe, completely dressed."

Kanfer pointed out that the opaque black tight, most favorably by Wolford, will be a huge hit in stores this fall.

"It speaks to a classic trend that the black opaque tight was bigger than ever on the runway, as well as our Satin Deluxe hose," said a Wolford spokeswomen. "The factory is producing the Satin Deluxe as quickly as they can to meet up with the demand."

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