By  on August 23, 2012

The better sportswear area, which has had its share of challenges over the years, is working hard to get its act together.

With Jones New York and Anne Klein redesigning their sportswear lines, newcomers such as Vince Camuto gaining momentum, Donna Karan International taking back its DKNY Jeans business and revamping the collection, Michael Michael Kors plowing ahead, and categories like sportswear, dresses and performance from Calvin Klein doing well, the better floor is becoming a destination again at a time when sales of women’s designer apparel continues to struggle at department stores.

Colored denim, pencil skirts, dresses, leather and jackets appear to be performing strongly at a cross section of retail stores.

“Color has been a key driver across all families of business and the better sportswear area is no different,” said Frank Doroff, vice chairman and general merchandise manager of ready-to-wear at Bloomingdale’s, which has 37 full-price stores and eight outlets. “Wovens from brands such as Calvin Klein, Michael Michael Kors and Vince Camuto have been a best-selling classification; while dresses from T Tahari and Jones New York have been and will continue to be a key item.”

Doroff also noted that he’s getting strong results from denim, which exploded in the past year with all the new color offerings. “Casual denim, including color, was a driver this spring and will carry through to the fall from designers such as Lauren Ralph Lauren, with a focus on corduroy.”

In addition to what worked this spring, Doroff said he was looking forward to emerging trends like leather, across all categories, and item jackets in a variety of styles that will work for both casual and career needs.

“Overall, we have seen success in the more casual elements of the better sportswear collections, with a move towards modern and updated silhouettes, fabrics and color. There is a definite excitement amongst our shoppers in the better sportswear category evidenced by our continued support of our long-standing design partners and our relaunch of brands such as Anne Klein and new launches like that of Two by Vince Camuto, a more casual line to the already popular Vince Camuto collection,” said Doroff.

Barbara Garman, vice president, divisional merchandise manager of better sportswear at Belk Inc., the Charlotte-based department store chain with 303 stores throughout the South, said that in terms of classifications, dresses continue to be an important part of the overall sportswear mix. She noted that skirts are picking up steam, and she’s mostly selling pencil skirts in knit and matte jersey printed fabrics.

“What the consumer really responds to is newness and color,” she said. For fall, the color palette has gotten deeper. “Every year, the wear-now factor becomes so much more important,” said Garman. “She wants to buy it today and wear it immediately. A lot of manufacturers have done a great job of doing that.”

She said the third quarter is always challenging, especially in the South, because it can still be really hot. She noted that the Jones Signature collection has shown improvement “and their strategy of going after anchoring the bottoms business is just getting started.” The Anne Klein business has been inconsistent and not where they want it to be, but new August product has just started to hit the floor, she said. Michael Michael Kors continues to be “an important brand and big opportunity for us,” said Garman.

Overall, she said colored jeans are still selling well and woven tops have been on an upswing. Another top-selling brand for Belk is Karen Kane, where knit and woven tops are doing well, in addition to the maxi and shorter-length dresses. “Maxiskirts in general, especially in knit, are doing well,” she said.

Calvin Klein sportswear is also a big growth opportunity for Belk, and the retailer is expanding that brand. “It has a lot of color and prints.” She said the knit and jacket businesses have been strong performers.

The store carries the Vince Camuto line, and the tops and pants have been selling well. “The category we’re struggling with is dresses. They have to work a little bit more on them,” said Garman.

In general, she said, “The fall goods are just landing. The customer can get whatever she wants on the Internet and is a lot savvier today. She does expect more and she responds to newness and fashion, and when the product is right, the business follows.”

Tony Buccina, chief merchandise officer and vice chairman at The Bon-Ton Stores Inc., the 272-unit department store chain based in York, Pa., is also experiencing early success in the better area for fall.

“We made a bet on color, prints and the blazer category. We made a big bet on activewear,” said Buccina.

A particular bright spot is the various Calvin Klein businesses, such as career, sportswear, dresses and active casualwear, which are coming out of G-III. “Our business with them is absolutely spectacular in all areas. You look at G-III for coats, career, sportswear and dresses; the growth I’m getting out of them is enormous. It’s high-double digits and margin rich,” he said. Calvin Klein’s performance wear is also doing well. “It is one of the biggest things we have going on at our company,” he said.

Buccina said prints were selling well in the blouse category. He also has done well with better dresses from both Calvin Klein and Anne Klein. “They’re tasteful, they hit a wide audience and they’ve really made them affordable. They’re giving you style and really good value.”

Another good selling line has been DKNY Jeans, which is now under Donna Karan International.

“The new DKNY Jeans has just started to hit. They’re letting their talent run. That’s what the market needed. They’re making the jeans affordable and the shops are terrific,” he said. He is also excited about what The Jones Group Inc. is doing with its Jones New York and Anne Klein businesses. “I love what Stefani Greenfield [chief creative officer of The Jones Group] is doing. She has really put Anne Klein and Jones apparel back on the map. She’s had a big influence on their modern, traditional lines too.”

Buccina said he’s carrying some Vince Camuto sportswear. “His clothes are very fresh. He’ll eventually get everything right and it will become a big business,” said Buccina. He said Lauren Ralph Lauren Jeans and activewear are selling well.

Overall, he said, “Our selling right now on transitional is up double digits for ready-to-wear.”

Bon-Ton is having a lot of success with its own brand, Laura Ashley. He said it appeals to the Chico’s type customer, with a relaxed business-casual look, with the jewelry and the bags. “That business is really good.”

He said Bon-Ton isn’t threatened by fast-fashion retailers such as Zara, known for constantly refreshing merchandise on the floor. “The way I see it, department stores, whether it’s us, Macy’s, Dillard’s or Belk, have charge card customers. (It represents half of our company sales.) We speak directly to our customer. We promote with TV, direct mail, e-mails and circulars. It’s something that Zara doesn’t do. We’re one-stop shopping at department stores. We carry the best of class brands throughout all areas of our business,” said Buccina.

Kathy Bradley-Riley, senior vice president of merchandising at the Doneger Group, said sales of better sportswear have gotten off to a good start at retail. “Merchandise is just starting to get onto the selling floor. There’s been reaction to ponte as a fabric in pencil skirts, dresses and jackets in both black and color. Any kind of leather and suede item has been very good, The whole colored skinny bottom, particularly the ankle pant, has been good.”

Bradley-Riley also noted that anything new in lace or crochet, including lace trim, has been selling. On the modern side, the tuxedo look, in the jacket and striping down the leg, has been selling well. Also good for fall have been the statement jacket and the printed blazer. Animal and lace prints are also selling, and the color teal has been a standout so far.

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