NEW YORK — A renewed vitality permeated last week’s market, underpinning expectations of retailers and vendors that fall will be a banner season.

Retail executives generally said they felt optimistic about fourth-quarter business because intimate apparel sales began picking up in December and have continued with year-to-date sell-throughs often averaging 50 percent or more.

Driving sales at retail are what a number of merchants are calling the three essentials: key brands, items and classifications. Contrary to the overall apparel trend, a substantial amount of business is being generated by fashion products sold at full price, which in turn is propelling reorders of spring goods.

Best-selling categories include daywear, from contemporary stretch Lycra spandex items such as camis and boy-cut briefs of microfiber and lace to ultrafeminine looks with delicate embroideries and lace touches, novelty robes, pajama sets with low-rise pants, and bras and briefs in coordinating fashion colors.

Donna Wolff, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel and hosiery at Bloomingdale’s, said: “Everything was very positive. The market and the merchandise were fun, colorful and feminine. It was like everybody went back to the drawing board after 9/11, especially the designers. Business is turning around, we are moving forward and we all get to be heroes against the dramatic drop in business.”

Wolff noted that daywear is Bloomingdale’s strongest category at the moment.

“I loved On Gossamer’s daywear for fall,” she said. “Calvin Klein foundations and sleepwear looked very good, and the colors and prints at DKNY [intimates] looked very fresh. Oscar de la Renta sleepwear looked terrific, and Natori foundations looked great. The Natori foundations business has turned around, and we are very pleased.”

Regarding spring business at the Bloomingdale’s stores, Wolff said sales of Eileen West sleepwear are up 45 percent, Calvin Klein [intimates] is ahead 24 percent, Wacoal is up 61 percent and Chantelle foundations is up 74 percent.

Wolff noted that panty-table programs have been “extremely strong” and added that “expensive panties have been selling very well.” She cited Calvin Klein, DKNY, Cosabella, St. Eve, On Gossamer and Biatta as top-selling brands.

Barbara Lipton, vice president and dmm of intimates, hosiery and jewelry at Saks Fifth Avenue, said: “The market was great in both foundations and sleepwear. My entire team came back energized. I think the key trends were anything with lace, embroidered tulles and a hosiery influence with fishnet patterns, especially in bras.

“We also are starting to see more sheer underwire bras versus padded underwire bras. Daywear continues to be very strong, mostly in mesh and laces. We thought Natori daywear looked fabulous, and we anticipate double-digit growth with the Josie line this year. It’s becoming a major resource for us, and sell-throughs of Josie’s contemporary items are excellent.”

Paula McManus, foundations buyer for Jacobson Stores, said the market was strong because it was filled with lots of fashion and color.

“Business has been very good, and we have to continue to give consumers a reason to buy,” McManus said. “We found it here.”

She said three foundations brands continue to push sales at Jacobson’s: Wacoal, Chantelle and Aubade.

From a manufacturer’s perspective, Eric Wiseman, vice president and chairman of global intimate apparel at VF Corp., said: “There was a lot of opportunity at this market, and we’re seeing a lift in intimate apparel business. We gained significant market share in the past 12 months, mainly because of new product.”

Wiseman said the Illuminations bra by Vanity Fair “continues to be a workhorse for the brand because it’s a great-fitting bra and takes color very well,” noting that additional styles in cotton, lace and a front-closure number are expected to be key.

Kathy Nedorostek, president and chief operating officer of Natori Co., said: “The reason we had a very good market is because we continue to get strong sell-throughs at retail. And we’ve been very pleased because retailers have been coming back to purchase more merchandise for spring in key silhouettes and items.”

Top-booking ideas for the Natori, Josie and Cruz labels include pajama sets with cami tops, boy-cut briefs and a variety of tops, said Nedorostek. She said prints such as butterfly motifs and florals were “excellent.”

Designer Eileen West said sleepwear styles that have a Victorian look with embellished lace touches and ribbon treatments on long-sleeved sleepgowns and robes were among her best-booking items under the Eileen West label at Charles Komar & Sons.

West added that the turnout was strong at the Intimate Apparel Salon, where her Queen Anne’s Lace collection of sleepwear was exhibited for the first time.

Holly Price, national sales manager of the French Jenny sleepwear division at Richard Leeds International, said: “Retailers understood what will be successful for fall is newness. That’s what we offered in our Long Jenny Johns line — soft rib knits where you can see the intensity of color, painted buttons and metallic threads and printing.”

Susan Pink, executive vice president of French Jenny sleepwear, said: “Retailers are trying to cover their margins, and there was a lot of pressure on price points. But we stood firm on price because we want to stand for novelty and newness.”

Top-booking items at French Jenny included a line of girls’ sleepwear called Little Jenny Johns that coordinates with select styles in the women’s line, pajamas with a new flocking treatment on yarn-dyed flannel, and a continuation of the best-selling category — “new, low-rise” pajama pants.

Carole Hochman, president and design director of Carole Hochman Designs, said sales of Esprit’s trademarks to Esprit Holdings Inc. will not affect the Esprit sleepwear license at the Hochman firm.

“Management of Esprit International came over and talked to our people,” Hochman said. “The change is very good for us, and the license will continue.”

Regarding the licensed Oscar de la Renta sleepwear, Hochman noted: “We see the pink [department store] label as the major thrust for our Oscar business because it’s available at a lot more stores. The Oscar navy label is like a couture label, because it’s limited to major specialty stores.”

Hochman said bookings were strong for feminine, romantic items in the pink label line by Oscar de la Renta such as a lacquer red embroidered and printed kimono wrap and floral chemise, and a peasant-inspired nightshirt in solid mint.

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