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It’s a sign of the times. Following a year of retail consolidation and mounting consumer demand for destination brands and fast fashion, midsize vendors of moderate and better labels resolve in 2007 to increase their specialty store business, develop higher-end niche collections and, of course, increase speed to market.

Vendor: Rousso Apparel Group
At the end of 2006, the $200 million, predominately moderate firm entered a partnership to acquire better-bridge brand GarfieldMarks. In 2007, expect more acquisitions and expansion as the company tries to up its better (and higher-priced) business past its current 22 percent, according to president Amy Taub Kahn.

“We want to grow the company through acquisitions of niche businesses that complement our complex business, as well as expand into other categories that pertain to our existing business with key items like dresses,” Taub Kahn said. “We will continue to expand our distribution through initiatives like spa-driven [business] and special sizes. And, of course, we continue to build our relationships by shipping the best product on a most timely basis. We will challenge our production to continually shorten lead times to turn faster, and if your turns are shorter, you can be that much more right and generally your sell-through is better.”

Vendor: Roni Rabl
The Israeli better brand, which does 70 percent of its business with independent retailers, is partnering with about half a dozen boutiques around the U.S. that have long carried the Roni Rabl collection. For fall, the company will offer its name to the stores, stock its full collection in a 500-square-foot area within the boutiques and host regular in-store events for customers.

“Department stores have been great partners for us, but retail is changing,” said president Yael Edelist. “With all the emphasis on oversize production and oversize stores, the bubble is going to pop. What our customer really wants is personal attention and an emotional experience — intimate brand stores offer that luxury in a way that is just as accessible and familiar to a woman in Manhattan as it is to one in Indianapolis. That is where the future of apparel is really going to shine.”

This story first appeared in the January 3, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Vendor: Lynn Ritchie
Having added dresses and cotton pieces to its better-to-bridge-price silk sportswear line last year, Lynn Ritchie plans to expand upward in 2007, adding a higher-quality bridge collection to its offerings. Made from higher-quality fabrics, tops in the line will wholesale from the $40s up to the $80s, compared with its traditional silk novelty tops that range from $36 to about $55. The line is targeting a higher tier of specialty stores, the retailers the company will increasingly go after in 2007.

“Our specialty store business for spring is the highest it’s been for us, coming off our best year ever with specialty store business, and we look forward to growing it further,” said Lynn Ritchie, president and chief executive officer. “Our strategy is simple: use our size to our advantage. We are small, so we can quickly adapt to roll with the fashion trends. Small is the new big. We appreciate and cater to the specialty store business.”

Vendor: H.M.S. Productions Inc.
With business in 2006 up about 80 percent over three or four years ago, the firm that is mostly known for its Cable & Gauge better knit line wants to present a more well-rounded front. After launching the contemporary resource Cupio last year, the $100 million vendor will emphasize its Spenser Jeremy sportswear and introduce a new brand, Nubby, for fall 2007. The new collection will join Cable & Gauge in the better knitwear category, but will expand the yarns with five-, seven- and nine-gauge knitwear.

“Every once in a while, there is an opportunity to launch a new company, and the success of knits right now has created that,” said president Lou Breuning.” Nubby will be in addition to Cable & Gauge, not in place of; it’s filling out what the stores are looking for.”

Vendor: Republic Clothing Group
With a number of better brands already in its portfolio, Republic Clothing Group plans to enter new market segments this year. The firm will introduce casual sportswear, a bridge line and “a highly recognized designer brand — either through acquisition or partnership,” according to president Michael Warner.

“We obviously see that the retail landscape continues to consolidate,” Warner said. “First and foremost, we think like a retailer. A lot of our organization comes from past retail experience, we think of that as our Republic Clothing Group advantage. We have to have a point of difference and, obviously, a reason to buy.”

Vendor: Between the Notes
After designing their better-priced brand in June and making their first shipment in September, the GarfieldMarks veterans who started Panticular (they have parted with that brand, one by one, since May) have focused on relationships with their specialty store clientele. And that is still the firm’s primary ambition for 2007, along with strengthening its partnership with not-for-profit Dress for Success.

“For the first time in a long time, [we] are in a position where we love to answer the telephone when it rings,” said founder Alex Garfield. “When the much larger percent of callers want more merchandise, it’s a pleasure coming to work.”

Vendor: Only Nine
This moderate sportswear company prides itself on its four- to six-week turns, which have helped it fulfill immediate orders. But it hopes to attract more planned business. Bookings for the beginning of 2007 are already encouraging, according to the firm.

“Our number-one goal is to increase product placement and distribution,” said president Jamie Gorman. “To do that, we consistently redefine our best sellers — like our ‘million dollar top’ — and continue to update them to make them modern. When you have a winner, the question becomes how to make it different so it continues to be a winner.”

Vendor: ICE Apparel
The parent of the better sportswear brand ECI plans to take its Web site, which had a soft launch this fall, to the next level in 2007. Behind schedule but still a priority, will start selling a limited-production selection on Feb. 1, according to the company, leaving room for a full relaunch at a later date. But a more basic matter outranks the Web site as the number-one priority this year: enlisting young talent.

“We want young people with young open minds to work here, but that can be really hard to find,” said president Steven Feinstein. “We are focusing on recruiting a significant amount of young people on staff. We are having our younger people here go back to their colleges to recruit interns and new staff, especially people graduating college.”

Vendor: Spex Clothing Co. Inc.
Coming off a year in which it launched the moderate-price contemporary line 52 Weekends, the firm that has long owned the moderate-price Lemon Grass hopes to increase distribution of its labels, primarily expanding with existing accounts, which range from Nordstrom to Kmart. Beating stores’ private label efforts is the key, according to the firm.

“Our number-one resolution is not to be complacent. It’s like you are in a fresh business each year and you go at it like you’ve never been in business before,” said president Joel Ratner. “This business is so changing that you can give certain goals, but you are thrown a curveball each day.”

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