BRIDGE EYES STABILITY—AT LAST

Byline: Miles Socha

NEW YORK — After two years of turmoil, bridge vendors are predicting stability for the bedraggled category in the first half of 2000, convinced that a “lifestyle” approach, color, embellishment and an item focus will mean new credibility and energy.
“Bridge is starting to turn around,” said Dana Buchman. “Consumers are responding to color, to embellishment, to special details and luxurious fabrics. Our emphasis during the fourth quarter on items is a strategy that is working beautifully and one we see continuing throughout the year.
“My biggest challenge is getting people to understand that bridge is not going away,” she said. “There is a value to our price point that is distinctive, just as there is a value to designer goods and there is a value to better goods. We offer a level of quality and detail and fit that the consumer can only find from a bridge resource. Our customer knows this and turns to us for these features.”
Others shared Buchman’s upbeat outlook.
“We have grown by 90 percent over the last year,” said Barbara LaMonica, president of Michael Kors, referring to the Kors Michael Kors bridge line. “We received many increased buys, as well as added doors and new accounts.”
LaMonica attributed the rapid growth — which she expects to continue through 2001 — to the “designer appeal” of the collection.
“It gives us access to a customer who is not necessarily only a bridge shopper,” she said. “She understands high-end fashion, yet looks to us for an everyday resource.”
Herbert Gallen, chairman of Ellen Tracy, is forecasting an increase of about 20 percent in the first half.
“We had a very good year,” he said, noting that Ellen Tracy was recently named one of Saks Fifth Avenue’s Vendors of the Year for 1999. “Our business is wonderful.”
Of course, vendors acknowledge that their ambitious sales increases for next season — typically in the 20 to 30 percent range — are being made in a category that is hardly growing. Mondi of America recently liquidated, adding to a list of casualties that includes Andrea Jovine and Isaac by Isaac Mizrahi. Polo Ralph Lauren Corp. recently said it planned to exit the bridge category after the holiday season, preferring to focus on its Polo Sport collection and the fast-growing “gold range” price tier between bridge and designer.
“Bottom line, it’s all about market share,” said Mark Mendelson, president of Tahari Ltd., which is projecting sales growth of at least 30 percent next year. “I don’t think the piece of the pie is getting any bigger.”
But Mendelson said his optimism is a direct reflection of the “happy” mood in fashion embraced by bridge. In two years, the category has gone from pushing dull navy and black suits to enticing customers with cherry-red leather pants and cashmere halter tops. “The minimal thing is over and so the clothes are much more emotional,” Mendelson said. “[The customer] wants novelty. She wants things that are special. She doesn’t need anything. It’s separates and special pieces she wants. It’s not just this stuff she bought to wear to work.”
Other vendors agreed that fresh designs were helping to wipe out memories of dull, career-driven clothes.
“There have been many adjustments made by designers that have helped the once-stagnant category look fresh and current, which has enabled it to compete with the contemporary and better categories,” said Joseph Greco, president of Gruppo Americano, which recently hired Mark Kroeker as its new design director. The firm is forecasting a first-half sales increase of 25 percent.
“Customers’ buying habits have clearly changed over the last two years, and I believe they will continue to buy more items and respond to color,” Greco said. “They want to be enticed to buy fashion. Their wardrobes are full and they only need to buy items that enhance what they already own or that they simply want.”
Ellen Tracy has apparently weathered the troubles in bridge better than most. Gallen said creative designs, color, a focus on casual lifestyle clothes and staying in touch with the customer had kept the business perking when others stalled or shut down.
Gallen also took a stand on rampant markdowns in the category in 1998 by introducing Club Ellen Tracy, a program that rewards customers for full-price purchases, and by opting to mark down its collection “about twice a year” instead of monthly, as some vendors do.
“Nobody else is doing this, and it’s working out beautifully,” Gallen said. “We’re just going to try and continue doing what we’re doing.”
National advertising, trunk shows, appearances by designers and other in-store events were cited by bridge executives as initiatives to improve full-price selling. Mendelson stressed that the biggest challenge is finding dynamic, energetic sales specialists who can boost full-price selling in bridge.
John Idol, chief executive officer of Donna Karan International, said the domestic bridge business had improved over last year’s, but remained “challenging.” DKNY sales are flat for the year in dollars, but unit sales are up by about 20 percent.
Idol noted that the “stigma” attached to bridge domestically is not a problem in other countries, which account for roughly 35 to 40 percent of the DKNY business. “We’re seeing very nice growth in our business internationally, where we’re looked on as more of a diffusion line than as bridge,” he said.
Idol also cited strong sales at the company-owned DKNY stores and licensed international units as another hopeful sign. He noted that five more company-owned DKNY units, and up to 10 franchised international units, are slated to come on stream in 2000.
Monica Belag Forman, president of MAG, the bridge sportswear division of Magaschoni Apparel Group, said she’d like to find a new name for bridge, eager to escape the stigma that has accrued over the past few years as it battled bloated inventories, excessive markdowns and a sameness in styling. She argued that a “new bridge” had already arrived, one that was no longer as career-driven and was instead focused on the customer, her lifestyle and fashion. MAG is forecasting increases in the range of 30 percent for the first half.
“I think there are huge opportunities out there,” Forman said, citing strength in knitwear, pants and sweater jackets. “The collection has to offer a lot of strong items that have to stand on their own. You have to have a reason for everything on the floor.”
Commenting on the rapid success of the “gold range” price tier between bridge and designer in many American stores, Forman said, “That was new thinking and that was a way of identifying a new zone, and I think that has to happen in bridge.”
Wendy Chivian, president of Anne Klein Apparel, a division of Kasper ASL, said more timely and complete deliveries, plus an emphasis on its casual A Line business and more “glamorous,” embellished styling, should boost its bridge franchise next year.
“Sameness of product has really been a detriment,” she said. “We are really creating a place for ourselves by keeping ourselves different and special and creating the want and need in the consumer.”
Anne Klein’s spring line, for example, boasts details like beading, fringe, embroidery and leather sequins to set itself apart and fuel a hunger for more fashionable products. “We continue to work on this piece of the business,” she said.
“For us, it’s about luxury and distinctive items,” agreed Deirdre Quinn, president of Lafayette 148, which is planning on a 25 percent increase in the first half. “Our customer is looking for exceptional quality.”
But, echoing other vendors, Quinn noted the landscape probably would keep shifting.
“There will always be room for new entries, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see more fallout,” Quinn said. “In the last few years, there’s been a lot of changes.”

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