Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — For a while there, it looked as though activewear makers were determined to find out how many sports bras it takes to blanket an industry. But now they’ve broken out of that mold to focus on sportswear-inspired items to drive next year’s first-half sales.
Knowing that the continued downturn in men’s activewear business has prompted major sporting goods stores to play up women’s apparel, manufacturers are turning out more fashion-forward, performance-oriented styles. Even Nike has introduced hooded tops, zip-front vests and other sporty looks for spring.
While Nike, Adidas and Reebok remain the dominant labels with key chains, lesser-known brands like New Balance, Puma, Everlast and InSport said stores were looking for alternatives to the athletic footwear giants.
“We’re still showing collections to stores for spring, but we’re identifying and pushing key items like a Lycra [spandex] tank top, capri pants and a full-zip fleece sweatshirt,” said Alden Sheets, president of Puma Worldwide apparel and accessories. “Stores are trying items in a small way and plan to chase the business with reorders.”
Given that, Puma has stocked up on Lycra tanks, capri pants, full-zip fleece sweatshirts and pants with elasticized waistbands for retailers’ expected reorders.
As part of its plan to increase women’s apparel sales from 12 percent of its total apparel business to 18 percent by the end of next year, Puma will unveil a print campaign and its first TV campaign, featuring tennis star Serena Williams, in April.
RLX Polo Sport will also launch a spring print ad campaign. Shot in Hawaii to convey “an adventure spirit,” the ads feature RLX-sponsored athletes competing in last month’s Iron Man Triathlon, working out and racing in the Xterra Offroad Triathlon, said Jordan Wand, vice president of RLX.
Running and crosstraining, outdoor adventure and cycling should be the key categories for spring, Wand said. In an effort to build authenticity, RLX will continue to focus on athletic specialty stores instead of national chains.
“We have to help stores understand the brand’s opportunities. We know they have a limited open-to-buy,” Wand said. “For retailers to take in a new brand, we need to explain the point of difference. Stores either get it or they don’t.”
Stores’ familiarity with the designer’s name has been a major selling point, he added. DKNY Active spring business should continue to be good due to the strong influence of athletic detail in sportswear, said Susan Davidson, president of DKNY Jeans, Active and Juniors.
The spring collection’s design inspiration was borrowed from yoga, hiking, cycling and urban inline skating, she said. There are pants with drawstrings, pants that convert into shorts, tanks with built-in shelf bras, vests and form-fitting T-shirts.
The line has been particularly well-received by East Coast and West Coast retailers, Davidson said.
This spring New Balance will unveil a new category called “trail,” activewear geared for trail running, hiking and outdoor activities, according to Judson Van Cor, apparel assistant product manager. A zip-front vest, CoolMax T-shirts and Supplex shorts are among the items in the 13-piece collection, which wholesales from $12.50 to $19.
Trail should help increase women’s apparel sales to more than $12 million, quadrupling this year’s level, Van Cor said.
“I’d like to say we’re geniuses with clothing. But a lot of the interest is due to retailers looking for alternative brands to the major ones,” he said.
Consumers’ interest in New Balance athletic footwear, which was kick-started by British club kids a few years ago, has also made retailers more interested in the brand’s apparel, Van Cor said.
As part of its growth plan, New Balance is building a new corporate headquarters in Boston, a print and TV ad campaign for women’s apparel will break in February and the brand’s new Web site will be upgraded to broaden brand awareness, he said.
InSport has branched out with a performance-oriented maternity collection of tops, shorts and jackets for spring. By the end of next year, the group should generate 6 percent of the brand’s women’s apparel sales, an InSport spokeswoman said.
Last week, the company introduced a Web site to help build brand awareness. The site has a list of retailers, wardrobing tips and information about fabrics.
Adidas America is “ramping up” its e-commerce site, but slowly and steadily. The aim is to reach Generation Y, which feels comfortable surfing the net, an Adidas spokesman said.
“The big thing is, we can’t rest on our laurels because that’s what the industry always does. The consumer is changing, and we as brands need to keep pace or we will lose touch with a generation,” he said. “Gen Y is the first generation that is born into the [Internet] retail environment with the ability to buy it.”
Next spring, Adidas is rolling out Das, a collection of activewear for skateboarders, snowboarders and other alternative sports enthusiasts. The line will be distributed in independent specialty stores.
“A big part of how our first-half business fans out has to do with how we do in the holiday season,” said George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer of Active Apparel Group, the maker of Everlast activewear. “Activewear should be very strong. I don’t want to overdo the millennium business. But we generally do well in the first part of the year, when other categories fade.”
Acquiring the license for Everlast men’s activewear has helped AAG gain buying power with major retailers, Horowitz said. In-store special events for Everlast have helped boost fall sales, and similar programs are planned for spring. AAG plans to team with major sporting goods stores to e-mail targeted customers about special promotions, Horowitz said.
Focusing more on sportswear-inspired looks such as wide-leg pants, jazz pants and capri pants has heightened stores’ interest in women’s activewear. To build on that trend, Everlast will introduce leather jackets at next year’s Super Show in Atlanta.
Horowitz was among the executives who noted sporting goods stores are looking for alternatives to athletic footwear labels that have dominated the business for the past decade. Everlast is a seven-year-old women’s activewear label, which is a major selling point with retailers, he said.
To give retailers more options, Reebok International has developed a more varied collection, said Todd Dalhausser, manager of sales planning. In addition to the standard fare of basics and performance-oriented looks, Reebok is serving up more sportswear-inspired looks such as capri pants, three-quarter-length baggy pants, cargo pants and jazz pants.
“The men’s business continues to struggle, but we’re seeing a slight percentage increase for our women’s bookings,” Dalhausser said. “Right now, everyone is really studying the the whole activewear business and becoming a lot smarter with decision making.”
The growing acceptability of activewear outside the gym has helped spring business, he noted.
Reebok will keep a close eye on how consumers respond to its month-old e-commerce Web site.
The company is also looking into developing personalized-fit items. In addition to being costly and difficult, that would increase retailers’ sku’s at a time they are trying to reduce them.
Fila has “lost so much momentum in the past two or three years” that stores consider the brand to be “a point of differentiation,” said Dave Kahn, vice president of sales for apparel. The brand has regrouped by developing sportswear-oriented items such jazz pants and bra tops with bright athletic piping.
“Spring is less about collections and more about flowing great items in great colors,” he said. “It comes down to having great styling and making a product special.”
Kahn criticized department stores for walking away from women’s activewear at a time when more women are exercising.
For spring 2000, for the first time, Jockey will sell to sporting goods stores. Oshman’s Sporting Goods and Galyan’s will be the first major ones to carry it, said Ron Mangini, president of Jockey activewear, which is licensed to Jacques Moret. Pedal pushers and performance-oriented running wear are expected to be key items, he said.
“Retailers have said the megabrands are suffering with apparel. They’re looking for new, fresh alternatives,” Mangini said. “They realize they have too many [buying] dollars devoted to brands that are not changing.”
Retailers are also getting smart and trying to steer clear of “gimmick games” such as buy-two-get-two-free sales incentives, Mangini said. They know those promotions will eliminate additional activewear shopping for a few months, he said.
“We’re trying to stay away from that and severe price promotions. If something is new and desirable, consumers will buy it at the regular prices,” Mangini said.
Jockey aims to do that by keeping most retail prices at $32 or less and offering more colorful and action-oriented posters and hangtags that highlight product benefits.

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