STORES HIGH ON MEN’S WEAR OFFSHOOTS
Byline: Karen Parr
NEW YORK — The Nineties junior can paint liquid eyeliner over glitter eyeshadow like a demi-diva. She also knows how to skate, surf or board with the best of the boys.
In fact, young men’s companies are capitalizing on this bit o’ tomboy in teenage girls.
When executives at Newport Beach, Calif., surf firm Quiksilver saw surfer girls in Hawaii hanging 10 in men’s board shorts about three years ago, it didn’t take them long to create Roxy, a junior line that still retains that surfer-meets-snowboarder look.
“It was a natural idea,” said Roxy vice president and division head Randy Hild. “The idea of this whole girl thing has kicked in, and we’re a believer that it’s going to continue for some time because the demographics are changing.”
And in the past year and a half, many other young men’s firms have jumped on the junior bandwagon — much to the delight of some boutiques and specialty stores where the finicky customers require “edge” or “authenticity.”
The litany includes California companies Lush by Fresh Jive, in Los Angeles; Girl Star by Gotcha, in Irvine; 26 Redsugar by 26 Red, in Irvine; Girlie Stuff by JNCO, in Los Angeles; Girl’s Club by Club Sportswear, in Irvine, and Tuesday by Twist, in San Francisco.
In addition to lines born of surf or snowboard looks, urban lines are also edging into this arena.
The latest to enter the fold is junior line Mecca, by Seattle streetwear firm Mecca U.S.A., currently showing for March delivery.
New York firms Phat Farm and Papi have both tested the junior market with limited collections called Baby Phat and Mami, respectively, and have plans to expand within the year.
Hild points to the upcoming “baby boomlet,” which promises a growing number of boomers’ kids will soon turn teen. Many retailers and vendors dub these girls the “true junior customer.”
“We are clear that we are designing for that junior high to high school girl,” said Hild. “We don’t even pretend to be designing for girls in their 20s.”
This new teen queen can be a little confusing for some, a cinch for others.
Richard Schefren, president of the large vintage/clubwear shop Antique Boutique here, said his store carries both Lush, which was the bestseller this winter, and Roxy.
Schefren notes that these brands are often exclusive, eschewing major chains and department stores. Another draw is the vendors’ understanding of the market through their men’s wear business.
“They perform very well in our stores, because they use that streetwear influence in their clothes,” Schefren said. “Perhaps more so than people just designing women’s.”
While he said some of the influence is gleaned from snowboard fashion, more is based on what’s happening in the street, from skateboarding looks to what kids wear hanging out.
At Swish, a snowboard, skateboard and streetwear boutique here, manager Andy Faranda said one offshoot it carries is Lush. Like Schefren, he agrees customers go for the alternative identity these lines have.
“They’re not mainstream labels, which makes them cool,” he said. “You’re getting a piece, like a piece of art. It’s very original and something you can’t get in very many places.”
And girls need to express their femininity, even if they are zooming through a half-pipe.
“It’s letting you know that the girls aren’t just being pretty, they’re being active as well,” Faranda said. “Like cargo pants, skater kids love that they can go out boarding with them, but still look pretty.”
He noted that Lush’s skirt fashioned after the cargo pant, with big side pockets, demonstrates that femininity with edge. But does that mean a skate rat would do her thing in it?
“No! Absolutely not,” Faranda said. “She’d get laughed at. But the point is the streets have dictated that [girls] don’t have to be like the guys anymore.”
At Gottschalk’s, the Fresno, Calif.-based chain, general merchandise manager Gary Dittman said “snowboard looks” are hot right now. But he doesn’t know if the faster looks are ideal for their stores.
He said department stores are having trouble getting that “true teenage junior customer” back into stores after she’s gone the alternative route, such as snowboard shops.
Sometimes when stores give teens what they think they want, the teens still respond in traditionally non-traditional ways.
Such seems to be the case at Flipside, a 1,000-square-foot ski and snow shop in Los Angeles, which carries Roxy.
Manager Serge Duz said, “It’s half and half. Some girls are sticking with the guy’s wear, some are going with the girly stuff.”
He said that during the day, when girls hang out at coffee shops and such, the look is more casual.
“When they go out at night, going to clubs, they wear the girly stuff,” Duz noted.
At the Pacific Sunwear chain, based in Anaheim, Calif., executive vice president of merchandising Tim Harmon said the female customer is into sporty looks.
The company’s stock shot up last year, and the addition of juniors 18 months ago in 130 of the 209 stores was a contributing factor, according to president and chief executive officer Greg Weaver.
The company is bringing in Roxy, in addition to Lush and 26 Redsugar, which it already carries.
“It’s not so much the brands, it’s the look,” Harmon said. “We believe the tomboy-skater girl is what the customer is — a girl, not a young woman.
“That’s our distinction in the market,” he said. “Some of it is what makes us proprietary.”
Harmon said the Pacific Sunwear customer seems to be responding to plenty of looks in the men’s market, a conclusion based in part on annual focus groups around the country.
“We learned that our customer is very young, with an average age about 15,” he said. “They’re tomboys…almost everyone [interviewed] was athletic. Not one wore a skirt or dress.”
He said that parallel to their findings, many of the brands also recognized this customer, and were either creating extensions of men’s wear or, in Quiksilver’s case, a new label.
Harmon said his company respects the “brand equity” of these often smaller, fringe brands.
For instance, with Lush and Fresh Jive, Harmon said, the company must “keep its edge with specialty stores,” yet at the same time it can supply a chain like Pacific Sunwear.
It is important for that edge, Harmon said, that these brands be in the “most avant-garde, the fashion leaders” in retailing, such as the Patricia Field boutique here.
“If those brands are developing new looks, we want to be their first channel of distribution in a mall environment, or their only channel of distribution,” he said.
One way Pacific Sunwear respects the little companies, Harmon noted, is to cut a check in a day if they have to, since it’s often hard for the smaller manufacturers to fill a large order with limited capital.
Harmon said the sensitivity is well worth it. “Little companies become big companies,” he noted.
At Gotham City, a boutique in Millburn, N.J., owner Gail Levy carries both Roxy and a snowboard-derived women’s line by Twist, called Tuesday.
These lines give her store an edge, she said, a much-needed elixir in the boutique business.
“We’re carrying a lot of snowboard people, but we’re not an athletic store,” she said. “We’re a fashion store.”
Levy said she has no answer to why girls are into men’s wear offshoots, except that “there’s a lot of camaraderie in this generation between boys and girls, and they all wear some of the same jeans and tops.”
But Levy is adamant about one thing: fashion, not function, is the focus.
“Even though the kids who come into our store are very much into a lot of athletics — they go all over the country skating and they snowboard — it’s really for fashion,” she said.
Looking into the future, some firms grapple with where they’re going — wondering if they will distribute more broadly or if they will change the look of the line.
“It’s a very, very sensitive issue that I deal with daily,” said Roxy’s Hild of expanded distribution. “Quiksilver is good at the balance; we’re passionate about keeping our identity authentic and hard core.
“At the same time, we’re a public company, with a corporate mission to grow at 20 percent a year,” he added. Roxy has been growing annually at about 75 to 100 percent for the last three years, he said.
Hild explained that the company sponsors male and female athletes in order to stay “authentic,” and they distribute slowly and carefully when they go after department stores, so they won’t lose their surf shops.
Joel Cooper, ceo of Girl Star, said one notable evolution in the line is the styling.
“If you look at the compositions of the line, dresses are as important a part of the line as the women’s trunk,” he said. “Maybe even more important.”
He said this is a crucial difference between Girl Star and other offshoots.
Rick Klotz, the president of Lush and Fresh Jive, said Lush has been able to stay tied into what he calls the “L.A. urban lifestyle” of skateboarding, snowboarding and surfing.
Hence, the fashion look is still married to the culture, with one half very much about cargo pants, logo tees and “board” looks.
On the other hand, he said, the company is experimenting with “more boutique fashion styles,” like printed dresses.
And he still resists oversaturating the stores.
“We want to stay creative,” he said. “Once you get to a certain level like that, we don’t want to have to design merely for sales. It’s a fine line.”
At 26 Redsugar, president John Bernard agrees with clean distribution and is anticipating about $6 million in annual wholesale volume out of the line next year.
“We’re not looking to go to $60 million,” he said. “We’re keeping distribution clean.
“Our customer is very image driven,” Bernard noted. “And the image is driven by which stores you put your product in, not selling to schlocky shops, but selling to shops that put out the best vibe.”