MAKERS DANCING NEW STEPS AS BIG STORES CHANGE TUNE
Byline: Georgia Lee
ATLANTA — As department stores have either abandoned or repositioned bodywear, manufacturers are continuing to shift emphasis from the traditional aerobic wear that was once their bread and butter to sports-specific and fashion-oriented products aimed at sporting goods chains and specialty stores.
That was the bodywear story that emerged at the recent Super Show, the big sports equipment and activewear event at the Georgia World Congress Center here.
Although some exhibitors said they have seen certain department stores start to again recognize there is a place for bodywear on their floors, others continued to complain bitterly about being shortchanged by the big retailers. At the same time, the bodywear companies are reacting to the changing tides of fashion, with the demand for leotards and tights dropping in favor of bra tops and bike shorts. Comfort, too, is becoming more important to the consumer, with baggy shorts, T-shirts and tank shorts increasing in popularity.
So, as bodywear makers bring out their new lines, they increasingly take on the more varied aspects of activewear, whether for casualwear or geared to specific activities.
Body Wrappers, a New York-based bodywear company, has increased dance-specific pieces to 60 percent of its line, up from 40 percent last year.
“There are too many players in fitness,” said Mindy Solkin, marketing director. “Dance is a more manageable competition.”
The fitness side of the line includes sports-specific influences such as Slacker shorts, inspired by surfing’s board shorts, as well as fashion-inspired silhouettes, such as low-rise, flared leggings.
Super Show orders at Body Wrappers increased 20 percent from last year, coming mainly from sporting goods and specialty stores, said Solkin.
“Sporting goods stores are becoming more savvy about women’s apparel,” she said. “The women’s movement and the Olympics have helped. Sporting goods stores may still be focusing on hockey sticks, but at least they’re starting to think about hockey sticks for women.”
At Danskin, leotards — which were one-third of sales two years ago — have decreased to 10 percent, while jersey sportswear and outerwear have increased from 10 percent to 50 percent of sales. Danskin also introduced more sports-specific apparel, with a new golf and tennis line for spring 1997.
Danskin saw increased traffic from sporting goods stores, with fewer department store accounts at the Super Show. “A few [big] stores, such as Nordstrom’s and Dillard’s, have taken a position on bodywear, while others are waiting,” said Mary Ann Domuracki, Danskin chief executive officer. “We think they are walking the business straight to somebody else.”
“Department stores have never been true to the category,” said Gilda Marx, president of Gilda Marx, a Los Angeles bodywear company. “They don’t know who they want to be and they often have the wrong people buying it.”
In the past few years, casual sportswear and activewear have become more of a focus for Gilda Marx. “Everyone is going after fleece and casual, active looks,” said Marx. “It’s part of the dressing down of society.”
The company, bought in December by Bestform, a Long Island City, N.Y., lingerie firm, will now do more performance-oriented merchandise. They are also considering the development of bras and panties that would carry the Gilda Marx label, said Marx, although details have not been set.
For San Diego, Calif.-based Weekend Exercise Co., activewear has grown from 10 percent to 50 percent in two years, according to Michael Levinson, president.
“We’ve had to become more eclectic as the bodywear market became saturated,” said Levinson. “We’ve had to develop the activewear category, and make it play back with bodywear.”
Fabric interest is key in activewear, said Levinson. For fall, jersey fleece, ripstop nylon, sherpa and matte taffeta are used in the company’s three labels — Marika, Marika SP and Baryshnikov.
Although orders are often delivered after the fact, the Super Show generates 40 percent of the company’s volume.
Levinson was one of the bodywear exhibitors feeling generally good about the retail scene regarding his product. He said that with the exception of Federated and Belk’s, department stores were starting to make more of a commitment to the category. Sporting goods stores, an increasingly important distribution area that is well represented at the Super Show, are allocating good space to bodywear and merchandising the category better than in the past, he said.
While still a tiny percentage of the business for women’s apparel giant Liz Claiborne, bodywear and activewear are growing under the aegis of Liz Claiborne Bodywear, according to Nuala Gonzalez, national sales manager, fashion accessories.
“Industry-wide, bodywear has been difficult for department stores where space and funding have been tough, but some are relaunching it and making shop concepts,” said Gonzalez. She also added that the company had doubled business with sporting goods and specialty stores in the past two years.
Although the line is still 85 percent performance sports-inspired, more fashion pieces are added each season, such as fleece coverups, leggings and cropped T-shirts.
Activewear, introduced as basics last fall, will grow to equal bodywear in the next few years at Champion Jogbra, said Robert Hall, president and ceo of this unit of Sara Lee Corp. The company will bring in more activewear designers to incorporate more fashion touches, such as expanded color palettes and silhouettes along with zippers and stitching detail.
Despite the emphasis on fashion, women still demand more performance features, such as adjustable bra straps and fabrics with antimoisture properties, Hall noted.
At Eurotard, an Atlanta bodywear manufacturer, aerobic wear accounted for 70 percent of sales two years ago. Now, it’s bra tops, coverup pieces and dance-specific apparel bringing in 70 percent, while aerobic wear accounts for 30 percent.
“The consumer used to buy several leotards. Now she’s buying one,” said Tolbert Yilmaz, president, who added that overall orders at the Super Show increased 15 percent. Business came primarily from specialty and sporting goods, as well as a strong international retail representation.