Byline: Sharon Edelson

NEW YORK — After dropping the ball on style and quality and watching everybody from Gianni Versace to Emanuel Ungaro provide fashion for large-sized women, Lane Bryant has decided to add more excitement to its own offerings.
The 850-unit, moderate-priced chain, which is a division of The Limited Inc., is trying to pump up sales with a new store prototype, more current fashion, higher quality standards and a new advertising campaign to herald it all.
The efforts are starting to pay off. In announcing fourth-quarter results on Tuesday, Leslie Wexner, chairman and chief executive officer of The Limited, said merchandise improvements contributed to operating income improvements at Lane Bryant.
“We were as much at fault as the rest of the industry in not bringing the large-size customer fashion merchandise,” said Chris Hansen, vice president of marketing at Lane Bryant.
“We underestimated her sophistication. If flannel was the fabric for fall, we weren’t sure. If the skinny-knit mock turtleneck was the top of the season, we didn’t offer it.
“Quality was not as strong as it used to be,” Hansen added, referring to the last few seasons. “The quality has now changed dramatically in terms of fabric and construction. We made it our job to deliver key items, silhouettes and fabrics in any of the trends that come by.”
For example, Lane Bryant produced a slinky, knit-jersey collection for summer with pants, a wrap short-sleeved top, tunic top, short-sleeved T-shirt dress and long skirt.
“Here’s an example of a fabric that was once a no-no for a large woman,” Hansen said. “Our group was designed and cut in such a way that it’s very flattering. We see a really strong reaction from our customer when we give her a [fashion] first.”
Lane Bryant also interpreted sheer in a way that is appropriate for its clientele by designing sheer shirting in large florals and block prints in hot orange, pink, red, and cool blue, green and lilac.
“They are meant to be worn over tank tops or T-shirt dresses,” Hansen said. “Sheer is a look the regular market is enjoying, and our customer will react to this.”
In addition to career and soft dressing, sold under the Lane Bryant Design label, the chain produces Venezia Jean Clothing Co. denim and sportswear, and Intimates lingerie and sleepwear.
Lane Bryant is bringing some newfound sophistication to store design. The company this month unveiled a prototype at a unit in Memphis, Tenn. The interior, with tones of sage green, off white and khaki is more refined than the black and gold decor of existing stores.
“As with the clothes, we had underestimated the sophistication of our customer,” Hansen said, noting that Lane Bryant plans to convert 33 stores to the prototype this spring.
While Limited often spins off new retail concepts from its established chains, Lane Bryant has yet to produce any offspring. While there are no such plans at the moment, Hansen said Intimates could be considered first. “There’s no reason that couldn’t be a separate business,” she said.
Hansen said Lane Bryant is also considering new product categories such as gifts and home furnishings.
The final facet of Lane Bryant’s transformation is an advertising campaign themed “What Real Women Wear.” Ads in March magazines carry a variation on the tag line “Are You Lane Bryant’s Real Woman?” That’s also a reference to a contest called Lane Bryant’s Search for Real Women that began on Feb. 15. The winner will participate in a Lane Bryant photo shoot.

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