BETTER: CHANGING COURSE

Byline: Georgia Lee

ATLANTA — Better sportswear companies are trying to jump-start business with new directions, from expanded categories and product ranges to completely revamped looks for fall.
Vendors hope to build business through novelty and innovation in design, as well as improved customer service.
Sportswear looks have rejuvenated outerwear, according to Caroline Healey, designer for ABE, a New York-based manufacturer specializing in shearling coats. For fall, such silhouettes as barn jackets and hooded styles in fashion colors have been bestsellers.
Accessories such as gloves and hats have grown to 50 percent of sales in the past two years and are expanding further into footwear, slippers and children’s items.
ABE’s prices, which range from $200 to $500 wholesale, have increased between 5 and 10 percent for fall because of increased demand and diminished supply of skins.
“Our fear is that the lack of supply could push prices to a prohibitive level,” said Healey.
Sweater-driven knit makers are moving away from thematic novelty looks, and designers say the conversational sweater category has suffered most in the past year.
“There was a definite downtrend last year, due to over-saturation at all price levels,” said Jane Gordon, vice president of Design Options Inc., a New York-based knitwear company.
Due to flat sales in 1996, Design Options has revamped its fall line, cutting thematic sweaters to only seven out of 40 styles.
“We’ll still do holiday sweaters, but we think the look is over, and we needed to take the next step,” Gordon said.
The fall line includes more European novelty yarns, such as bouclA, alpaca and acrylic blends, in more sophisticated silhouettes, including cropped jackets.
“Themes are a matter of interpretation, but developing novelty looks with texture, color and silhouette requires more design talent,” said Gordon. Wholesale prices, at $69 to $89, have increased slightly, to accommodate more expensive yarns.
Belle Point, a Columbus, Ohio, sweater company, is expanding into new areas, due to softness in novelty sweaters.
“A lot of people jumped on the bandwagon three or four years ago and many have now gone out of business,” said Michael Wallace, sales manager. “Only the key players have survived.”
To make up for softness in the thematic sweater market, Belle Point will introduce a new sportswear line in April. The new line, yet to be named, will include more updated silhouettes, novelty yarns, color and details, including zippers.
Wallace said he also sees opportunities in the company’s flannel sleepwear division, launched for holiday 1996, as well as its collegiate licensing programs for sweaters, sleepwear and Polarfleece.
Novelty, innovation and service are key for sportswear companies such as New York-based Angelheart Design, producers of the Flax label.
“We sell to specialty stores that are especially interested in fun, novelty looks,” said Matthew Engelhart, vice president. “Specialty stores are extremely loyal, especially when we focus on good customer service.”
One-piece dresses that look like jumpers, yarn-dyed seersucker linen separates and items such as retro swimsuits have drawn the most interest, he said.
Novelty, in garment-dyed separates, hand-woven textures and specialty detailing, is important for Anai, a sportswear house based in Carefree, Ariz.
“We have to offer newness, but we also have to have consistency in the line,” said Katie Amador, an owner. “Companies that get too trendy can have roller-coaster sales.”

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