DEFINING THE MARKET: BEYOND THE SUIT
Byline: Janet Ozzard
NEW YORK — Young bridge. Designer bridge. Better bridge. New bridge.
The sportswear classification known as bridge has become one of the most modified terms in apparel, especially with an influx in recent years of new talent that has a bridge price tag, but a distinctly noncorporate look.
Lines as diverse as Jill Stuart, Cynthia Rowley and Eileen Fisher are pushing the edges of what has traditionally been considered bridge. But even the stalwarts of the bridge market — Tahari, Ellen Tracy and Emanuel among them — say the term has to be defined more broadly.
Bridge sportswear started out as wear-to-work clothing for the growing female work force, priced above the better market, but well below designer lines.
“The original point was bridging the more moderate market to the designer market, which was unreachable for most women,” said Linda Allard, design director for Ellen Tracy. “There weren’t a lot of options for the women who had style but wanted quality and value.”
Soon, though, that woman wanted more than work clothes. And in the last five years, a slew of new companies have launched labels that come in at the bridge price point, but have a distinctly un-workwear look. Eileen Fisher’s loose, minimal sportswear, Jill Stuart’s sheer and sexy body-conscious knits, Susan Lazar’s slinky jersey separates or Tocca’s sweet embroidered dresses aren’t exactly traditional garb for corporate vice presidents.
“Bridge started with Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy, Anne Klein II, but now there’s updated, young bridge,” said Kathryn Bufano, executive vice president at Macy’s East. “We position it next to contemporary — lines like Cynthia Rowley, Eileen Fisher, Jill Stuart. It’s a transition between go-to-work clothes. It’s more updated and forward.
“There’s a constant flow between bridge and contemporary customers. Eileen Fisher and Jill Stuart really epitomize that. Then you have Tahari or DKNY, which, depending on how you buy and how the customer puts it together, is updated. Then there’s traditional bridge, which is Anne Klein II, Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy.”
Stores define the classification as “both a look and a price point,” according to Lynn Ronon, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue.
“The customer doesn’t want to be boring, but she also wants a look that is easy to put together and appropriate,” said Ronon. “Bridge is a catch-all name, but it isn’t a catch-all business. I’ve really tried to maintain discipline in the approach we take here.”
But stores’ attempts to classify every line sometimes makes life difficult for an aspiring designer.
“Bridge is a retail term,”said Susan Lazar. “When you pitch the line, stores ask what you are. We are high bridge. So we’re then bought by a certain buyer and hung in a certain place.
“I don’t agree with the concept, because I think sales would be a lot better if we were placed where it’s most appropriate, based on our quality and fabrics and style. If we’re hung on the bridge floor, we look expensive by comparison, and if we’re on the designer floor, we sometimes have problems there. I think Donna Karan’s D line will help, because it’s also in that higher-than-bridge, lower-than-designer range.”
“I wasn’t that aware of the classification when I started,” said Jill Stuart. She, like Lazar, began as an accessories designer and later launched bridge-price sportswear.
“I like to think of what we do as advanced designer sportswear, comparable to designer diffusion lines. Bridge has a literal origin, as the link between ‘contemporary’ sportswear and higher prices.”
One of the advantages of Stuart’s smaller company, she said, is that she can react quickly to trends that larger companies might miss. And in general, Stuart said she feels stores understand her point of view and her target customer.
“Lines like Jill’s fill the space between two extremes,” said Astrid Martheleur, Stuart’s director of sales.
One store that Susan Lazar feels understands the new bridge market is Henri Bendel, where, she said, lines are grouped more by their point of view.
Bendel’s can do that, said store vice president, genral merchandise manager Angela Ahrendts, because it’s changing its focus from a department store to a specialty store.
“We have a goal and a vision of catering 100 percent to our customer, and she doesn’t know bridge, better, designer,” said Ahrendts. “She knows sportswear, and there’s such a range of prices there. Our customer wants modern classics. Other, larger stores have to cover everything from edgy downtown looks to classics, but we’ve decided we can’t be everything to everyone. We just want to be everything to someone.”
Lines that work for Bendel’s include Lazar, Stuart, Plein Sud, Tocca and the London sportswear collection Joseph.
One big difference between the so-called young or designer bridge companies and the big-name brands is that the latter usually have huge assortments and feel they offer their stores, as well as their customers, “a complete lifestyle” that’s organized to help the time-starved but fashion-hungry consumer put together her wardrobe — fast.
“Our customer doesn’t have time to go over to the underpinnings section to try to find the right undergarment for a sheer blouse,” said Gail Cook, president of Dana Buchman. “If we do a sheer top, we ship it with the camisole.
“Our customer is savvy. She reads the magazines and knows the trends. She comes to us expecting consistency, fit and a designer product at a value price. Lines like Cynthia Rowley, Jill Stuart, Susan Lazar are fashion, and there is a customer for that. It’s a smaller niche. We do it, because it’s working and it sells. But the customer also knows she can come back to us each season and we’ll have a black jacket, if that’s what she needs.”
“Our customer is looking for fashion, but also for innovation,” said Kimberly Perrone, president and chief operating officer of Emanuel/Emanuel Ungaro. “That means fit and quality, but also how the clothes feel. As for trendiness, she wants the latest trend, but she wants investment dressing as well. She’s more willing to part with money for trendy looks if they’re a little less expensive.”
“Designers who have a successful brand have huge lines, with everything from traditional suits to more updated looks,” said Macy’s Bufano. “I think there’s a contemporary customer who’s young and trendy, but we still have to address the bank executive. Look at all those women in the audience at the President’s State of the Union speech. There are still a lot of women who have to dress for work every day.”
“What started as career dressing has evolved into multiple types of product that addresses the needs for many parts of a woman’s life,” said Charles Jayson, president of the Oscar by Oscar de la Renta bridge line. “From Mr. de la Renta’s perspective, that woman is looking for a sophisticated answer to clothing, whether it’s for day, evening or weekend.”
The Oscar designers try to make each piece in the collection versatile, rather than make the line a series of single-use outfits, said Jayson.
“Nobody goes out each season and buys a complete new wardrobe,” he said. “People augment.”
There’s also a price below which a serious bridge company cannot go, said vendors. If they do, there’s a risk of sacrificing the customer’s price-value-style equation.
“It has to be a certain price point, because price is an indicator of value,” said Ronon.
And when vendors switch prices, it confuses the customer. ABS has gone from contemporary to bridge and back to contemporary prices in the last five years; Parallel, which started as a contemporary firm, also raised its prices in an effort to become a bridge resource.
“You really cannot hang a line like Parallel next to Tahari or Ellen Tracy,” said Bufano. “Parallel started as a great contemporary line with great shirts and items. They were one of the first to do the boot-cut pant. But you can’t take what was successful at one price, raise the price of a jacket from $230 to $330, say you are bridge and still expect to be successful. I haven’t had great success with people who’ve gone from inexpensive to expensive. It’s a tough thing to do.”
“It’s confusing now,” said Tracy’s Allard, adding that stores tend to lump companies together. “There’s always a quality issue. Ellen Tracy has always stood for good quality, but that’s not always true of some of the lower-price lines. The boundaries are getting too fuzzy — $175 is too low for bridge, because you’re not offering the quality and value.”
It’s also not a good idea to be too trendy. Elie Tahari, whose signature bridge sportswear line is another mainstay at department stores, feels a lot of bridge companies are veering too much into fashion territory.
“That customer is more sophisticated,” he said. “There is a happy medium here that we bridge resources have a responsibility to bring to the customer. It has to be: (a) quality and (b) stylish. But it has to be affordable. Yes, you can do a $700 jacket if it’s leather and it’s really special. But if you stay around $300 or $400, you will get more value, with beautiful fabric. And because you are buying a great quantity of fabric, you can pass that on to the consumer.”
While the definition of bridge might be a bit loose, most executives are united on one issue: They want a new term.
“I hate the word ‘bridge,”‘ said Tahari. “It sounds so old. We need a new word.”