DRESS FIRMS PLAY BRAND GAME

Byline: Arthur Friedman

NEW YORK — Taking a page from the sportswear market, dress firms Dani Max and Donna Morgan have discovered the benefits of advertising and image marketing.
It’s no coincidence that at the same time the two companies — each five years old — have emerged as key players in the daytime dress market, said executives from both firms. They said ready-to-wear firms are generally behind the learning curve when it comes to marketing their lines and creating brand equity for their labels.
That’s one reason they feel sportswear firms have been able to take career market share from rtw houses, which have generally operated on the assumption that if they make a consistent product, the orders will keep coming in.
For Dani Max and Donna Morgan, that way of doing business is passe and has been replaced by a more sophisticated approach to competing with the megabrands and the advertising clout they carry.
Since 1992, Lois Snyder, designer and a principal for Dani Max, has taken her firm to the $100 million sales plateau, one of the few dress firms to have achieved that milestone. The company’s rise has been meteoric, with the exception of a blip in 1996.
After posting first-year sales of $3 million, Dani Max recorded a volume of $23 million in 1993, $64 million in 1994 and $87 million in 1995. In 1996, sales fell to $63 million, but are on track to hit $100 million in 1997, said Camille Passaro, director.
“In 1996, the whole dress-down, casual trend hit,” Snyder said. “We were a structured resource and stayed the course instead of jumping on the bandwagon. Now the trend has waned, especially in career. Structure is back; the stores and the consumer know they can turn to Dani Max.”
Originally, the company began with trade advertising and ads on bus shelters around the fashion center to reach retailers.
“After that happened, we went after the consumer,” Snyder said. “We wanted to build a brand name and create long-term name recognition.”
For 1997, Dani Max embarked on its first image ad campaign developed by David Sirieix Inc. With the tag line “Take me to the moon. One Giant Step for Womankind,” the ads show model Anna Shillinglaw in a Dani Max dress adorned with space-age attire standing on the moon.
The ads first appeared last February with a billboard in Times Square, followed by the March issues of Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire and on the side of Academy charter buses. In addition, Sirieix produced a TV spot than ran nationally on Lifetime.
“Lois is designing for a woman who cannot afford to buy a designer dress,” said David Sirieix. “The concept is that if not for Dani Max, there are millions of women who would not have a fashionable, affordable dress to wear.”
With a $1 million ad budget for the year, a new image for fall will run in the October and November issues of Marie Claire and on the Academy buses.
“We don’t want to reinvent the image campaign every six months, which confuses consumers, but instead keep it an ongoing story,” said Sirieix, who is working on a new print ad and TV commercial for spring.
Snyder said she can’t measure the amount of business the advertising has brought in, although the company is seeing a 60 percent increase this year.
“The advertising isolates us because the moderate dress market doesn’t advertise in this vein,” Snyder said. “It puts us in another level in building brand recognition in a market where there really are no brands.”
But the hype means nothing without the right product, Snyder said. About three years ago, Dani Max introduced a rayon and acetate sand crepe that it now sells as a year-round base cloth produced in more than a dozen colors each season.
Snyder, who designed for P.J. Klein dresses prior to opening Dani Max in 1992, said her firm is a rare breed in that it manufactures exclusively in Chinatown here.
“I like the control, and I’m much more comfortable reacting to the trends than trying to predict what’s going to sell months in advance,” Snyder said. “If manufacturing here means working on smaller margins, it’s worth it because it makes us profitable. We can produce a 2,000-piece reorder in three weeks. I couldn’t do that if I imported.”
Produced in misses, petites, large sizes and large-size petites, Dani Max holds major real estate in stores. Its top five accounts are Macy’s, Nordstrom, Lord & Taylor, Hecht’s and Rich’s, said Camille Passaro, director.
For fall, the Federated Department Store and May Co. units are establishing soft shops for Dani Max in the five top doors in each chain, Passaro said. While not quite an in-store shop, the designated areas allow the line to be merchandised as a separate collection instead of being broken up by style or trend, Passaro noted.
About 65 percent of the fall line consists of pantsuits sold in dress departments. The balance of the line, which wholesales for $39 to $59, features coatdresses, sheaths and dress-and-jacket ensembles.
The sand crepe is still a key fabric, but the company has diversified the mix to include rayon and acetate shantung, wool boucle, cotton ottoman knit, burnout velvet and stretch polyester.
For Donna Morgan and Kathleen McFeeters, advertising isn’t as much about name recognition as it is supporting the brand through marketing efforts that allow it to stand out from the crowd and showing stores that it’s willing to invest in consumer-based promotions.
Morgan, who designs the eponymous line, and McFeeters, who is president and chief executive officer, feel the Donna Morgan name was already well known in the dress market from her 15 years as designer for Donna Morgan for Non-Stop. The company was sold to The Leslie Fay Cos. in 1987. Morgan remained as designer until 1992, when she started her own company.
But Morgan and McFeeters felt their better-price career dress line was often overwhelmed by the advertising power of the sportswear brands. So, about a year ago, the company started advertising its social occasion line in Brides magazine and Martha Stewart Living.
Meanwhile, this past spring the company hit a winner with a group of black dinner dresses, McFeeters noted.
“We started delivering it in March, and we sold a lot of little black dresses,” McFeeters said. “Now we’re delivering new styles every month, and the sales have been tremendous.”
Looking to reach the full potential of the “little black dress” trend, the partners hit on an idea to produce “The Little Black Dress Book.” In May they took the book concept to retailers, who jumped at it.
Beginning this month, Dillard’s will be mailing 1.1 million copies of the dress book with the store’s fall fashion catalog. Morgan’s 6-by-4-inch, 8-page book is perforated for easy removal. Dillard’s is the firm’s largest account, bringing in about $9 million in sales this year, McFeeters said.
An additional 600,000 dress books are being mailed to customers of Lord & Taylor, Mercantile Stores, Belk Stores and Parisian. In addition, many stores are using visuals from the book for print ads.
“The stores are so excited that a dress company is giving them promotional support and material to work with,” Morgan said. “I think the big-city women knew the name Donna Morgan. What the marketing does is bring in young women from the suburbs, who aren’t as familiar with the line. Dress firms have gotten away from image building.”
The company has also produced a book for sales associates on how to wardrobe customers with the black dinner dresses and supplies point-of-sale signage for the stores. Morgan said the next step for the company is to develop an ad campaign, which they hope to do in 1998.
Donna Morgan has already booked 47,000 of the black dresses for fall, but is counting on reorders to increase that substantially. The dresses wholesale for an average of $140. Bestsellers include a black crepe column with set-in embroidered waist with pearl trim, and a black crepe fit-and-flare dress with chiffon illusion back and jet-bead trim.
“Even though we import, we are very much a reorder house and can turn goods in four to six weeks,” McFeeters said.
The balance of Morgan’s fall line consists of pantsuits and skirt suits sold in better dress departments. Strong sellers here have been a luggage-tan equestrian quilted challis print jacket and stretch suede pants and a red stretch suede suit with fake tortoiseshell buttons.

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