NEW TACTICS IN A TOUGH MARKET

Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — Big and Tall is bad and tough.
The retail climate for large-size apparel, particularly at specialty stores that cater to plus and supersize women, has been grueling, according to veterans of market shows last month in Dallas and Atlanta.
The difficulties have spurred several manufacturers to remake their fashion and pricing structures to improve their bottom lines, and moderate firms are faring the best. And they are looking to the 13th edition of the BAT Woman show in Las Vegas, Oct. 13-15, as an important chance to drum up new business.
One key factor behind the gloomy mood is a bit ironic, said Larry Ross, vice president of California Girl, an 11-year-old Los Angeles manufacturer of career and special occasion separates produced under the Gossip label: Department stores have begun to recognize the growing large-size market and are building departments for those clients.
However, they are placing large orders with a few makers, depressing the business of other manufacturers, several BAT apparel makers charged.
To liven things up, manufacturers said they are attempting to build niches in the BAT market. Some examples of the looks BAT firms are pushing for spring in hopes of drawing retail attention are:
Tie-dyed and hand-painted separates.
Dusty-hued, two-piece knit career dresses.
Blouses accentuated with contrasting embroidery.
Brad Cohen, vice president of Designs by Lanie Inc. in Rockaway Beach, N.Y., said large-sized women are getting bored with the staid and stark fashions that retailers have been offering the past several years.
“That’s one of the reasons sales have gone downhill,” Cohen said. “The glitz cycle is strong again for the first time in about four years.”
Lanie Cohen, Brad Cohen’s wife and president of the $1 million company, added that large-size women are tired of being dressed as if they didn’t want to be noticed. Designs by Lanie features pantsuits, T-shirts and separates tie-dyed and with appliques and rhinestones, and a new hand-painted group in sizes up to 8X. They wholesale from $30 to $70.
“We want to make them feel young, contemporary and just as elegant as the skinny little girls around, and with a little pizzazz, too,” Cohen said.
The company is also showing merchandise from multiple seasons at trade shows and adjusting its production cycle to meet the needs of specialty stores. Some are asking for immediate delivery; others are begging manufacturers to ship smaller amounts. At recent holiday market weeks in Dallas and Atlanta, 95 percent of the firm’s sales were from its fall collection, she said.
“The stores are choked with summer merchandise and the business hasn’t been wonderful, so we’re doing anything the buyers want,” Cohen said.
Larry Ross at California Girl is projecting a flat spring market based on poor business conditions. He said the Gossip line is focusing on more special occasion looks and two-piece and three-piece outfits that can go from day to evening to meet a need he feels is underserved in BAT.
“Brights are always important to large sizes, but we can’t forget their softer side — the dusties and the whites that are appropriate for women who are going to a wedding or a special occasion,” Ross said.
Ross said the company is focusing on meeting the needs of specialty retailers with delayed shipping, and giving them more time to build up their order quantities. While orders are smaller, they are less risky because the merchandise is more closely targeted to the time and fashion needs of the specific retailer.
“It goes right back to Retail 101,” added Paul Eagleston, sales associate for the $60 million firm Eminent Sportswear, which produces BAT apparel under three labels: Harbour Vue, Lisa Ashley and Victoria Harbour. “You’ve got to have the right merchandise at the right price at the right place and time.”
Eagleston said that although the retail climate continues to be tough, Eminent has had some recent successes with cotton shirts, dress bottoms and turtleneck T-shirts at moderate prices. The company has received early fall reorders for those items, which Eagleston said is a positive sign.
Eminent has been able to lower prices slightly, he said, because by owning its production facilities in Hong Kong and China, it can maintain tight cost controls.
“We’ve made it more affordable. It’s hard to keep prices down, but hopefully the stores will pass this on to the consumers to increase their sales volumes,” Eagleston said. “It’s paying off nicely so far.”
Casual cotton shirts embroidered with contrasting trim are selling well and have been carried over into the company’s spring Harbour Vue line. Velvet trim in black or brown on blue chambray have been particular hits.
Moderate firm Linda Kay Designs in Chatsworth, Calif., is faring better than most and expects an upbeat market, based on initial reactions to a line of embellished tops and dresses that go to size 8X. Key looks are V-neck tops in subtle shades of burnt orange and dark kiwi, with bolder gold foil adornment and animal prints going into holiday, said Judy Plasky, administrative director.
“Plus-size women happen to look very good in it and they’re comfortable. Women that are special sizes don’t want to be treated differently than size 9 women,” Plasky said.
Addressing the fashion needs of special-size clients by including looks that pick up on the same trends shown on Seventh Avenue has been a key factor in keeping business healthy at the 19-year-old firm, she said. Another factor has been the firm’s consistently moderate prices.
The House of Ross in Dallas has eliminated a selection of evening gowns and high-end apparel that sold for up to $300 at wholesale because buyers have been focusing on moderate-priced apparel, said Joan Ross, principal.
“People are just not dressing that way anymore,” she said. “It’s not that people don’t have the money, it’s just that they’re spending it on other things, like college education or vacations.”
For holiday, the company is concentrating on chiffon, polyester and cotton blends in dresses, knits and sportswear that wholesale up to $40. Brocade vests and decorative collars that attach to a plain T-shirt or dress have also been bestsellers.

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