Byline: Karyn Monget

NEW YORK — If a bra is colorful, styled in a new microfiber blend, or features special treatments like lavish lace trims or allover sheer molded cups, it’s expected to be a hot item this spring, say manufacturers.
The appetite for fashion bras follows several years of day-in, day-out promotions of basic bras at from 25 to 50 percent off regular price, vendors say. Major stores have been relying heavily on such promotions to generate the big numbers for their innerwear departments. While commodity items continue to be the meat and potatoes of the business, fashion bras — in the bridge-to-designer price range and typically are sold at full price — are expected not only to add to volume, but to bolster margins as well.
Bras comprised 36 percent of the $10 billion innerwear market in 1996, ringing up sales of $3.6 billion, according to Fairchild Strategic Information Services. During the frenzy of the “buy two, get one free” promotions over the past three years or so, the ratio of basic bras sold against fashion bras was approximately 20 to 1.
But major stores, mainly department stores, have been looking for an angle to entice consumers who increasingly have begun shopping at specialty chains like Victoria’s Secret for lingerie that’s fashionable and fun.
Part of the new formula for spring is the growing number of premium brands, particularly European and Canadian labels, and, of course, big-time designer names such as Calvin Klein by The Warnaco Group and the licensed Ralph Lauren Intimates at Sara Lee Corp. But fashion looks per se are expected to get shopper attention. Women, vendors say, are being influenced by the appearance of lots of lingerie on ready-to-wear runways, giving impetus to the idea that dual-purpose lingerie — items that can be worn out — is a cool way to dress.
Also, it’s believed significant extra dollars are floating around in the economy to spend on luxury goods, and that could well include better-price lingerie.
Jim MaGinnis, divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel at J.C. Penney Co., said, “Basic business continues to be very strong, but we are starting to see some pretty major growth in our fashion bra business.
“The fashion bra business hasn’t been there for about two years, but you have to listen to what your customer is saying now — and she wants fashion.”
MaGinnis added, “It seemed there was so much more fashion in the August market — color and Tactel nylon laces. It probably was the best presentation that I’ve seen.”
Stephanie Zernik, vice president and divisional merchandise manager at Bloomingdale’s, agreed, saying, “I think it’s a response to what the customer really wants. The newness is doing the business.”
Dennis Warden, vice president and general merchandise manager of the catalog division of Frederick’s of Hollywood, said, “Department stores are doing a better job with hangtags than with fashion merchandise and the why to buy.
“Maybe the cachet and excitement of a Frederick’s or Victoria’s Secret appeals to the younger customer the department stores want to capture, rather than the staid ‘Oh, yeah, I bought my bra on sale at Macy’s.”‘
Chuck Nesbit, president and chief executive officer of the Bali Co. unit of Sara Lee Intimates, observed, “A couple of years ago, retailers and manufacturers got burned with an excess of fashion colors. The memory of that is receding, and more fashion color is creeping into the product mix.
“Stores as well as manufacturers are starting to see success of full-price products or controlled promotional products that have more fashionability like Calvin Klein, Bali’s expanded range of Wonderbra products and Ralph Lauren Intimates,” Nesbit said.
Paul Cohen, general manager of Ralph Lauren Intimates for women at Sara Lee, noted, “Color has been very important and will represent 20 to 25 percent of our spring business. We have heard from all of our retail partners that they want more fashion, more color and more newness — as much as they can get.”
“A lot of manufacturers still are doing the ‘buy two, get one free’ business, and it’s not working,” said Richard Murray, president of Wacoal America. “Vendors are being forced to give stores a higher sense of fashion, items with a shorter length of life.
“We also are receiving pressure from retailers to add more color to the Wacoal collection of bras,” continued Murray. “This is the first year we have a promotional style in Wacoal that we don’t anticipate will be a reorder item.”
Murray further noted, “Designer names have taken up a tremendous amount of space at stores. There could be pressure for other manufacturers to do something special and different just to keep up with the competition.”
Tobie Garfinkle, vice president of merchandising at Bestform Group Inc., noted, “Retailers are finding out that what they did last year won’t be enough to make their season. And that applies to manufacturers, too.”
Kathy Reynolds, president of Jockey for her at Jockey International, said, “Consumers are most likely shopping at specialty stores rather than department stores for intimate apparel because they are looking for more fashionable items…women now understand that undergarments are as fashionable as outer garments.”
Some makers, though, believe that the issue of fashion versus basics isn’t so cut-and-dried.
“Why are department store retailers so interested in fashion bras all of a sudden? It’s because they are getting killed by the specialty retailers in the basics business,” asserted Jennifer Buckley, executive vice president of design for French Jenny at Richard Leeds International. “But the basics at specialty chains like J. Crew, Victoria’s and Cacique are snappy looking, too.
“It’s cool to go to these chains to buy your lingerie. It’s not cool to buy it at a large department store, where there’s a sameness in the merchandise and a cold, impersonal atmosphere.”

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