BALANCING PRICE AND VERSATILITY

Byline: Deirdre Mendoza

LOS ANGELES — That pesky moderate consumer is at it again: She wants clothes that are versatile enough to go from work to weekend, she wants some trends — but nothing too fashion crazy — and she wants it at a reasonable price.
This juggling act is compounded by increasing competition on the selling floor for moderate manufacturers.
Wedged between the junior and better price points, moderate makers say the way to win in this market is to eschew the cutting edge of fashion in favor of weekend basics and career suitings, and capitalize on a growing dress business.
“This is a customer 35-plus who doesn’t want to shop in juniors anymore but who wants better-quality fabrics without having to compromise on style and fashion,” said Rosanne Lewis-Bloom, executive vice president of merchandising and sales for Jonathan Martin.
The company’s six-year-old Studio division projects $30 million in sales for 1998, with an emphasis on career and weekend-casual dressing translated to the moderate customer from its other sportswear divisions.
Shaped and fitted shirtings will be key for this division in poplins, stretch, solids, stripes and plaids, according to Lewis-Bloom, in addition to sweater and skirt looks, including wraps, knee-length, side-slit and broomstick skirts. Knit dressing also promises to be important. Related items will range from $12.50 to $35 wholesale, tops from $15 to $20.
“We believe in modern femininity in terms of prints, sweaters, detail and fabrics,” said Lewis-Bloom. “We’re covering items and related separates, and we’re planning to cover natural fabrics such as silk linens, silk twills, sheers and georgettes that are flattering on a lot of women’s body types, but are also structured enough to create a really modern silhouette.”
In-store shops planned for a 1998 launch, select cooperative advertising with retail partners across the country, and a projected $5 million advertising budget for the company overall will help to solidify Jonathan Martin’s position in the market, according to Nancy Mamann, vice president of marketing.
At Ivy Sportswear, a knit-driven division of apparel giant Kellwood Co., Chuck Stein, vice president of sales, said he believes the company can fill the niche for the 30-to-50-year-old segment of the market. This group tends to make cosmetics and shoe purchases at major retailers but favors specialty stores for apparel.
Part of the solution will come in the form of a new pricing strategy tested last fall, which aims to lessen price resistance by undercutting competitive standards for bottoms and knit classifications. Bottoms priced to retail under $40 and knits below $50 will mean a 15 percent discount from last spring.
“The idea is that we’re targeting these $40 or $50 consumers who say to themselves, ‘I love what I see, and now the price is right,”‘ said Stein, who believes the new numbers will impact the entire selling floor.
Kellwood’s Melrose division, retailing at $34 to $48, is an item and separates-driven resource for the moderate shopper. Two-piece dressing and feminine sweaters are expected to be strong for this division going forward, according to Joann Casa, executive vice president and general manager for Melrose.
“The moderate customer today likes to update her wardrobe, but she feels she can buy only one or two items to fill her specific needs,” said Casa. “If it’s a linen jacket, it has to be able to go to work, and be relaxed enough to wear on the weekend.”
Casa said overall, she sees prices coming down in this market, driven by the fact that the customer simply wants more value.
“She might go for a long family weekend or try a new restaurant, and those elements limit the dollars she can spend on herself.”
A Chorus Line’s Molly Malloy line, which estimates $45 million for 1998, has succeeded in defining its niche by developing its own fabrics and offering versatile two-piece dressing to a price-sensitive customer.
“The Molly product differentiates itself because all our sweaters are custom-designed and all our suiting fabrics are done in Taiwan. That’s part of what has allowed us to stand out in a competitive business,” said Devin Rojas, merchandiser for A Chorus Line.
Rojas said moderate manufacturers, like their counterparts in the popular market, are up against fierce competition from branded labels as well as retailers’ private label goods. Items that are career driven, such as chemise dresses with different jacket lengths, will be important for spring, according to Rojas, and the company is banking on long dresses and skirts with sweaters, as well as suitings, to be a hit.
“We have to be flexible enough to accommodate the range of price points that our various major retailers need to hit on the selling floor by category,” said Rojas. “Not only do you have to develop a product that is new, but it has to be exclusively yours — your own prints and styling — while adhering to wholesale price constraints.”
Such items as tank tops, knit dresses and stretch bottoms and tops are planned for One Step Up, a New York-based resource owned by Harry Adjmi.
Brand identity on the floor is key, according to Adjmi, who said he spends his advertising dollars on co-op promotions with retailers. He said his customer, the 18-to-35-year-old, doesn’t want to be on the cutting edge of fashion, but is driven by trends at a price.
“We don’t put as many bells and whistles, but we’re price conscious at retail,” he said. “We emphasize color direction and presentation.”
Crystal Ku, owner of Jumping Joy, a moderate company based in City of Industry, Calif., concurs that fashion basics with novelty or detail drive the moderate market.
“This customer is more fashion conscious than she was five years ago,” said Ku. “If you’re doing stretch linen, you have to give it a different twist. You need to keep creating interest in the line.”
Ranging from career wear to casual, Jumping Joy is sold in departments such as Nordstrom’s Brass Plum. Its distribution is 80 percent specialty store accounts and 20 percent majors.
Ku said items such as “Pulp Fiction” pants and boot-leg cuts were strong and she plans to go forward with a large offering of dresses in varying lengths.
“Balancing fashion with streetwear while making it practical for the office is the challenge in this market,” she added.

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