Byline: Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK — Last spring, faced with a selection of less-than-appetizing trendy looks and high tech fabrics plus a span of unseasonably cool weather, shoppers had little relish for the bridge market.
This spring, manufacturers are hoping to whet their appetites with an influx of luxurious fabrics, neutral colors, fewer edgy trends and more femininity.
“The product looks really grown-up,” said Joseph Greco, president of Gruppo Americano. “This spring is a dramatic departure; last spring was so high tech and slick. This is feminine, pretty and even the career looks have a softer edge. There are sheer fabrics in every category.”
“Our product is more sportswear-driven and the assortment is broader [than last spring],” said Kimberly Perrone, president and chief operating officer of Emanuel/Emanuel Ungaro. “We’re looking at items that can stand on their own, such as knitwear and novelty items.”
But manufacturers are not just banking on improved fashion to bulk up their business. Gruppo Americano has introduced a suit and a dress line, while Emanuel will put in separate in-store boutiques for its casual line, Liberte. It will probably introduce a separate dress division for fall selling.
“When you make a bridge product, there are only a handful of people you can sell to,” said Greco. “You have to look for new opportunities to do business.”
Dana Buchman is going to start packaging separate orders for individual stores within a chain, so that two stores in the same area will have different-looking merchandise.
“We will be tailoring our assortment to different stores,” said Buchman, co-designer of the bridge line that bears her name, as well as the Dana B. and Karen casual label.
“That way, when you go into different department stores, the assortment won’t look the same. Part of bridge’s problem is that it’s been oversaturated. This will not only suit her needs, but also the visual experience, the display, will help stores, because they will look individual and more interesting.”
Andrea Jovine has pushed back its delivery dates, so that merchandise is shipped to the stores in a more seasonal way that the company hopes will improve full-price sell-throughs.
But fashion is what customers will see first, and that has undergone a transformation from last spring, say executives.
“We are revamping our approach to spring,” said Elissa Bromer, president of Andrea Jovine. “After last year’s disaster, we have no place to go but up. Everything about last spring was wrong, and I’m talking about the entire bridge market…the color palette, what we shipped in February, March and April. The whole bridge market didn’t serve the customer. There’s this vision of who she is and what she wants, but then there’s the reality.”
Bromer said Andrea Jovine is putting the emphasis back on knits, especially feminine looks with texture, such as crochet. She’s also concentrating on working with the footwear, eyewear and hosiery licensees to present a coordinated package to retailers.
“We are going to work with our customer, we are going on the weekend with her,” said Bromer, whose colors include classics such as navy, pastel pink and yellow, and white.
In fact, the bridge market has moved back to classic tones such as navy, white, black and brown, and while color is still important, it is either a proven classic such as red, or an unaggressive pastel.
Tahari continues to increase its use of stretch fabrics, said chairman and designer Elie Tahari.
“Stretch is so comfortable, and it looks so great,” he said. “We’ve sold a lot of the stretch pant style that women are wearing — the low-rise, boot-cut style — but in the last few weeks I’ve seen that change to A-line, knee-length skirts, which I think will be even more important during spring selling.”
The suit is making a comeback, say manufacturers, and Tahari said he has incorporated stretch there as well.
“It isn’t so much that suits are back, as that women are more coordinated,” he said. “Plus, they can wear a sexier suit because stretch is so comfortable, yet it looks great.”
“The suit business has been weak for a couple of years, but there’s a renaissance of interest,” said Greco. “Whether it’s the leg shape, or the skirt length or the proportion of the jacket to the pant, the key is to introduce a sportswear element into suits. One of the most important looks is the knee-length jacket, a coat really, over a trouser, or a jacket over a dress. There’s really a tremendous amount of interest in fashion for suits, as opposed to the lady in the pillbox hat.”
And, added Greco, suits are convenient.
“My wife has two young children,” he said. “She likes being able to go to the closet and be able to put two pieces together without thinking about it.”
“A suit has always been an important backbone of a woman’s wardrobe, and we’ve never given that up,” said Emanuel’s Perrone. “But it needs to be different. It needs to be able to work back with the rest of the wardrobe in an easier way. The shoulder is a bit stronger, and has more shape. The lapels are a little pointy, but paired with softness in the fabric. Also, the underpinnings, whether silk, chiffon or knitwear, put the accent on femininity and sophistication. The looks are closer to the body, there are a lot of seam details, and the textures are new. There are sparkle, stretch, Lurex, matte and shine looks that play off each other.”
Convenience is another point manufacturers are trying to address. In addition to stretch fabrics, which fit and pack well, companies are using lighter-weight fabrics that are wearable at least nine months a year.
At Emanuel, for example, fabrics are softer and lighter and neutral tones predominate, accented with colors such as pinks or red, said Perrone. There are some fashion touches such as metallic or iridescent looks as well.
“Fabrics are much more luxurious, even more so than they have been in the past,” said Perrone.
Those include soft lightweight wools, silk and linen and high-twist cotton. Many have Lycra spandex in them — not to give apparel a high tech edge, but rather to add comfort.
“There’s a lot of versatility,” said Perrone, noting that several styles are planned for day-into-evening looks.
At Gruppo Americano, Greco said his fabrics include “a tremendous amount of natural linen and cotton fibers, but blended with viscose.” That changes the yarn so that fabrics have a traditional, natural look and feel but don’t wrinkle or require the same level of care they once did.
“I think there is an enormous amount of new fabrics on the market, and that’s where a lot of newness comes in, but the fun and excitement come when we can interpret them to a softer, more feminine look,” he said. “The high tech look of last spring is sort of limited as to how you can style it.”
Knitwear, a category that has been growing for several seasons, is still “on fire,” according to Buchman.
“It’s become the foundation of the career women’s wardrobe,” she said. “It can be layering pieces, and it’s a bit more relaxed than blouses and travels well. Or it can be knit dressing, in a long sleek cardigan over a skirt. If you are packing for a business trip, they’re great. These foundations have to do everything; they practically have to cook and sew.”
Knitwear has become about 25 percent of Emanuel’s total business, she said. Perrone noted that Emanuel will probably introduce a separate dress line for fall 1998 selling.
Emanuel’s casual line, Liberte, will break out into its own in-store shops, said Perrone. Since its introduction last year, Liberte had been sold adjacent to Emanuel.
“It’s reaching for the existing customer as well as a younger customer,” she said.
“We’re finding a resurgence of interest in different thicknesses of yarn,” said Greco. “We’re doing a lot of crochet. You can do a tank top and a cardigan in a lacy yarn, and put it with a sheer skirt, and you have a very elegant way of dressing.”
Other yarns at Gruppo Americano include linen, cotton and nylon blends.
But all the prettiness in the world won’t matter if the customer isn’t enticed, said Buchman.
“Clothing today is competing with other things, like cars and mortgages and vacations,” she said. “Our jobs as designers is to beguile and enchant the consumer into falling in love. We have to do two things at the same time: design clothes that are perceived as classic and timeless, but also new, to give her a reason to buy. That’s the mandate, and the key to success.”
Dana Buchman has added new silk fabrics to its spring line that “can be worn 12 months a year, travel well, look rich and have drape but aren’t blowy,” said the designers. The company’s other strong direction is color. “We have found it to be one of those emotional purchases — but it has to be colors [the customer] is familiar with, such as chocolate, navy and black that mix well.”

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