CHICAGO — In the apparel game here, bridge is winning.
The category is getting a palpable boost from new designer secondary lines such as Bill Blass USA, Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, Look by Marc Jacobs, Isaac by Isaac Mizrahi and KORS by Michael Kors — not to mention established lines such as DKNY by Donna Karan and CK by Calvin Klein.
Showrooms at the Chicago Apparel Center have responded to the growing interest in bridge by introducing such lines as Nicole Miller, Gruppo Americano, Votre Nom and Gispa within the last six months.
Industry observers credit consumer demand for the boom, saying shoppers crave more for their money than ever before.
“Before the Nineties, a $500 jacket was worth $300,” said better-to-bridge sales representative Marshall Stewart. “[Customers] will still spend $500, but they want it to be worth $700. They’re more value-conscious, but still will pay if [the item] is perceived as fashion.”
Stewart, who carries Nicole Miller, Joan Vass and Adrienne Vittadini, among others, turned to the more fashion-driven looks to jump-start his business. He credits them with boosting orders by more than 24 percent in the January market.
“I made a decision to go forward with fashion,” said Stewart. “What drives this industry is fashion…The reason to buy is newness and creativity.”
In one sign of bridge’s growing strength, Dayton Hudson Department Stores has added a new bridge buyer to handle weekend casual looks, bringing the bridge buying team to three for the chain’s better-to-best stores, among them nine Marshall Field’s, four Hudson’s and two Dayton’s stores.
“Our bridge business is so explosive, we are adding a buyer to maximize that trend,” said Mary Hughes, vice president and general merchandise manager for fine apparel at Dayton Hudson in Minneapolis.
Hughes attributes the strength of bridge to the casual movement in the workplace. Many women need a new set of clothes just for Fridays. “If a woman wears Ellen Tracy Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, she’s going to wear Company by Ellen Tracy on Friday. It’s congruent. It’s got the same taste and quality level. Workday casual is saying, we’re all dressing down, and I think it will influence not just Friday, but Monday through Thursday, as well,” she said.
Hughes sees bridge-priced weekend casual looks — such as the shorts, tops and athletic wear pioneered by DKNY — as a boon to sales. “The bridge customer never had that alternative before.”
“We have three wardrobes,” said Hughes. “They are similar in taste level, but women won’t spend the same on them. They still spend more on career, less on weekday casual and significantly less on weekend casual.”
The price/fashion matchup in bridge is naturally suited to specialty stores, said Karin Berger, a multiline rep who has introduced Votre Nom, Gispa and Virani to the market.
“Specialty stores found it to be a special niche,” said Berger. “We did better goods and found specialty stores gravitating to bridge to get a distinct look and stay away from the promotional work of the majors.”
“The woman who is a true specialty store customer wants fashion,” added Berger. “She wants longevity, not fad. You get quality and fashion in bridge.”
Rep Bernice Berg credits the designers with the category’s appeal. “They’ve taken the best components of designer [looks] and put them into bridge,” said Berg, who carries bridge lines, including Iris Singer and Michael Glasser and recently added Gruppo Americano to the mix.
“There is a designer customer, but there are many more value-perceived customers who see bridge as a good buy,” she said.
Like Berg, specialty store owner Terry Aversa said the bridge boom is all in the numbers.
“The marketplace is so competitive [designers] are trying to create the excitement of collection in the mass arena of bridge,” said Aversa, owner of two eponymous shops, a 2,500-square-foot store in suburban Oakbrook and a 4,000-square-foot shop in Milwaukee.
For fall, he will add designer Michael Kors’s new bridge line KORS to his inventory, which includes both designer — Armani, Ferre, Donna Karan — and bridge lines — DKNY, RenA Lezard, State of Montana. As a buyer, he looks for excitement in lines — bridge or designer.
“Quality is important, but also theatrics,” he said. “Is it new? Is it fun? Is there a reason to have it?”
Aversa stops short of saying well-priced fashion will resurrect retail from its recent doldrums, but he did note sales were up 7 percent in 1995.

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