MORE FOR THE FITNESS CROWD
Byline: Karyn Monget
NEW YORK — Creative marketing, a diverse product base and expanded distribution overseas are expected to keep bodywear in the plus column next year, say makers.
And perhaps the most important factor is a broad range of consumers who are increasingly aware of the need to keep fit, whether in their teens or over 50.
Bodywear throughout most of 1995 has shown gains ranging between 5 and 10 percent, vendors indicate, considered good in view of the general retail sluggishness. They hope their efforts in offering a growing array of stretch items — primarily dual-purpose looks that give the consumer the perception of added value — will push figures ahead again in 1996’s first half. Most are looking for another round of gains in single digits, although some say they expect increases as high as 20 percent.
Many of these items, such as bike shorts and bra tops, are part of what manufacturers are calling a collection concept, stretch items that can be layered under activewear pieces of jersey, fleece and cotton thermal.
The continuing uncertainties of the overall retail scene still cloud the picture somewhat, executives acknowledge, and the troublesome dilemma of where to house bodywear persists, primarily at department stores. The merchandise is newly turning up in innerwear departments as well as in being in activewear or casualwear, while some stores are keeping it in its traditional home in hosiery areas.
However, as they look to next year, executives are singling out several niche areas where they can build business next year. Ideas include:
* Selling bodywear on the Internet.
* In-store shops at department stores.
* Creating more dancewear and active looks geared for teens.
* Providing dancewear items for smaller, mom-and-pop operations that now exclusively sell dancewear to differentiate themselves from the bodywear inventories of mass giants like Wal-Mart Stores and Kmart.
* Overseas distribution, where some firms are finding that Seventies disco looks of shiny Antron nylon and Lycra spandex are in a comeback. These looks are said to be important in Latin America, Japan and the Pacific Rim countries, primarily Australia.
One of the key worries for some manufacturers is the unsettled climate in the mass market, which over the years has become an important channel of distribution for bodywear, taking it away from small specialty shops in towns nationwide.
Gary Dembart, chief executive officer of the Sara Lee Bodywear unit at Sara Lee Corp., said he generally felt “very optimistic” about bodywear business with department stores and sporting goods outlets in early 1996. Sara Lee distributes the Champion Jogbra brand of bodywear to department stores.
He noted, however, that the outlook at mass channels appeared dicey.
“Mass retailing is not healthy,” said Dembart, citing both the Chapter 11s among many firms and “traffic in general.”
“We are cautiously optimistic at best,” he said. Sara Lee distributes two bodywear labels to mass merchants: Hanes Her Way and the newly licensed Spalding name.
Key trends for the Sara Lee bodywear operation in 1996 will include a push on more synthetic fabric blends; computer-generated graphics, and matte silver accents, especially on athletic, racer-inspired goods.
Particularly upbeat was Mary Ann Domuracki, president of Danskin Inc., who predicted, “Our [bodywear] industry will flourish next year.”
“One very important reason is health care, a worldwide issue. It’s the number one issue on people’s minds today — no matter what age they are,” she said. “Staying fit is already being marketed by doctors and the health care industry as the number one solution to health care costs.”
Domuracki said, “More people will be exercising, and they will therefore need a lot more fitness apparel.”
Domuracki, who noted that spring bookings are up between 10 percent and 15 percent for the Danskin brand, divided the anticipated demand for more fitness apparel into two “extreme” classifications: stretch apparel in performance Lycra blends for die-hard athletes; and easy, laid-back items in Lycra blends of jersey or Supplex nylon with Lycra for less strenuous activities, such as walking.
“There’s no middle of the road anymore,” she continued.
Alan Shapiro, vice president of marketing at Jacques Moret, said, “I think the industry will see single-digit increases.” Moret, he noted is projecting to go “slightly ahead” in the first half. An expanded assortment of control bodywear items by Moret’s successful Power Support group is expected to be a part of sales gains in early 1996, he said.
Gilda Marx, co-chairman of Gilda Marx Industries, Los Angeles, forecast the general business outlook will continue to be tough for stores. A reason, she said, is because the department stores “all look alike, and they are not enticing the consumer to shop.”
Hot sellers for Marx this year have included Trixi, a better junior line of stretch apparel that has a ready-to-wear look, and a Breathables line of sports bras and coordinating panties, she said, and she expects them to continue.
At Active Apparel Group, Rita Cinque, executive vice president, singled out in-store shops at department stores, a move into fashion magazine ads and gifts-with purchase as top strategies for growth in 1996. The gifts-with-purchase will include sports towels, rubberized key rings with a toggle, and neck packs.
Active Apparel produces bodywear and activewear under license for Converse and Everlast.
As for key trends next year, Cinque singled out color, logos, Lycra blends with polyester, and anything that gives waist definition, such as hip-hugger capris.
Reflecting the growing interest in foreign markets, Scully Campana, vice president of sales at Attitudes in Dressing, makers of BodyWrappers bodywear, said, “Our business overseas is terrific, especially in Japan. Retailers from the Caribbean and South America are coming back to buy bodywear again after 20 years. They’re looking for the shiny Antron and Lycra bodywear that was hot in the Seventies.”
Campana also noted that the firm plans to market and sell its BodyWrappers bodywear on the Internet within the next six months. As for other niche areas that are expected to continue to grow, he singled out dancewear for teens, as well as smaller specialty shops.
“Our teen business is very strong in the South,” he added. “We do $1 million a year.”
Steven Rapp, vice president of Eurotard, Atlanta, noted, “Aerobic wear is very hot right now in the Pacific Rim countries.” Eurotard also began distribution to Russia in November.
The opportunities to grow business in Russia are endless,” he said. “Russian women want every bit of style, just like their American counterparts.”
As for how U.S. retailers are handling the bodywear category, there are mixed opinions from makers.
Marx of Gilda Marx Industries, said she believed retailers were generally “confused.”
“Macy’s/Bullock’s merchandises bodywear in its Personal Best bodywear area, while J.C. Penney merchandises it in its misses’ active department. Then, sporting goods stores merchandise bodywear in women’s fitness areas.”
Susan Fixel, designer of bodywear and activewear under the Susan Fixel Collections and Proformance labels at Activewear Corp. of America, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., noted, “The perception of bodywear [at department stores] is that it is limited to fitness and aerobic activities. We believe the bodywear category needs to be housed in the active sports apparel area of all stores.”
“It’s going to be an interesting year,” said Shapiro of Jacques Moret, as stores continue to experiment with where to merchandise bodywear.
“I think the sporting goods stores are not confused about what to do with bodywear, because they have one general women’s apparel area.
“But department stores never got a handle on bodywear — is it a sportswear thing or hosiery? It dovetails nicely with hosiery or intimates, but they [department stores] continue to merchandise it seasonally, and move it around daily.”
Michael Levinson, president of Weekend Exercise Co., San Diego, said, “We believe that there is a prime spot in sporting goods stores, department stores and specialty stores for a true women’s athletic apparel resource, and we intend to keep our place in that spot.”
Levinson noted that the firms labels, which include Marika, Aerodynamics and the licensed Baryshnikov lines, are housed in four areas at various department stores — activewear, sportswear, swimwear and hosiery.
Domuracki of Danskin characterized the puzzle at department stores this way: “The biggest challenge for everyone in the industry will be floor space and a consistent message. It doesn’t matter where bodywear is housed — just keep it there and advertise it so the customer can find it.”