Byline: Karyn Monget

NEW YORK — At-homewear has become a dilemma for innerwear retailers at department and major specialty stores. In one breath, they say how great it is, and in the next, they complain they don’t know what to do with it.
Retailers generally acknowledge that the classification — featuring primarily easy, dual-purpose items such as pull-on pants and coordinating tops, zip-front loungers and caftans, and little Empire dresses — has lots of potential.
There has been plenty of talk among retailers and vendors about how ready-to-wear styling and fabrics, primarily cotton knits, have made the classification a sought-after commodity among consumers and updated loungewear (the traditional term for at-homewear) and robe departments .
But at the same time, at-homewear is going through a metamorphosis similar to that of activewear. As at-homewear links lingerie with casualwear, activewear links performance wear with casualwear. Both categories are fighting for space and attention, as retailers ponder how to merchandise these dual-purpose looks, and where to house them.
The confusion, say retailers, is compounded by the fact that the current top fabrics in both the at-homewear and active areas are the same: thermals, fleece, jersey and novelty cotton knits.
As many retailers see it, at-homewear is going through an identity crisis.
Furthermore, innerwear merchants indicate that their efforts to try to build the business can become a political issue, putting them in conflict with other apparel areas and running into resistance from top management, who for years have seen sportswear as the big growth area. Thus, most stores continue to house their at-homewear in confined spaces in innerwear departments that typically are not found on rtw floors, and when downsizing of space occurs by management decree, robes and at-homewear are often the first to suffer.
While most merchants continue to deliberate on how to deal with the at-homewear enigma, Neiman Marcus made its move in November. The specialty retailer dramatically downsized its assortments of at-homewear vendors — in some cases, eliminating longtime vendors such as Periphery Inc., which subsequently went out of business — and relocated items that had a look of activewear into its casualwear department.
At-homewear generated annual sales of between $6 million and $8 million in Neiman’s stores division, say sources. But the classification is reportedly much stronger in the company’s catalog division, racking up more than double the sales done in the stores. Sources credit this to the catalog presentation, which shows how a product can be worn for different lifestyle needs.
While declining to cite any figures, Leslie Freytag, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel at Neiman Marcus, said, “There definitely is a need for this product, and we need to give it a name. But in terms of housing it in the intimate apparel department, you have just so much space.”
Laurie Black, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel at Nordstrom, Seattle, said space was her main concern.
“The whole issue of loungewear is such a touchy one — I want to keep [the merchandising of the classification] tight,” said Black. “Loungewear business has been pretty good, but I only have so much space for it in the sleepwear and robe departments.
“I want to have a fashion robe and loungewear business, and designer sleepwear business. With loungewear firms like Periphery out, I’d rather expand robes.”
Sheila Aimette, fashion director of accessories, intimate apparel and other areas at Macy’s East, said, “At-homewear is continuing to evolve, and it’s now become a classification within itself. I think the classification has become important, but the next wave will be to know how to merchandise it correctly and where to put it.”
Aimette added, “We know our consumers have become more aware of at-homewear looks. I think it’s because people want items that give more options and longevity.”
She noted, though, that Macy’s has no signage for at-homewear, and the category continues to be ensconced within robe departments. Activewear items, such as sweatsuits, continue to be housed in a sportswear area, dominated by private label, called Young Collector.
Aimette singled out several top-selling styles and brands of at-homewear: Calvin Klein’s cotton knit leggings and big slouchy shirt; thermal pajamas by Michael Kors At HomeWear by Boutique Industries; woven silk or linen pants and tunics by Mina Koo, and woven cotton tap shorts and a coordinating bra top by Guess.
At Saks Fifth Avenue, Teri Gakos, divisional merchandise manager of intimate apparel and hosiery, noted that Saks is waiting until March before finalizing its fall plans for at-homewear, which could see more resources represented in the innerwear department.
“The expanded number of at-homewear vendors remains to be seen,” said Gakos, “but we are looking to expand with vendors who are inspired by ready-to-wear.
“There’s definitely an opportunity for us here, and we are looking to explore thermals, fleece, [polar-type] fleece, and cotton knits for fall,” she said.
Gakos described Donna Karan Intimates by Wacoal as a “key” at-homewear resource, and Michael Kors At HomeWear as an “emerging new vendor” for Saks.
“We’ll wait to see Natori’s new at-homewear line for fall selling at the March market,” she said.
A 30-year veteran of the retail innerwear business, Rose Marie Marranca, buyer for Jennss, a four-unit chain based in Amherst, N.Y., is one retailer who believes she found a solution some time ago.
She noted that Jennss started advertising at-homewear as leisurewear six years ago, when two-piece jog suits of nylon were brought in.
“We call it leisurewear, because at-homewear or loungewear tells a woman it’s only meant to be worn in the house,” she said.
While there is no store signage identifying the department as leisurewear, this business through the years has been “very good, and that’s because every spring through fall, the whole department looks like a leisurewear or active department,” Marranca said.
It also helps that in a smaller store the innerwear department is on the same high-traffic level as sportswear and rtw.
Marranca further noted that Jennss will create for the first time a combination swimwear and leisurewear area within the main store’s second-floor sportswear department in March.