Byline: Anne D,Innocenzio

NEW YORK — Sportswear’s new zone — upper moderate/lower better — has been gaining ground as more players enter the fray.
It’s described by vendors and retailers as a more sophisticated taste level for an under-40 consumer who can’t afford bridge but has an appetite for trendier fashion.
And, despite the downward slide in apparel pricing, these vendors are confident this new market tier will support increases of 10 percent over traditional moderate prices.
Upper moderate/lower better is filling a perceived void between the more traditional misses’ labels, like Alfred Dunner and Norton McNaughton, and the better-priced career labels typified by Jones New York and Liz Claiborne, according to observers.
Capitalizing on a shopper with a young attitude who has been snapping up fashion-forward clothes at The Gap while bypassing department stores’ moderate offerings, these vendors are banking on a simple formula: Increase prices and scrap the dowdy two-piece dressing and the beaded trim designs in favor of leather vests, retro-40s dresses and pencil skirts.
A key player in this trading up is the giant Bernard Chaus Inc., which, as reported, has pushed its fall merchandise into the upper moderate category with updated designs.
Others are chasing the same market.
Nipon Studio over the last two years has raised price points by 5 percent and will include fashion-forward items like leather vests with knit backs, angora-blend dresses and shiny raincoats.
SK by Jessica Tierney began its makeover strategy under former president Glenn Palmer and now is being fine-tuned by new president Lawrence G. Lessne, a former president of Cynthia Steffe.
Pamela B., a year-old moderate sportswear firm, is unveiling an updated line called Walter and sells pencil skirts and tank dresses slightly higher than its Pamela B. label. The merchandise in this zone is priced at 20 percent above mid-moderate and 20 percent below better-price goods. Retail prices for a jacket, for example, would top at $120, while skirts would go to $68 and pants to about $70.
“Moderate department stores have been looking a lot more traditional than updated,” said retail consultant Arnold Aronson. “But in order to win back their more fashion-forward moderate customers, apparel firms have to emulate the successes of the specialty stores. There’s been a terrific business that has been developed by the Norton McNaughtons and others, but now there is a need for a new dimension. I see a major reengineering of moderate departments.”
In the past, fast-forward clothes at department stores were merchandised through bridge and contemporary departments, which are too expensive for the moderate customer. That shopper was then stuck with basics, whose looks have been geared primarily to the older woman.
With Chaus unveiling its new look for fall selling and others jockeying for position, stores are being forced to rethink how they’ll create a new level of moderate merchandise. Said one buyer, who requested anonymity, “Stores who do a big business with Chaus can’t put it next to traditional resources any longer. It just won’t survive. They have to come up with a new plan.”
Federated Department Stores, including Bon Marche and Rich’s, is revamping its moderate departments for fall to give them a more expensive feel, observers noted.
Macy’s at Herald Square also is reportedly looking to create a new space for upper moderate on the second floor. Already the company has moved Chaus away from the traditional moderate labels, like Dunner and McNaughton, and repositioned it next to Liz Claiborne.
A spokeswoman at Federated, Macy’s parent, would only say, “Since Chaus has rethought their zone, so are we.” She declined to elaborate and said that no orders have been written for the new area, as of yet.
“The whole category is going to explode, and people are going to wake up,” said Walter Baker, president of Pamela B., which opened for business in January 1993. It began offering traditional career designs under Pamela B., but has now launched Walter for fall selling. The line under the Walter label touts more fashion-forward looks at 25 percent higher price points.
“Manufacturers are trading up as consumers are trading down,” said Bryant Phillips, vice president and general merchandise manager for Belk’s Stores Services, which for fall selling is combining Chaus, Rena Rowan for Saville and other resources in a separate area. These lines will be adjacent to the better departments.
He pointed out that the trend is paralleling what is happening in the better/bridge zone with vendors staking out a new category called “young bridge” or “much better.” Price points for much better are about 20 percent higher than better and 30 percent below bridge prices.
With this upper moderate/low better zone still new, there is little consistency in merchandising. And vendors emphasize that mixing their merchandise with sources sharing the same look and price point will be key to their success. They’re counting on Chaus to shake things up.
Take SK & Co., where executives say the company got burned when stores mixed its newly revamped designs with the traditional knit sets by Alfred Dunner.
“Even with our makeover, we were stuck with the other traditional labels, like Alfred Dunner and Norton McNaughton,” said SK’s Lessne, adding that sales were disappointing this past year. He is counting on the new move to spur sales for fall 1995, projecting a 15 percent increase to $45 million for 1995.
“We didn’t do that well in stores that housed us in the more traditional moderate department, but when we were relocated next to better, we did well,” said Richard Kramer, president of Leslie Fay sportswear, which includes Nipon Studio. He’s counting on substantial increases in Nipon Studio’s fall line.
Baker of Pamela B. expects sales to double to $50 million for 1996 from this year’s projected volume of $25 million.
To accommodate its growth, Pamela B. is moving and expanding on June 1 into a 7,200-square-foot showroom at 525 Seventh Ave. Pamela B. currently operates a 1,000-square-foot showroom at 1407 Broadway and a 4,000-square-foot design studio at 148 West 37th St.