Byline: Lisa Arbetter

NEW YORK — After a couple of tough years, fleece products are enjoying healthy growth.
The soft fabric with a deep pile, which now comes blended with high tech fabrics and in many fashion colors and styles, has made a resurgence not only among skiers, snowboarders, cyclists and other active folk, but also among those who want something a little nicer than the plain gray sweatshirt to veg out in on weekends.
This popularity comes after a difficult time. In 1993, fleece was doing so poorly that manufacturers were forced to rethink their strategy. They came up with new colors, new styling and more fashion looks. Instead of relying on men’s sizing to reach a female market, they redid their specifications for a woman’s body. Increased cotton content and the use of high tech performance fabrics made the product more useful to the athlete and more comfortable for the leisure-minded.
Today, demand for fleece is so great that many activewear manufacturers have introduced new women’s lines for the coming seasons. Nautilus has launched a performance line and a ready-to-wear line for fall 1995, both made of fleece.
The core line is made from cotton and fleece and is meant for working out. The ready-to-wear line, or the pro line, blends cotton fleece with specialty fabrics such as Lycra spandex to give the clothes a more attractive look and feel.
Nick De Marco, president of Nautilus Wear International, said people prefer fleece pullovers to cotton sweatshirts because they are more useful. The fabric looks nicer and is warmer, making it great for layering, and it also fits into people’s more active lifestyles, he said.
“The post-baby boom market, the largest market, has a health mentality. They wear this stuff all the time,” he said.
The lines have been bought by a few sporting goods retailers, but the big push will come in February at the Super Show in Atlanta, said De Marco.
“Our goal is to get it into better sporting goods stores and department stores,” he said.
De Marco hopes department stores will buy the line because it is fashionable as well as functional.
“All function has to be in a fashion mode,” he explained. “Texture is the most important, and of course, the silhouette.”
Wholesale prices for the core line range from $7 for a T-shirt to $30 for a sweatshirt. The pro line wholesales for $9 for a T-shirt to $35 for sweatshirts and jackets. De Marco expects the fleece lines to generate more than $10 million in 1995.
Reebok has introduced a women’s fleece line that will hit stores in July and August. It uses both a polyester-based, double-sided fleece and, for higher performance, a fleece made from polypropylene. The product line includes pullovers and other tops, but no bottoms.
Jim Riley, vice president of design and merchandising for performance products, said the majority of Reebok’s fleecewear is being bought as streetwear.
“Seventy percent of our fleece products are combined with sanded microfibers, which have a really nice hand,” he said. “It is tremendously durable and wind-resistant and soft — real comfy.”
He added that the product provides warmth, and although it is not waterproof, it can offer some protection against a light rain.
“It is more for cold than for wet,” he said. Although it is too early to predict how well the line will do, Riley said the demand in this area has quadrupled among the company’s major buyers.
The Reebok line will be sold in sporting goods stores such as Herman’s and Sports Authority, he said. Wholesale prices range from $25 to $35.
Nike’s fleece products, which were created more as activewear, are part of its All Conditions Gear line. Fleece plays an integral part in a layering system designed by the company for outdoor sports. In this system, the company uses what it calls Functional Innovative Technology fabrics as the basis for products that are meant to be layered to better protect the wearer.
Therma-FIT, the middle layer, is made from a microfiber fleece that insulates the wearer from the cold. According to spokeswoman Judy Smith, the weave of the microfiber is tight enough to make the garment wind resistant.
The other layers are Dri-FIT, which is worn closest to the body to draw away perspiration, and Clima-FIT, the outer layer, which protects from the elements. The company has also introduced Storm-FIT, a breathable waterproof fabric developed in cooperation with W.L. Gore & Associates that is meant to be worn as the outer layer in extreme conditions.
The company, which has sold unisex FIT products for several years, released performance ACG and cycling apparel for women in the fall. The FIT fabrics are featured in the line, which includes a Therma-FIT pullover and vest.
The line is sold primarily to stores that specialize in outdoor gear. Wholesale prices for the fall 1995 line are $34 for a crewneck pullover, $40 for a half-zip pullover and $45 for a half-zip pullover with graphic.
Active Apparel Group, which manufactures Everlast and Converse athletic apparel for women, has also seen sales of its fleece products increase. As a result, Everlast has added a few products to the line and updated a few others.
“The strongest pieces can be worn working out and onto the street,” spokeswoman Terry Corgey said. One of the company’s hottest products is a fleece boxer for women, wholesaling at $11.75. It is the company’s classic boxer redone in fleece instead of satin. The fleece crewneck sweatshirt also sells well.
For fall, Everlast has introduced a fleece boxer skirt, which can be worn on the street or, if a leotard is worn underneath, in the gym, said Corgey. The demand for texture has also led the company to update its french terry zip-front jacket in sherpa.
Classic colors such as black, gray and white sell best, Corgey continued, but the company expects blues to be big for fall.
The Everlast products are sold at stores such as Sports Authority, as well as department stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s East, said Corgey. Wholesale prices are in the $11-to-$18 range.
Corgey also said Converse is planning a fleece line, although she did not know when it would be introduced.
In department and sporting goods stores, fleece products with a fashion hook seem to be doing well. At Herman’s, fleece in fashion colors has been strong. According to John Hoeffler, buyer of women’s and men’s active apparel, “The fleece category is very good, especially since the weather has been less than cooperative on the East Coast.”
The store carries basic fleece crewnecks and pants and basics in french terry from Russell, as well as some fashion fleece products from Reebok. Most of the products are either 100 percent cotton or a cotton and polyester blend.
Hoeffler would not say how much the category has grown, but did cite color as the key factor. Basic color sales are flat, he continued, while fashion colors are growing. All shades of green are important, he said. He also noted that black is selling less while navy is gaining.
Hoeffler said the customer’s demand for fashion colors indicates that most of these products are being worn on the street.
According to Barbara Bierman, a spokeswoman for J.C. Penney Co., the store’s own Hunt Club brand has fleece basics and more fashionable pieces. Sales of the basics, she said, are up slightly, but those items with a more fashion-forward approach have “taken off.” She described those items as novelty pullovers and shirts with holiday motifs or color blocks.
Tops with cartoons and graphics such as “Tennis Mom” or “Soccer Mom” are big sellers.
According to Margaret Crandell, vice president/divisional merchandise manager for Jacobson’s Midwest, fleece and french terry continue to sell well. In December, the store introduced a line from Los Angeles manufacturer Pieces into a department that is now in transition from juniors to casual contemporary. It included some fleece pieces and heavyweight brushed knits.
“It did exceptionally well,” Crandell said. The store has reordered for spring.