A NEW FRONTIER: ‘MUCH’ BETTER
Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio
NEW YORK — A new category is beginning to gain ground in the sportswear market.
Capitalizing on two current consumer characteristics — a reluctance to spend a lot of money and an ever-increasing fashion savvy — a slew of companies have staked out bridge-style merchandise at price points that are about 20 percent higher than better and 30 percent below bridge lines.
They’re referring to the category either as “much better” or “young bridge.”
Retail prices for these labels are about $250 for jackets, while pants top out at $150, and skirts at $120.
The clothes, manufacturers say, are aimed at women in their 30s and 40s who want career looks, but with more updated styling than what is being offered from the more traditional manufacturers. At the same time, these designs are not as funky as contemporary merchandise, which is known for its casual, less structured California style.
The roster includes such firms as Finity, formerly a contemporary item resource, which reopened two years ago as a career sportswear collection; Harriet Parker, the one-year-old career sportswear division of New Frontier; Pacific Silk, a silk-based resource that now offers about 20 percent of its merchandise in bridge fabrics like 30-momie silk, and Shoshan Roland, a three-year-old Hong Kong-based silk and linen sportswear company that started marketing its label in the U.S. two months ago. “It’s a new catch-phrase in the industry,” said Nancy Roberts, a sportswear buyer at the Doneger Group, a buying service here that claims it coined the phrase “young bridge.”
“I started seeing the trend over the past year,” said Roberts. “This is an exciting new opportunity that retailers are beginning to get into. It gives a style and taste level that customers want, at a value price.” “I’ve been smelling the trend for some time now. And the time is right for a much better category,” said apparel industry consultant R. Fulton MacDonald. “It is bridging bridge and better. Contemporary is just too fashion-forward for the customer, and bridge has had its problems because of its pricing. The real big issue is how will retailers market it.”
Manufacturers agree that merchandising their labels at the department store level has been challenging. While the lines are getting space in stores, there’s no consistency to where they are being housed. While retail prices are 20 percent above better-price merchandise, the look does not fit in with the traditional better collections, such as a Jones New York or a Liz Claiborne. “Right now, there is no real home for my line at department stores,” said Howard Sheer, president of New Frontier, which unveiled its Harriet Parker line a year ago. The line, the career counterpart of New Frontier, features a lot of relaxed shirtjacket looks, bias skirts and short A-line skirts in such fabrics as rayon and acetate blends as well as wool tricatene.
“Some stores have us in contemporary, some have us in updated sportswear, and some put us near bridge,” said Sheer. “It is a hard call. Our line is more updated than better merchandise, but we don’t have anything too scary. People are not going to freak out because of the fashion. We don’t even touch the new knee length.”
He added that about 75 percent of his business is in specialty stores, with 25 percent in department stores.
Finity, which became a career sportswear resource two years ago, also had difficulty finding a home in department stores.
“When the line first reopened, we were bounced around a bit, from contemporary to better to bridge,” said Arlene Tynan, president, managing director and principal of Finity, who bought the company name from the original owners, Stanley and Ricki Stern, in 1992.
The company had been operating for 17 years until its owners closed it in 1991.
“Now, we have our own shops in Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale’s on the bridge sportswear floor,” said Tynan. “It was confusing to retail buyers. We were too much fashion for the better departments.”
The line offers such fashions as long shaped brocade vests, novelty silk crepe jackets with braid trim and organza flippy skirts.
At Saks Fifth Avenue, such labels as Finity, Albert Nipon Studio, Episode and Citi are grouped in one corner of the fourth floor, which also features such higher-priced bridge labels as DKNY and Company Ellen Tracy.
Neiman Marcus has been developing its own higher-priced version of the category over the past three years at all 27 units, according to a spokeswoman. Labels include Gruppo Americano, Item, Episode and Dana Buchman.
“It is filling the gap between better sportswear and bridge,” said Liz Barrett, a spokeswoman at Neiman Marcus, which houses these labels on the same floor as designer and bridge sportswear. “We’ve been quietly calling it ‘much better’ among ourselves.”
She added that the area is doing well, but wouldn’t reveal figures.
“It is helping us attract and keep young working women,” said Barrett. She added that these lines are at the opening price point of bridge. For example, retail prices for jackets from Item and Episode range from $250 to $350, while DKNY blazers go for over $400, she added.
Meanwhile, this new breed of resources in the “much better” category is making some inroads. Sheer of New Frontier said that the company’s Harriet Parker line is expected to generate about $3 million by the end of the year, with projections of about $10 million to $15 million by the end of 1996.
Officials at Shoshan Roland said they expect the line to generate about $3 million in the U.S. this year and double that for 1996.
“Our strategy is to get it into the specialty stores first, and then into department stores,” said Dennis M. Weinstein, vice president of Shoshan Roland, who has teamed up with his wife, Marsha R. Weinstein, to sell the line to stores here.
The line, designed by Roland Shoshan, who is based in Hong Kong, also sells to stores in Hong Kong and Europe.
The collection includes such items as celadon silk jackets, which wholesale for $52; cream silk crepe blouses for $37, and waffle silk pants for $45. So far, such specialty stores as Ceko in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Kay Fitzpatrick in Evansville, Ind., have bought the line for early spring. Finity generated sales of $25 million for 1994, and company officials expect a 20 percent increase for 1995. Tynan also noted that it is planning to open a petite division this year, based on strong retail response to the regular-sized line.
“We are below bridge in terms of price, but we are offering the appeal of the bridge product,” said Tynan. “We are aiming at a customer who can’t afford bridge, but doesn’t want Liz Claiborne.”
Still, Tynan believes that retailers have to catch on to the new category more aggressively.
“There are a lot more of us around,” she said. “And retailers are going to have to find a real home for us.”