LICENSING: BEYOND THE FUNNY PAGES
Byline: Wendy Hessen
NEW YORK — With items ranging from Bugs Bunny charm bracelets to Tampa Bay Lightning rhinestone baguette pins, accessories firms are looking to untraditional licensing ventures to foster growth.
This type of niche licensing seems to be particularly popular in the jewelry segment, which has been experiencing tough times in core markets.
Three firms that have taken the novel-product licensing route — Robert Lee Morris, Lowell Inc. and Fantasia — have embarked on new deals in areas that, while not readily associated with accessories, have high recognition with the public: professional sports, consumer magazines and movie studios.
In addition to creating a new source of revenue, going into business with large organizations like these can give a vendor access to a huge promotional and marketing machine — way beyond what most accessories companies ever have at their disposal.
These corporations provide a wealth of knowledge about their customers and their buying habits, as well as the deep pockets needed to promote products on a national scale.
“Accessories business has been tough to count on these days,” said designer Robert Lee Morris, “and I see this mixing of the worlds of fashion, art and pop culture as an interesting chance to give my touch to these characters that are so entrenched in our history.”
A self-described fan of comic book superheroes for years, Morris said he viewed working with Warner Bros. as representative of the growing trend to blend the worlds of art, culture and consumer products, as well as a chance to have some fun.
His 100-piece collection of sterling silver jewelry, belts, small leather goods and tabletop and desk accessories inspired by the Warner Bros. “Looney Tunes” characters and D.C. Comics “Super Heroes” premiered here earlier this month at Warner’s flagship at Fifth Avenue and 57th Street.
This is Morris’s first venture into accessories licensing. The closest he came was a nine-year collaboration with Donna Karan for jewelry, which ended in 1992. In addition to his own collections of jewelry, handbags and leather goods, he has a license for tabletop and decorative items with Swid Powell, and, through a joint venture with Swiss Watch Corp., is developing a signature watch due to hit stores next spring.
The Warner Bros. line runs the gamut, from sterling silver rings in the shape of Batman’s wings and a Bugs Bunny charm bracelet with rabbit ears serving as the links, to a Super-Hero concho belt bearing each of the D.C. Comics’ hero logos. There are even pewter Wile E. Coyote letter openers and Elmer Fudd platters.
Karine Joret, vice president of marketing for Warners Bros. Worldwide Retail, said, “Bringing Robert Lee Morris into the world of Warner Bros. has been exciting for both of us. We really wanted him to give his own interpretation of our characters, which we feel will provide an ongoing source of delight to our customers.”
The line is sold in its own 30-square-foot mini boutique in the store’s third-floor gallery and retails for $50 to $1,500. It is exclusive to the Warner Bros. Studio Stores and will be rolled out to a dozen locations in early December, Joret noted. She declined to give a sales projection.
The Warner Bros. stores do feature some high-priced clothing and accessories in addition to original and limited-edition artwork, but very little of the current accessories assortment retails for more than $120.
Joret acknowledged that Morris’s prices were higher than those in the store’s typical assortment, but said she believed the line “has enough diversity in product and price points to appeal to a wide range of customers.”
Moving from rabbits to rinks, Kevin Topper and Dena Lowell, owners of the now-closed Topper + Lowell jewelry showroom, have combined their lifelong connection to professional ice hockey with jewelry.
After the collection was successfully tested at the Tampa Bay Lightning arena store, where $75 rhinestone baguette pins shaped like lightning bolts sold rapidly, the National Hockey League asked Topper and Lowell to expand the number and type of items.
Under the name Lowell Inc., the collection features pavé, enamel or gold-plated pins, earrings and bracelets that incorporate team names, logos or replicas of hockey paraphernalia. Topper says they are as appropriate for suit lapels as they are for jeans jackets. The collection wholesales for $3 to $200.
The line is sold in team and arena stores and in catalogs, and Topper hopes to expand next spring to additional distribution channels such as department stores, national chains and home shopping networks.
“Jewelry is one area that’s strictly geared for women, that is sophisticated and not cutesy,” said Fred Scalera, vice president of Licensing for the NHL. “A lot of decisions in purchasing hockey merchandise are made by women, whether buying for themselves or someone else.”
Although the NHL season has been postponed because of a labor dispute, the league was in a boom period, and had been considered the fastest-growing of the four major professional sports in the U.S., in attendance and licensing sales.
U.S. retail sales of NHL licensed merchandise have increased from $150 million in 1990 to more than $1 billion in the 1994 fiscal year ended last June, according to NHL Enterprises.
Also providing a potential boost for female-specific accessories is the fact that women make up 41 percent of the game’s fan base.
Fantasia Accessories, a mass-to-moderate costume jewelry and hair accessories resource, unveiled its line of fashion jewelry for Cosmopolitan Magazine during this month’s accessories market, according to Maxene Pollack, project director for the firm.
The jewelry collection, the first for Cosmopolitan, is geared to the “Cosmo girl” lifestyle, and will include career, casual weekend and trend looks, as well as an evening component, Pollack said, at wholesale prices of $4 to $35.
This will be the latest addition to the magazine’s current roster of licenses in 21 product categories in the U.S. and overseas, noted David Graff, vice president and director of brand development at Hearst Magazines.
Cosmopolitan’s brand extension program, which began about seven years ago with an ophthalmic frame license, now accounts for about $80 million in annual retail sales, Graff added.
He credits the licensing growth to the ongoing recognition of the Cosmopolitan cover images and to a loyal and style-conscious following among women 18 to 34 years old.
In addition to eyewear, other accesories licenses include handbags, watches and shoes. Distribution is directed at opening-price levels in department stores and national specialty chains.
The hair accessories line is scheduled to bow at the January accessories market, Pollack added, and will include pieces that coordinate with the jewelry line. Both lines are sold through Mary Esta Carr International, an accessories sales firm here.
Fantasia produces licensed children’s jewelry and hair accessories for cartoon characters from “Barney,” “Looney Tunes” and “The Flintstones.”
While retailers have been slow to commit to novelty accessories ventures, they do acknowledge that such products can spark consumer interest.
Martha Phillips, fashion development coordinator for Spiegel, said the catalog house has featured a designated area in its catalog for the last two years called the Sportshop. She noted that licensing “is still a huge untapped area.”
She added that catalogs could be better distribution channels for these new products, “unless a department store has a specific home for them.”
Spiegel’s Sportshop concentrates on apparel and home merchandise, but does include some fine jewelry and fashion watches with team logos.
Kim Anderson-Curry, divisional merchandise manager for accessories at Sears Roebuck & Co., said, “We would consider all new avenues of business, although Sears does have some presentation limitations as far as jewelry goes, since we don’t have case-line presentations in all our doors. But these new areas sound very creative.”