SOLVING A CAREER CRISIS
Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio
NEW YORK — Call it an identity crisis.
Faced with a still-skittish career customer, long-established moderate and better-price sportswear companies — including Liz Claiborne Inc., JH Collectibles, Carole Little and Bernard Chaus Inc. — are out to revitalize their brands.
Some are increasing prices; others are lowering them. Some are going back to basic fashions; others are going after trends. Whatever the strategy, industry observers say the outbreak of quick fixes for sagging sales is a sign that the tough environment for career apparel hasn’t gotten any easier.
“These companies are realizing that they are going to either have to make drastic changes or have them forced upon them,” said Andrew Jassin, a partner in Marketing Management Group, a consulting firm to the apparel industry. “A lot of these brands were just looking a little tired.”
Here are how some key sportswear players are changing their strategies:
Under new president Normand Neal, 45-year-old JH Collectibles, ailing from an eroding market share in recent years, is going back to its classic fashion roots. After hiking prices 20 percent for fall ’93 and spring ’94, the firm returned to its original prices for fall ’94. For spring ’95, it is launching JHC, a less expensive casual sportswear line that can be worn to the office or on weekends.
Faced with flat retail sales, 131-year-old Pendleton Woolen Mills, Portland, Ore., is updating its suited, uptight image to a more relaxed look for spring ’95. It is simplifying its logo and changing its advertising message to “Dressing for Real Life.”
Bernard Chaus, which has been on a profit slide for a few years, is attempting to reverse its fortunes by going after a more updated customer. Under the stewardship of Andrew Grossman, its new chief executive officer, it is moving from the mid-moderate zone to the upper-moderate area with trendier fashions. The revamped line will be in stores next June.
Carole Little Inc., the 18-year-old better-price firm known for printed separates, has reduced its print offerings for spring, after being hurt by knockoffs from department stores’ private label programs. The company is giving its career collection a more contemporary twist. Its Streetwear line, launched last year to target women in their 20s, is being expanded.
The Leslie Fay Cos. closed its Theo Miles better-price sportswear division last month. It hopes to attract a younger customer with its revamped Nipon Studio line. The firm, reorganizing under Chapter 11, is going to offer more separates in its Leslie Fay career sportswear.
Liz Claiborne has been intensely fine-tuning its sportswear business, which includes Collection, LizSport and LizWear. To turn around its moderate Russ division, it is going after an older customer with knit separates and other relaxed looks that can be worn to the office as well as to the supermarket. It had previously targeted a younger, more fashion-forward customer with such items as wide-leg palazzo pants.
According to industry sources, the career market has been undergoing a metamorphosis for a year or so. One of the major reasons is that many corporations are relaxing dress codes, forcing sportswear firms to offer more options, including knit dresses and the like. In addition, manufacturers fear that continued corporate layoffs and consolidations will have a negative impact on apparel purchases.
The new breed of young workers entering the work force would rather shop for clothes at nontraditional venues — vintage shops in SoHo, for example — than department stores, said analysts. Apparel executives point to the influence of such popular TV programs as “Melrose Place,” whose characters wear slipdresses and jumpers to the office, instead of suits.
The aggressive push by department store private label is invading vendors’ turf, manufacturers say — and analysts agree. They cite specialty chains like Ann Taylor, Talbots and, more recently, Banana Republic, whose fall lineup of chenille sweaters and dresses suggests its foray into career, but with a relaxed twist.
That concept is also reflected by Bebe, a hip-looking San Francisco-based retail chain with 55 units, that outfits several of the characters on “Melrose Place” and is expanding beyond its three-unit presence in New York.
But retailers and vendors agree that the biggest challenge is giving women new but wearable fashion items. Except for such trends as schoolgirl looks and retro styles, there hasn’t been a major shift in fashion that vendors can embrace.
“The biggest competition is women’s closets,” said Debbie Laverell, a sportswear buyer at Philadelphia-based Strawbridge & Clothier. “The merchandise out there isn’t all that new. And women’s priorities have changed. They don’t need to ‘dress for success’ any longer.”
“Women have many options these days,” said R. Fulton MacDonald, an apparel industry consultant, referring to discount stores, vintage shops and off-price stores.
Against this background, companies need to find their own solutions — or risk losing further market share.
“Everyone is trying to find his own niche. We fought and clawed our way to stay in the better-price area, and now we are reaping the benefits,” said Bob Newman, executive vice president at Rafaella, whose mohair sweaters and twill pants are taking over some of the retail space once devoted to Liz Claiborne and JH Collectibles. Jones New York, which has a strong hold in the better market, has benefited from the woes of Liz Claiborne and JH Collectibles, retail sources said.
“In this business, you have to keep watching over your shoulder, and keep freshening your look,” said Norty Sperling, president of 12-year-old Norton McNaughton, which has a strong hold in the mid-moderate zone, along with Koret of California and Alfred Dunner.
To revitalize their brands, some sportswear players are taking a second look at pricing.
After JH Collectibles raised prices by 20 percent for fall ’93 and spring ’94, Strawbridge & Clothier dropped the line, while other major department store accounts cut back on its merchandise. To recapture that business, JH Collectibles is going back to its original pricing. Three years ago, the firm encountered a similar reaction when it hiked prices.
“There is no question that price is a major consideration for our consumer,” said new president Neal, adding that its prices were even higher than the Jones Collection’s last season. “We got into a lot of expensive fabrics, like satin-back triacetate. We were emulating bridge people.” Now, under Neal’s direction, wholesale prices are down 20 percent to $49 for pants and $89 for jackets. Strawbridge & Clothier picked up the line for spring, and Neal said he saw increased bookings for the season.
JH Collectibles is rapidly expanding JHC, a casual line priced 30 percent below the signature line. JHC, which is expected to generate $6 million in its first year, was sold to a limited number of doors for spring 1995, but will be expanded to all retailers for fall 1995.
Chaus is taking a different tack — upgrading its line with its move into upper-moderate — an area currently limited to only a few players, like SK & Co.’s Jessica Tierney and Leslie Fay’s Nipon Studio.
Richard Baker, president of Chaus, noted that in certain key categories, such as pants and jackets, prices would go up slightly. Currently, the average wholesale price of the overall line is $22 to $23.
Defining career fashion has become more difficult. While JH Collectibles officials said they were focusing on classic fashions at reduced price points, Chaus appears to be headed in a different direction.
“The big question is whether the consumer is willing to trade up in price for a more updated look,” said one competitor.
Chaus executives are betting consumers will.
“There is a void in fashion in the upper-moderate level,” said Grossman at the company’s annual meeting this month. “We want to be the leaders of fashion, just like the designer and bridge resources, instead of just following it. We don’t want to just produce dumb jackets.”
To execute the strategy, Grossman fired most of the firm’s design team when he came on board from Jones Apparel Group in September.
“It is kind of like a dictatorship, with me and Josephine [Chaus] reworking the line,” he said, referring to the firm’s chairwoman and widow of its founder. Leslie Fay, on the other hand, is taking a more cautious fashion strategy in reworking its sportswear line, which caters to a 35-year-old-plus customer. It is going after separates, like cardigan sweaters and city shorts for fall 1995 and saving its trendy looks for its revamped Nipon Studio line.
“Our consumer still wants to have career looks, but just softer dressing,” said Richard Kramer, president of the Leslie Fay Sportswear division. “We see our customer pretty much outside of New York, like Knoxville, Tenn. In most cases, she doesn’t wear dresses or skirts that are hiked up dramatically above the knee.”
Pendleton is trying to woo its customer — a woman in her 30s — with classic fashions like pleated skirts and walking shorts, and is relying less on updated looks like georgette and silk items. The firm is taking a more casual approach to career dressing, making a big push for spring 1995, said Mort Bishop, women’s wear divisional manager.
After Pendleton posted flat sales for the past few seasons, partly due to competition from private label, Bishop said bookings for spring have been up 11 percent. He attributes this gain partly to the new merchandising strategy.
“The challenge is to react without overreacting,” he said.
Jacket offerings, for example, are down 3 percent for spring, while knitwear is up by that amount. Pendleton is pushing more color, zeroing in on royal blue and bright yellows for spring. Fall 1995’s palette includes burgundy and hunter green.
The company, which had several logos, is using one simplified blue and white version, which will be marketed with its merchandise for spring ’95. Pendleton’s fall campaign broke in September, in magazines as diverse as Vogue and Southern Living.
Liz Claiborne began aggressively redefining its Collection, Sport and LizWear divisions for fall selling, although retailers said, in general, the merchandise still did not have stellar performance.
“There were some distribution problems,” said one retailer, who wanted to remain anonymous. “There were a lot of unbalanced assortments. For instance, it was drastically short on key bottoms.”
The retailer, which decreased its buy for fall 1994, has higher hopes for Claiborne’s spring merchandise, which the buyer believes looks much better. Claiborne’s runway show featured a number of feminine looks including slipdresses and such retro styles as black Fuji silk-belted shirtdresses.
Career sportswear players are redefining their customer base, too, many of them going after a customer in her 20s with a separate line.
Carole Little, whose career division caters to women in their 30s, is chasing a younger customer with Streetwear.
“It is targeted for people who like to shop at Urban Outfitters,” said Carole Little, co-chairwoman of the firm, referring to the Philadelphia-based retailer that sells mostly vintage fashions. “We decided to get into this line because we realized that there was a hole in our offerings.”
Streetwear is more relaxed and has a more laundered feel than the career line, which features more structured looks such as lined jackets. Little noted that while the career division has had mixed sales results, Streetwear’s volume is “doing very well.” The line was conceived to suit Saturday dressing, but has drawn a different reaction.
“A lot of women wear it for Friday dressing at the office,” she said.
While its Leslie Fay label caters to a woman in her 30s, Leslie Fay’s revamped Nipon Studio, is going after a customer in her 20s through more updated looks, like 19-inch hemlines, and black.
“We are going after Generation X,” said Kramer of Leslie Fay. “It gives us a lot of opportunity and flexibility. With the Leslie Fay line, you have to be very careful. For them, black is something you wear to a funeral.”