SHEERS SPUR FIBER PRODUCERS
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg, with contributions from Michael McNamara
NEW YORK — As the hosiery market continues to gain momentum at retail, fiber producers are working aggressively to keep pace.
Expanded production and growing promotion of newer products and newer constructions are all part of the package. Looking to spring, fiber executives are banking on a resurgence of sheer business, buoyed by the prominence of pantyhose on ready-to-wear runways this season, along with a continuing upward curve for casual styles.
Spandex is one of the fibers getting increased play, as hosiery construction calling for greater use of spandex for both shape and durability gains in favor.
DuPont, which produces about half of the world’s 160 million pounds of spandex under its Lycra trademark, is banking on its new Lycra 3D hosiery knitting technology to make gains in the sheer market.
In traditional hosiery applications, Lycra is wrapped around only the horizontal rows of nylon or other partner fiber. Lycra 3D, however, is knitted into every course. The partner fiber is surrounded by Lycra throughout the legwear fabric for uniform elasticity.
“The 3D product, we feel, is where the future of hosiery is moving,” said Wally McWalter, DuPont’s director of Lycra, North America. “The 3D product, coupled with the Tactel nylon microfiber, enriches the suppleness and softness for which microfibers are known.”
Although he wouldn’t comment on how much Lycra 3D can add to DuPont’s business in hosiery fibers, McWalter did say, “We wouldn’t be promoting it if we didn’t think it could make a major, major impact.”
As part of its $10 million-plus overall Lycra campaign, “Nothing Moves Like Lycra,” DuPont is featuring 3D in many of its ads.
For Globe Manufacturing Co., which is headquartered in Fall River, Mass., Lycra is the primary fiber. About 40 percent of it is for yarn suppliers that sell to sheer hosiery manufacturers, said William Girrier, Globe’s marketing manager. The company produces 18 million pounds of Lycra annually, he said.
Earlier this year, Globe doubled its capacity by opening a $40 million, 165,000-square-foot plant in Tuscaloosa, Ala., which is already working to full capacity, Girrier said. In addition to improving its production rate, the expansion enables Globe to process items more efficiently, he added.
This month, the company’s directors approved a plan to expand operations at that site by July 1995, a proposal that would increase sheer-related products by 33 percent, Girrier said.
Until 18 months ago, when sheer sales leveled off at retail, the company recorded annual volume increases of 5 percent, he said. Last year, Globe suffered a 10 to 15 percent decrease, a reflection of poor sales generally throughout the hosiery industry, Girrier said.
“Through most of 1993, we were affected fairly significantly in a negative way by the problems in the sheer industry. Consumers were turning away from sheers because of lifestyle changes and dress-down days,” he said. “In June it flattened out, and now sales are starting to come back.”
While Globe is projecting an increase for this year, Girrier declined to say how much.
The company is also working on new fibers, he said, although he wouldn’t elaborate.
“Rather than wait for the hosiery market to turn around, we decided to try to increase our market share,” he said. “That was our answer to the hosiery market. If the market picks up at the same time, that’s great too.”
While relaxed dress codes might have helped contribute to a downturn in sheer pantyhose sales, he said, recent runway looks emphasizing the leg might point to an upswing. Girrier said he was also encouraged by how many hosiery manufacturers are increasing and updating their advertising.
At the same time, acrylic resources are confident that the appeal of casual fashion is only going to strengthen the sock business.
Major acrylic producer Monsanto Co. is aggressively going after the sock business with both its Acrilan acrylic for casual socks and its Duraspun high-performance version of the fiber for athletic socks, said Grace Swartz, sock business marketing manager. The company produces about 13 million pounds of acrylic annually, she said.
In the months ahead, the company, in positioning the fiber to compete against cotton, plans to expand its business by asking knitters and manufacturers for their input about products and needs. Monsanto will tell them about the benefits of acrylic — durability, color fastness, absorption and resiliency, Swartz said.
“The move to a more casual lifestyle should be good for the sock business,” she said. “Retailers, knitters and consumers are ready for new things.”
Duraspun, Monsanto’s high performance acrylic fiber, is used in about 85 percent of athletic socks produced in this country, she said.
In the past year, Cytec Industries, the West Paterson, N.J.-based fiber producer, has seen “extremely rapid growth” for MicroSupreme, its acrylic microfiber, according to Dave Lyttle, director of sales and marketing. Although sales for the fiber accounts for only 2 percent of Cytec’s acrylic business, it should be the driving force in that segment in the years ahead, he said.
Yarn suppliers that specialize in the sock market account for 10 percent of Cytec’s sales, according to Lyttle. For next year, he said, the company expects a 7 percent gain in its Cytec business for the sock market.
Last fall, Jaclyn Smith’s collection for Kmart Corp. featured the first MicroSupreme socks. Great American Knitting, which works closely with Cytec, produces the Jaclyn Smith line of socks.
MicroSupreme products now are featured in Great American’s Arrow for women sock collection at Sears, Roebuck & Co. as well as in J.C. Penney’s Great Feet private label socks.
Gold Toe, a division of Great American, also features MicroSupreme items.
“From our standpoint, MicroSupreme has been the biggest change in the industry in the past year or so,” Lyttle said. “We’re out working with hosiery manufacturers and retailers to get our product placed — whether it’s private label or branded.”
Despite all this activity, some hosiery makers feel there’s still more that can be done — either on the fiber level or on the yarn level.
Said Debbie Hobbs, vice president of merchandising for Hanes Hosiery, a division of the Sara Lee Corp., and its licensed Donna Karan lines, “I’m sure that DuPont and other producers spend quite a bit of money on research and development. But from a manufacturer’s standpoint, we’d like to see more products faster. It probably could never be enough.”
Through customer surveys and focus groups, Hanes employees see first-hand how women respond to new products, she said. “Women are more educated and they demand more,” Hobbs said. “We hear that before the yarn manufacturers because we’re closer to the customers.”
Susan Marchand, vice president of Hot Sox, said most fiber producers are moving forward with high tech and high function products, but yarn suppliers need to be more innovative.
“The hosiery industry is changing. Manufacturers aren’t concerned with just pumping out millions of white tube socks,” she said. “There’s more available in novelty yarns, but yarn services still want you to buy large quantities.”
Marchand said she must travel to Europe or England to place smaller orders in a wider variety of colors.
“They make you buy too much as it is. Hosiery has become more fashion-oriented,” she said. “Most knitters want you to buy 1,000 pounds when you only need 100 pounds.” On the other hand, Ellen Tracy Hosiery is enthusiastic about its decision to develop sheer pantyhose with Lycra 3D. Available in five styles and 11 colors, the new product should make Ellen Tracy a major factor in the hosiery business, said Barry Tartarkin, vice president of private label development for licensee Ridgeview Inc.
“We needed to differentiate ourselves from our competitors,” he said. “One way we could do that was with the product. We chose Lycra 3D with double-covered nylon to offer a better product.”