Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — With legwear posting solid retail gains this fall, the spring market here last week had an almost festive atmosphere.
Items that used to be considered fringe — such as thigh-highs in patterns as well as sheers, over-the-knees and knee-highs — have emerged as bestsellers and are expected to continue to sizzle through spring. Tights continue as a strong business, and sheer pantyhose, which has been through some tough times, is showing signs of a comeback, according to some retailers.
“The good news for spring is that it’s everybody’s market,” said Gail Pisano, senior vice president and general merchandise manager at Saks Fifth Avenue.
The bright mood seemed to generate a lot of order-writing.
“It’s a much easier sell this season,” said Harold Malisow, vice president of sales for K. Bell, a Culver City, Calif., socks and tights resource, reflecting the general vendor enthusiasm. “This time around, the buyers aren’t asking, ‘What is it?’ They’re asking, ‘How many can I get?”‘
K. Bell has manufactured knee-highs for the past 10 years, and orders have never been stronger, according to Karen Bell, president.
During the first three days of market week, she said, the company sold 3,200 dozen pairs of beefy cotton and nylon knee-highs for spring. In October, the company shipped 6,500 dozen pairs of flat-knit cotton and Lycra spandex knee-highs.
“From the end of August through the end of the year, we should have sold about 35,000 dozen pairs of knee-highs,” Bell said. “That’s not bad for a category that used to be a sleeper.” From the retail point of view, Pisano of Saks noted that casual legwear sales this fall have increased 30 percent, helping to compensate for a slight drop in sheer pantyhose sales. In the past few weeks, though, sheer pantyhose sales have picked up and are expected to strengthen in the months ahead, she said.
“There should be a resurgence in sheers,” Pisano said, attributing this to the expanded colors, including pastels, in ready-to-wear. “It used to be, the more black the better. For spring, that’s not going to cut it.”
Saks has increased its spring hosiery budget by a double-digit percentage, Pisano said. Thigh-highs and over-the-knee socks by DKNY, Ralph Lauren and Armani are among the key items. In terms of sheers, Wolford and Donna Karan are top sellers.
“At Saks, casual legwear will continue to grow at a steady pace, but we expect the sheer business to provide a healthy balance,” Pisano said.
Thigh-highs are setting the pace in a strong legwear business at Macy’s East, according to Jennifer de Winter, senior vice president and general merchandise manager.
For fall, the company is projecting low single-digit percentage increases for sheer sales and double-digit percentage increases for socks and tights, she said, adding that both categories are the strongest they have been in three years.
White slouch socks, thigh-highs and anklets should be bestsellers this spring, de Winter said. DKNY, Calvin Klein’s CK, Gold Toe, Hot Sox, Hue and American Essentials generate most of the fashion item business, she said.
Boot socks and tights are pushing sales at Dillard Department Stores in the Southwest, according to Stephanie LaSalle, Phoenix-based buyer for 24 stores in that region. Gold Toe, Leggale, Liz Claiborne and Hue are important vendors, she said.
For spring, LaSalle said she’s looking for more novelty items, such as crocheted socks, in white and pastels. Fall sales for thigh-highs and knee-highs have been spotty, which she blamed on the hot fall weather in the Southwest.
Dillard’s athletic socks business is “tremendous” all year round, she said, and Gold Toe’s white crew socks and slouch socks, which wholesale from $1.75 to $3, are bestsellers.
The company’s sheer business is “tough” compared with last fall, but she said two new lines for her stores, Hanes Smooth Illusions and DKNY’s sheers, have been doing well.
LaSalle is optimistic about spring business.
“The spring shoe market is geared more for socks and sheers,” she said, noting a trend to more high heels and away from mules and clogs.
Thigh-highs, knee-highs and textured tights should continue to be bestsellers for spring at Windsor Fashion, a 24-unit chain based in Windsor, Calif., according to Tracy Penoncello, buyer.
“The legwear business is the best it’s been in a couple of years. I don’t think it’s going to drop after the holidays — it should be even better in the spring,” she said. “We’re going forward with a lot of the same styles from fall. There’s a lot of fashion.”
K. Bell, Hot Steps and Maxwell Hosiery are key resources for spring. With retail prices for thigh-highs ranging from $5 for Hot Steps to $16 for Catherine Cole, said Penoncello, there is no price resistance for fashion looks, she said.
The company’s sheer pantyhose business is slightly better than last year’s. Windsor Fashion carries one style of its private label sheers in three colors. Three-pair multipacks that retail for $12 generate most of the sheer business, said Penoncello.
She buys most of her legwear through Los Angeles sales representatives, even though she attended November market to buy other accessories.
Several sheer pantyhose resources noted they are gearing for a comeback at retail. At Hanes Hosiery, a division of the Sara Lee Corp., the company’s Smooth Illusions brand pantyhose was leading spring sales, according to Debbie Hobbs, vice president of merchandising for Hanes and its licensed Donna Karan lines. Hanes is planning for a high single-digit percentage increase for spring, Hobbs said.
DKNY sheers and lightweight opaques, Donna Karan’s control pantyhose and body stocking, and Silk Reflections Casuals were other important items during spring market, Hobbs said, adding:
“We got a strong response to the cosmetic tones in the Donna Karan line. There’s a lot of optimism about sheers with the return to glamour in ready-to-wear.”
One of the lines making a strong push is Ellen Tracy Hosiery. With twice as many offerings as last year, spring sales for the line should double compared with last year, stated Barry Tartakin, vice president and private label development for licensee Ridgeview Inc. Sheer pantyhose, matte microfiber over-the-knee socks and lightweight tights should be important for spring, he said.
To highlight its Ellen Tracy sheers with Lycra spandex in every course, Ridgeview has guaranteed to replace the product if customers are dissatisfied with the fit, look and durability under normal wear. Dyed to match Ellen Tracy’s sportswear, the sheer collection features five styles in 11 colors, including control-top, shaper, bikini-top, sheer-to-waist and thigh-highs. “The new product is durable enough to wear all day, but sheer enough to wear at night,” he said. “This should make us a major factor in the sheer business.”
Available in three styles and 13 colors, over-the-knee socks should contribute 30 percent of spring sales, Tartakin said.
Aiming to keep tights in stores 12 months a year, the company is offering lightweight matte microfiber tights for spring.
Among vendors of casual fashion, Hue, which early this year was licensed to Kayser-Roth Corp., is planning for a 20 percent gain for spring, according to Pat McNellis, director of business development for Hue.
The 68-piece spring collection is twice as large as last spring, she said, and includes new items in thigh-highs and over-the-knee socks.
“Sales of tights and over-the-knee socks are stronger than anyone projected,” McNellis said. “Most of the retailers I’ve spoken to have seen fall gains from 20 to 40 percent.” Socks shorter than anklets should enhance sales, she added, and open-work items will be important in all lengths, she said. At Giorgio Armani Calze, the 50-piece collection is 20 percent larger than last year, and the company is planning for at least a 20 percent gain, according to William Bell, president and chief executive officer. Bell attributed part of the projected gain to increased offerings in anklets and trouser socks at the line’s opening wholesale price point of $3.50.
Armani has also added four styles of over-the-knee socks and thigh-highs. Lightweight microfiber tights at $6.30, short anklets in popcorn stitch at $4.50 and matte shine knee-highs at $3.60 are other key items for spring.
With fall volume 35 percent ahead of last year, the company is confident about business, he said.
“This is the first time in two or three years that retailers have come into market feeling so optimistic and buoyant about business,” he said.

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