Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — Companies in every fashion category are making fast adjustments to weather a downturn for soft goods in the U.S., but the recession also is turning out to be an even more potent catalyst for an evolution already taking place in the bridge market.
The look of bridge departments has slowly shifted from designer-looking career clothes and wardrobe builders to collections that are defined by hot items. This has occurred since the market began to loose its sharp focus in 1997, bested by a more casual work environment and specialty chains like Banana Republic and Club Monaco that made fashion trends more approachable. After several years of retrenchment, department store resources caught on, livening up the bridge category with new labels and products to varying degrees of success.
The category has shown signs of a recovery as a whole, but the economic fallout since Sept. 11 has hit the sector hard, with vendors reporting sales of structured jackets — a bridge staple — as especially weak. As David Guez, president of Votre Nom, said: “Bridge is less of an impulse buy and impulse is what it’s all about. It’s about a quick fix.”
As a result, companies expect sales will become even more item-driven in 2002, led by knits, casual pants and fashion prints and colors. Mark D’Angelo, vice president of sales for Kellwood Co.’s Jax division, called it a “a return to the designer sportswear look of the Eighties.”
The biggest changes won’t be fully evident until fall, since most spring lines were already in the works, but in some cases, manufacturers scrapped entire collections after the downward economic spiral of the last three months, starting over from scratch for spring. Others have made more subtle changes or organizational shifts, emphasizing casual looks and knitwear as the expected volume areas for spring, paying more attention to international sales and taking general cost-cutting measures.
“It’s a bit slow right now, but that’s the condition of these times,” said Dominique DeSentino, a Toronto-based designer who also sells in the U.S. “I expect that people are going to go to colorful, fun prints and items. They’re scared of buying collections. I also think people will be more price conscious and will go toward more last-minute buying.”
While vendors expect stores to continue to plan conservatively throughout the year, there remain some opportunities.
“We’re all used to dealing with hurdles in the fashion industry, whether it’s the weather or the economy,” said Monica Belag Forman, president of Magaschoni Apparel Group, which makes the MAG bridge label.
“Conservative plans could be healthy for the industry, because it makes you really work hard on the product and cut back on inventory. We are selling a lot of casual looks, a lot of knitwear and we are very item-driven right now. We are selling a lot of pants and T-shirts, but we’re also still selling a lot of dressy clothes because people want to feel good by dressing up and living a little.”
Dana Buchman also sees opportunities in the coming year, noting that “spring will be a time for renewal” and that customers may turn to bridge as an alternative to designer and gold-range collections as value becomes a more important aspect of apparel shopping.
There is less emphasis on ballgowns and more interest in festive sweaters and relaxed separates, with collection customers turning toward more at-home entertaining, she noted. Top sellers for Buchman’s casual offerings include printed jeans and soft cotton sweaters.
“Feel-good colors and prints, anything with novelty and texture will be very important for spring,” Buchman said. “War status and the economy are the two big factors that will affect sales. Also, due to heavy Christmas promotions, it’s important to get the customer back to wanting to buy the newest, latest fashion pieces at regular price.”
John Idol, chairman and chief executive officer of Kasper ASL, said its Anne Klein New York bridge business also stands to benefit by a logical trend of consumers shopping with a value-oriented mind-set.
“We think the bridge business is going to see a relatively good season and year,” he said. “Clearly, the customer is shopping for more value. Luxury goods are not going to disappear, but like everything, there are trends and cycles in the world and we’re going to be in one where customers are looking for more value.”
Knit tops and certain pants classifications will be stronger for spring, he predicted, as Anne Klein customers see the first offerings of the newly designed collection under Charles Nolan. It’s a much stronger emphasis on casual looks, representing as much as 60 percent of the line, compared with 20 percent last year.
“The Anne Klein customer has seen a lot of suits from this company, so the idea that we’re going to be giving them sportswear is an important element,” Idol said. “Customers are going to be looking for a lot of value in the product and value doesn’t mean cheap. They want a lot of quality.”
Mariclare Van Bergen, vice president of sales for Eileen Fisher, added that close designer interaction with customers — one of bridge’s long-standing better traits — will become even more important next year.
“We’re staying the course more than anything else,” Van Bergen said. “We’re intensifying our relationships with our key accounts. I have people going on the floor, talking to the sales associates and I don’t see that diluting at all. Our partnerships have strengthened during these times.”
Eileen Fisher is working with flirty, romantic elements with her spring collection, focusing on ideas that represent movement or “freedom.” She also introduced a new viscose crepe knit that has increased shape memory that Van Bergen predicted will be an important element of spring sales.
Donnie Baron, president of Bill Burns, another bridge division of Kellwood, said the company has recently seen the benefits of spreading its account base between department and specialty stores, since sales in the latter category have remained solid. Going forward, Baron is planning to sharpen price points in the separates collection, called Burns.
“In the short run, people might push down a bit and might look at a notch lower, at better-priced merchandise,” Baron said. “But all we need is some good news. Stores are watching their inventories, but as we move through January and February, as they buy fall goods, that’s where you’ll see a gradual change in attitude.”
Jax, meanwhile, has seen its strongest sales coming from its Jax Country division, which is geared toward more casual looks, and a new line it launched last fall called “softwear@jax,” which is a knit-based collection.
“The overall needs we’ve heard from retailers were basically for more lifestyle collections,” said D’Angelo. “The sense of ensemble dressing is dying. They’re looking for items now.”
For instance, softwear@jax has taken on a stronger role in Jax’s career business because it is aimed at softer dressing based mostly in related knits accented with a few woven pieces. Bloomingdale’s has picked up the line in plus sizes, as has Jacobson’s.
From its Jax Country line, nautical and floral prints have been strong items, while green and yellow are the top colors, D’Angelo said, noting that Lyse Spenard, who designs the two collections, has been recently promoted to also oversee the core Jax collection.
“The bridge business, even the higher better-price-point business, has completely changed,” he said. “The women who are buying bridge have also changed. They’re looking for it to be more updated. Her approach is more modern and she is not looking for a uniform. Even the jacket is no longer structured, but softened so that it has more of a lifestyle approach.”
Votre Nom’s Guez said the bridge market will continue to be slow as stores adapt to item dressing. Safari-inspired separates, printed capris and jeans, with an emphasis on stretch, have been top sellers for Votre Nom’s spring collection.
“The best approach is to keep it item driven,” he said. “Customers are not interested in ‘collections,’ much less suitings, but we see a demand for great Ts, knits and novelty sweaters. Our customer wants an outfit, but it’s more casual and less jacket driven, so bridge will be a challenge compared to, say, the junior market.”
While the conditions may not be the greatest, some see 2002 as an opportunity to try out new collections. Following the launch of a jeans line for spring, Guez said he may develop more lines for Votre Nom, in addition to looking for acquisitions.
GM Design Group, the $60 million company that makes Garfield & Marks, is trying a different approach with the launch of “Enough About Me,” a collection of shirts designed by Kojak Martin. It’s a small launch, and GM is treating it as a more specialized business, setting up a showroom in a small studio on West 54th Street, rather than in its 525 Seventh Avenue headquarters.
Joann Langer, ceo and president of GM Design Group, said Martin was tapped to design his own collection after showing a promising start with Garfield & Marks. The new line is priced to wholesale for $55 to $85, and is projected to do $2 million in sales its first year.
“When you have businesses as large as our other divisions, this could have gotten lost,” Langer said. “The point was not to look like some little blouse line that GM put together. It’s not a basic shirt collection. It’s about items that are strong for fashion.”
The name actually came from that concept, as Langer often ended up talking with accounts about herself or more lofty fashion concepts, eventually saying, “Enough about me, what do you think about the shirt?” The line includes frilled styles, ones with Swiss-cheese eyelettes or lace trim in cotton poplin and denim.
Meanwhile, Ted Baker is continuing its U.S. rollout after premiering in 50 specialty stores. The London-based brand, operating as a licensee in North America through Hartmarx, plans a department store launch in spring with Jacobson’s, said Tom Hall, president and ceo of International Women’s Apparel, Hartmarx’s women’s division.
“We’re working with their design in London and our merchandising in the U.S.,” Hall said.
The line is an offbeat collection for the bridge category, focusing on looks more commonly found in contemporary departments, with boldly patterned shirts and lots of stretch materials in pants and jackets.
“We call it a bridging line,” Hall said. “It’s classic in fit, but it’s contemporary in design and bridge in price point. It’s not as forward as some of the contemporary lines, but as traditional as most bridge lines.”

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