FASHION FIRST FOR ATHLETIC LABELS

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association expects a single-digit percentage gain for women’s activewear in 2002, similar to this year, after generating sales of $15.8 billion at retail in 2000.
Now, activewear makers have to figure out how to achieve those figures in these unsteady times. The answer for many is to pump up the fashion quotient to attract more women to their brands and stores.
With consumers more concerned about war than exercise, manufacturers are working to validate their products by offering more versatile items and, in some cases, at sharper prices. Slowed down by several sluggish seasons with rampant markdowns, sameness at retail and an onslaught of sharper-priced private label goods, athletic companies are revamping their lines to give them more of a fashion twist, toning down advertising to appeal to a greater scope of women and stepping up merchandising.
Nike, for example, saw first-quarter apparel sales in the U.S. and Europe slide 5 percent. While founder Phil Knight singled out the challenges of the U.S. footwear business and the continuing effect of weak foreign currencies as contributing factors, he still considers the women’s apparel business a growth opportunity.
This fall, the company opened its first Nike Goddess store — a boutique-style shop that focuses on customer feedback — in Newport Beach, Calif., and will open another site in March in West Hollywood.
Nike, along with other major players like Reebok and Adidas, are taking more of a fashion slant, a few years after major designer labels like DKNY Active, Ralph Lauren’s RLX Sport and Prada Sport have established their brands in the activewear market.
Reebok is reaching out to more customers through a marketing makeover and more sportswear-oriented products. Having launched its first major ad campaign in the U.S. aimed at women this fall, the brand will continue to court female consumers through commercials, print ads and its Web site, Womendefy.com.
Jay Margolis was promoted Wednesday to president and chief operating officer of Reebok International from executive vice president and president of the specialty business groups.
Reebok has lightened up its advertising to appeal to gym-goers and non-gym-goers alike. This spring, Brooks Sports will follow suit. The Botthel, Wash.-based company, which has long catered to runners, will unveil an ad campaign with a collage of images that show people on the go at work, at home and at play. Snapshots of flags and children — not exactly hard-core runners’ material — are interspersed in the montage.
These types of marketing measures are being taken even though the SGMA reports that more women and girls are continuing to get involved with sports. Call it a backup plan.
Kevin Monogue, vice president and general manager of sales for DKNY Active, Jeans & Juniors, said some Americans are spending more time at home and want to dress down for the occasion.
DKNY Active will be merchandised with its jeans and juniors, comprising about 25 percent of the mix. This spring, the company will continue to chase its own bestsellers “to get trend-right product on the floor faster,” Monogue said.
At retail, Nuala, Puma’s yoga-inspired line backed by Christy Turlington, is scouting for the “right partner” to open concept shops, along the lines of the one that bowed at Henri Bendel earlier this year, she said. Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue are among the stores doing well with the format, which is “the wave of the future,” she said.
George Horowitz, president and chief executive officer of Everlast Worldwide, was among the executives who noted that many people turn to exercise as a release in tough times. He is confident that women’s apparel sales will continue to gain ground, due largely to better design and in-store events that are helping to get shoppers back in stores.
To create more “synergy between fashion and athletics,” Adidas has given its spring collection a fashion twist, with more prints, striping, special trims and details, said Caroline Kahn, U.S. merchandising manager for women’s apparel.
Preliminary bookings are pointing to double-digit percentage gains, she said. Stores are showing more interest in colors like pastel blue, soft yellow, greens and navy.
Meanwhile, Fila is counting on its line of Settanta red, white and blue tenniswear, reminiscent of what Bjorn Borg wore in his glory days, for a sales charge next year.
As part of its plan to roll out freestanding stores, Fila is scheduled to open units in Paris, Rome and Berlin next year.
Having run the first ad for its apparel last month, New Balance plans to forge ahead with additional ads next year that focus on the brand’s technical apparel. On another front, the spring line has more “trend-conscious clothing,” said Nancy Desrosiers, apparel product manager.
Burton is keeping a close ear to elite snowboarders and amateur riders, who are a crucial part of its product development. In addition, the downturn in air travel could bode well for domestic ski resorts this winter, especially those in the Northeast, according to founder Jake Burton.
“Business is up. It’s not booming, but it’s ahead,” Burton said. “But it’s a little below our expectations.”
Faced with “not the greatest economic conditions,” Willy Bogner, another seasoned executive who caters to winter athletes, said his eponymous company has streamlined operations, changed its sourcing and purchased new information technology services to increase productivity. This winter, special attention will be given to cross-merchandising diverse themes and providing stores with a simpler plan.
Capezio, a maker of skatewear, is counting on a few key figure-skating sponsorships to boost brand awareness. Teenage Olympic hopefuls Sarah Hughes and pairs skaters Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman are now endorsing the brand.
The company, which has been an official supplier to the U.S. World and Synchronized World Figure Skating teams for the past two years, will sponsor the 2002 State Farm U.S. Figure Skating Championships to be held next month in Los Angeles, the last qualifying event before the Olympic games in Salt Lake City.

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