ADAPTING TO CHANGING TIMES

Byline: Karyn Monget

NEW YORK — The big story at this month’s early fall market wasn’t exclusively fashion and new product. It was flexibility, the type of adaptability that’s laced with a good dash of bravado on the part of manufacturers, which ultimately will separate the winners from the losers in a highly competitive year ahead.
Retailers are mulling over ideas and strategies, and orders aren’t expected to be finalized for the next several weeks. But the stakes continue to be high: Budgets reportedly are being increased for brands that performed well. The top-selling categories include novelty cotton knit and flannel pajamas and robes, feminine-looking sleepwear that has a look of lingerie, panties in a plethora of fabrics and dual-purpose daywear items.
However, makers of labels that generated lukewarm results, particularly basic bras and shapers that have a commodity image, are literally sweating bullets. Furthermore, there were a number of resources — fashion and basic — that were off-target when it came to sharper prices, and prints and colors for the savvy shopper who wants more than the same nightie or brassiere she bought the prior year. Many department store retailers are dubbing these resources “flatliners.”
The financial woes of discounters such as Bradlees, Wards and Ames began taking their toll on smaller, independent and mid-size companies at market week. As a result, some makers noted that they will go back to their roots and begin selling on the road again.
Following an overall disappointing Christmas season at stores in many apparel categories, sleepwear, robes and at-homewear reportedly fared well, although foundations floundered under a sea of promotions.
While January typically is a market devoted to major warmwear programs and what has become the bane of manufacturers’ existence — demands for markdown money — this year’s edition set a precedent with a strong turnout of major retailers.
This time around, though, the main attraction wasn’t another rollout of a concept collection or an updated version of last year’s best-selling item — it was a focus on the best two or three items within different groups. The general idea was a melting pot of key ideas that may be merchandised together as a concept or displayed independently.
The idea, however, is viewed by some manufacturers as “confusing,” reflecting the frustration of a number of retailers who may have misjudged the demand for big-name megabrands and sprawling in-store shops.
Among the new concepts introduced for early fall was Cruz, a collection of moderately priced sleepwear and at-homewear with a contemporary edge. The branded and private label line is produced by Kefko, in which Josie and Kenneth Natori are partners.
Kathy Nedorostek, president and chief operating officer of Natori Co., who oversees the Cruz line, said, “As expected, it has an outstanding response. It’s what the stores have been looking for from us. It’s a collection that’s very modern in spirit, and prices with which stores can reach more of an audience for broader distribution.”
Nedorostek said key looks included conversational and trend-driven prints, such as updated animal prints, a strong color presentation and new fabrics like a cotton peach twill. Key items were pajama sets that mixed two fabrics, such as fleece and flannel, and solid robes and pajamas in fashion colors.
She said Cruz and the Natori collections were seeing double-digit increases in orders.
Jeanette Cantone, senior vice president of merchandising and design at Natori, said, “We came off a very strong season at stores. Prints have been very important in the Natori white label and Josie lines. In Natori, Japanese-inspired and geometrical prints did well. Key colors were deep coral, ruby with navy accents and heather gray.
“The Josie line continued with Japanese-looking prints but in a prettier, flirtier look. Top colors were pinkish red, coral, lilac, heather gray, and black and white.”
Cantone further noted that big shirts by Natori white label feature more detail and were “big items. Casual knits in cotton and Modal also were big ideas.”
Carole Hochman, president and design director of Carole Hochman Designs Inc., noted, “I don’t think there is a store or manufacturer in America that’s not challenged with a number of issues today. Now, it’s much less collection based. Retailers are buying into categories and they are categorizing regarding what is the best each one can offer. We are a very strong knit pajama resource for fall.
“Retailers are not so interested in buying an entire group — they’re interested in buying out of a group, like a pajama from one group and a robe from another. I don’t think it will be a glamorous period at retail. I think there is a lot of confusion, and it’s because there isn’t that much success in apparel sales at stores.”
Greg Holland, vice president of sales at Charles Komar & Sons, said, “Stores are moving back toward fashion a bit more. We had a nice [fashion] increase for spring, and I think we’ll see a similar increase for fall. If you have the right product from a fashion point of view, the customer will pay more for it.”
Holland added that the licensed Eileen West sleepwear collection was well received.
“We continue to have good response to the fashion portion of the [licensed] Liz Claiborne, accounting for 25 percent of orders,” Holland said. “For spring, we’re in basic reorders for items in knit and oven cottons.”
Victor Lee, chief financial officer of NAP Inc., said, “We were very pleasantly surprised at the market turnout, and I was impressed by the overall upbeat nature of the department and specialty store buyers. They said sleepwear, robes and loungewear performed pretty well for them, particularly items that were special and distinctive looking.”
Lee further noted, “Retailers wanted anything different, special items in our three lines — Anne Lewin, NAP and our licensed Crabtree and Evelyn. Overall, we were pleased because we were among the vendors who performed over Christmas.”
But Rosa Chamides, president and an owner of Madison’s Best, a moderate-price leisure dress resource, said the upcoming demise of discounters like Bradlees, Wards and Ames, made her market week “tough.”
“I’m a survivor. I’m lucky, because my biggest account, Sears, came in and placed their usual orders. But I plan to go out on the road and sell. There’s always a silver lining somewhere.”

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