Byline: Marc Karimzadeh

NEW YORK — Legwear need no longer trail behind other accessories classifications when it comes to the finer things in life.
Luxury fibers, long a major selling point for upscale fashion and accessories companies, is now gathering momentum with some legwear vendors, too. For fall, many are offering a range of precious fibers, such as cashmere, cashmere and silk blends, and angora, as well as natural fibers like cotton. Many of these luxury fibers have a much softer hand, and in legwear, they are a departure from traditional nylon hosiery and cotton socks.
Part of the reason luxe has turned into a volume opportunity for vendors is its overall buzz across various categories. Industry executives said the economic boom in the Nineties has made Americans more aware of what defines quality and luxury.
“Luxe is definitely a key word for many products, and the interest also extends into legwear,” said Regina Littles, national sales manager at Gerbe. “Even as you see the stock market plummeting and people pulling back with spending, the true luxury market is still open and available.”
Another factor is the resurgence of legwear in the past year, driven mostly by fishnets, and colored and textured tights. Their unexpected success has made many vendors, retailers and consumers view legwear as another way to accessorize and update a wardrobe. But although some of the wilder fashion items are driving sales, some consumers still shy away from them. Luxury fibers are one way for more conservative consumers to pay special attention to their legwear.
According to legwear executives, some of the key issues with luxury fibers are:
Comfort: While fibers such as cashmere and silk feel soft and desirable, that does not necessarily mean comfort. To ensure they stay up and retain their shape, many vendors were required to work out ways to blend the fibers with nylon or Lycra spandex, for example.
Durability: Many luxury fibers are more fragile and require extra care by the consumer, who in pure luxury fibers such as cashmere may even have to dry-clean them. Blending the luxury fibers with nylon or Lycra has strengthened the durability.
Marketing and Point of Sale: Whereas fashion prints and colors are visual, luxury fibers often rely on customers touching the item. They must therefore be sold in open-rider packaging, which clearly explain the luxury aspect. Alternatively, vendors would need to educate sales executives and encourage retailers to display them in a consumer-friendly way.
Many noted that the demand for something a little more exclusive also stems from the recent success of luxury in other accessories areas.
“Even people who don’t make so much money are saving for luxury, and the pashmina wrap did a lot for that. It brought awareness of cashmere and silk to consumers,” said Deborah Boria, executive director of design and merchandising for Hanes Hosiery, which holds the licenses for the Donna Karan and DKNY hosiery lines.
“If she finds those yarns in something like a pashmina, she will look at the casual sock and think ‘I can have luxury feeling at a lower price point,”‘ said Pat McNellis, president of women’s brands at Royce Hosiery Mills, the maker of the Nine West and Dockers hosiery lines.
With demand on the increase, vendors were able to develop luxury fibers with recent technological advances.
“Americans are looking for more quality, and technology has enabled us to mix the natural fibers with high-tech fibers, so that you don’t just get the comfort, but you also get the performance and soft hand,” said Karen Schneider, president at Wolford USA.
Many executives agreed that recent developments in technology have boosted the growth of luxury fibers in legwear.
“[Technology] can now spin yarns so delicately so that you can [use] precious yarns and the tiny needle allows for the yarn to be a fine enough gauge for hosiery equipment,” said Hanes’ Boria.
While the issue of technology has been resolved for finer luxury fibers, many vendors said the high prices may deter consumers who are looking for an item they often only wear once and then wash.
With Nine West, for example, McNellis said it was necessary to maintain a price policy that related to the rest of the brand, and therefore, luxury was interpreted in new yarn constructions, such as nylon and Lycra spun in a special way to give it a crepe feeling, or a chenille yarn that feels like velvet.
However, pricing is not necessarily an issue with some of the more upscale lines.
“The customer who is paying premium price for luxury merchandise will tend to care for it in a way that’s different from just a pair of nylon opaque tights,” said Gary Wolkowitz, president of The Hot Sox Co., which holds the license for Ralph Lauren and Lauren by Ralph Lauren socks.
Many vendors seem to believe that luxury adds another dimension to legwear departments, further boosting consumer interest.
“What helps is that often these kinds of luxurious products are the ones featured in catalogues,” said Hanes’ Boria. “It’s also a great gift item. People tend to buy a gift for a person that they wouldn’t buy for themselves and luxury is part of that.”
“A young woman who would think of traditional hosiery as something her mother wore would be attracted to something more casual and natural,” said Wolford’s Schneider.
Retailing may be a little more difficult, since luxury fibers often don’t have the added advantage of prints shouting to be bought. Often, it’s up to sales staff to get customers to touch the items and help them understand the luxuriousness and extra care required. Hot Sox, for example, has extensive seminars teaching sales executives about the fibers and how they should be cleaned.
Wolford’s Schneider said: “You have to rely on salespeople to communicate the trend. It is important to have [styles] displayed so that the customer can touch and feel them.”