Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Nike is at it again.
The sneaker giant is trying to upgrade its image with the less athletically inclined by injecting a serious shot of fashion for fall. Plaids, halter tops, low-waisted pants, geometric prints and clam diggers might not sound too cutting edge, but they are fairly forward for the activewear market, a bastion of basics. Even mannequin-type displays, something Nike recently set up in its New York showroom, are unusual for this segment.
The fashion bent is something that Nike has tinkered with off and on. But now the brand sees more opportunity outfitting women outside the gym — 24-7. That was the word from Heidi O’Neill, general manager of U.S. women’s apparel, during last week’s dress rehearsal for a fashion show for Federated buyers at the Nike showroom on West 18th Street in Manhattan.
She and other female executives described the brand as performance-oriented, but not so sports specific. The aim is to broaden distribution in better specialty stores and departments stores, as well as sporting goods operations. Mindy Grossman, who joined Nike as vice president of apparel in October, is spearheading the game plan.
The fall line has its share of performance features such as stretch pants and shorts with pockets for keys, inhalers, IDs and nutritional bars. There’s even a jacket that folds into a backpack, shorts with Illuminite panels for running at night and a top with a translucent pocket on the stomach for the wearer’s road race number.
The current “success” of the brand’s women’s apparel line at retail has triggered calls from boutique stores interested in checking out fall looks, O’Neill said. For the first time this spring, Nike showed its goods during market week instead of ahead of it, and that helped sell-throughs.
This spring’s 10 bestsellers for women’s apparel — lifestyle silhouettes in performance fabrics — are priced 15 percent higher than the rest of the line, O’Neill said. The average wholesale price is $20.
The computer glitch that Nike founder Phil Knight cited earlier this month as a major cause for the company’s projected shortfall for third-quarter earnings did not affect women’s apparel, according to Clare Hamill, vice president of the women’s division. The software problems were reportedly linked to the implementation of a new supply and demand planning system for footwear.
Set up in August, the women’s division aims to give the brand a more cohesive image. The 40-member women’s apparel team is working more closely with the footwear and equipment areas of the company. Improving merchandising remains a priority for the brand, which has 56 women’s concept shops and 13 more in NikeTown stores.
Women’s apparel sales accounted for about 20 percent of Nike’s nearly $1.1 billion apparel business in the U.S. for the fiscal year ended May 31. For fall, the company expects sales to increase by at least 20 percent, O’Neill said.
The brand aims to accomplish that by being more focused. For the second half of the year, the same advertising will be used for fall and holiday, instead of using two different three-month ad campaigns. Portland, Ore.-based Wieden & Kennedy has created the ad campaign, which focuses on Nike’s ThermaFit stretch chamois product range.
“We want to stay on a story long enough that consumers can digest it,” O’Neill said. “There will be fewer fabric stories versus us being all over the place.”