Byline: Melanie Kletter

The fast-moving junior and young contemporary worlds have been through a bit of a shake-up in the past several months, but companies are hoping that some updated fashions and the start of a new year will bring back the categories’ strengths.
For the past five years, many companies catering to teens have seen robust growth, spurred by the explosive demographics of this age group. Specialty retailers such as Pacific Sunwear of California and Gadzooks have helped bring junior apparel brands to malls across the country, while department stores have also increased their investments in youth-oriented brands.
However, the past six months have been rough for many teen apparel companies, as the selling momentum slowed at retail. Concern over the inconclusive results of the presidential election, plus an economy that’s perceived as faltering seems to have adversely affected the spending habits of many shoppers, and the overall outlook remains murky.
“Business conditions have been tough,” said David White, president of Syrup Clothing Co, a better junior firm. “From every retailer, we are hearing that. Holiday didn’t happen, nothing is cheap enough and retailers are on sale all the time.”
In addition, the junior market has become overly saturated with firms of all stripes, many of which are coming out with the same trends seen throughout the market and have little new to bring to the table.
Pricing has become so competitive that many firms are having a difficult time making margins. Smaller firms are finding it extremely difficult to break into the scene, and a number of companies said they are cutting back on units to provide a tighter, more edited assortment.
Nonetheless, teens are still hungry for fashion, and this age group is often immune to the macroeconomic factors impacting their older counterparts. For those that have the right fashions and offer newness as well as value, business should stay strong.
A number of junior retailers are introducing products in smaller sizes aimed at girls and tweens, where there are not as many players, to facilitate growth. Among the junior and young contemporary companies that have entered this arena are Guess, One Clothing, Self Esteem and Dollhouse, and others, including Syrup, expect to launch tween lines shortly.
Meanwhile, the better junior/young contemporary segment is starting to become very different from the core junior market. Young contemporary said they are less dependent on price and more focused on better fabrics and attention to construction, helping them differentiate from lower-priced lines.
Rather than get too directional, firms are generally sticking with tried-and-true trends, such as denim and Eighties-inspired looks.
Rocket 898, a New York-based junior tops company that hit stores for the first time about a year ago, is looking to continue to build its brand name and expand its reach. Like many other companies, however, the firm said finding room to grow has gotten harder.
“Business has been tough and everyone is being conservative in their buys,” said Gina Kohler, the company’s national sales manager. “If you are not already on their shopping list, many retailers will not add you.”
Nonetheless, Kohler said her company has built momentum so far in the new year, in large part because of its wide offerings of sweaters, which has been a top-performing category at retail. Among the looks the company will show at WWDMAGIC are chunky and hand-knit styles, fine-gauge knits and novelty yarns, as well as styles with treatments such as embroidery and flowers.
Kohler said overseas production also forces Rocket 898 to speed ahead of the game, since it has to determine what trends it will focus on in advance of the rest of the junior market.
Young contemporary firm Syrup Clothing Co. is banking on its slightly better fabrics and styling to separate it from the pack, according to Syrup president David White.
Syrup also plans to start a kids’ division, but only a small preview of that line will be on display at WWDMAGIC.
“We are making an effort to make sure that we offer something new and have fabrics that are different than other people,” he said. “When you have a price-driven market, there is less focus on fashion and style. But all kids are focused on is style, not price.”
For the season ahead, Syrup will concentrate on warm weather looks, plus some new denim styles, including a glazed denim, as well as Pop Art-style T-shirts. The company, which is located in Los Angeles, has a wide spectrum of offerings, including dresses and skirts, tops and bottoms.
“What will save things is the weather,” Turner noted. “As it gets warmer, people will have to buy new clothes.”
While many firms are generating growth by adding more denim looks, Mudd, the hot New York-based denim company, is rapidly getting into other categories.
The firm now has 12 licensed categories, covering a range of products such as handbags, outerwear and hosiery.
“Our goal is to make Mudd more of a lifestyle brand,” said Kelly Payfer, the company’s director of licensing. “We want to hit all the aspects of our customer’s life.”
At WWDMAGIC, Mudd will preview some items from its new home furnishing collections, which is planned to hit stores for back-to-school. Also for the first time, the company will show sweaters both for juniors and girls.
“Another area of growth for us is the tween market,” Payfer noted. “It is not as crowded and it is growing by leaps and bounds.”
The Los Angeles-based company’s licensed products are generally distributed in the same stores as its denim, primarily in department stores with a sprinkling of specialty shops.
Mudd is also in the process of announcing a deal for a licensed swimwear collection, Payfer added.
On the fashion front, Mudd will show a variety of new denim looks, including “super low” rise as well as high-rise styles, said Jo Ann Jacobsen, vice president of merchandising and design. Other key looks are sandblasted styles, denim with side zips and lace and tighter flares.
“We are working to have more thought-out collections with more coordination from group to group,” said Laura Wilson, vice president of the Los Angeles-based junior firm One Clothing. “We don’t want to just mimic trends. We are trying to look more to the future.”
On the business front, One is trying to build up its business in moderate department stores. The company now does about 70 percent of its business in private label, with 30 percent branded under the One Clothing label.
“Spring was such a disaster, and many buyers are looking for something new,” she added.
Project E, a young contemporary company, is banking on the current interest in T-shirts to help fuel sales growth this year.
The nine-year-old Atlanta-based company has shifted its business in the last few years from junior to better junior/young contemporary.
“Juniors has become a purely price-driven market, and we didn’t want to be pigeonholed to $8 dollar T-shirts,” said Mike Hecht, Project E’s president.
Among its styles on tap for the show are vintage Americana prints and Seventies-punk inspired looks, he said. All of the company’s shirts are cut and sewn.
“We try to be innovative in our prints and offer newness in colors,” Hecht added.

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