Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — The big brands might get all the hype, but three second-tier athletic labels are drumming up their own noise.
Having launched women’s apparel in the past five years or so, New Balance, Puma and Brooks Sports are extending their customer base beyond traditional athletes to younger, fashion-conscious women. But they’re not walking away from their athletic roots.
“We’re benefiting tremendously from the fact that technical products are a little stronger than fashion products. Technical customers are consistent, even in difficult times, and that makes them more predictable,” said Nick Richino, global apparel operations manager at New Balance. “From a styling standpoint, women today see themselves as athletes. They have different taste levels and want clothes that are a little less froufrou.”
Since introducing apparel five years ago, New Balance has seen sales climb to about $25 million, with women’s accounting for nearly 20 percent of that figure, according to Richino. Women’s apparel is expected to increase to 40 percent or 50 percent of sales within the next five years.
New Balance is offering stronger colors like gray, black and purple instead of “less serious” ones, Richino said. The approach is popular with younger customers and also with baby boomers who are looking for more stylish items. The brand’s targeted customer is now between the ages of 25 to 55, compared to 35 and 50 five years ago.
“I think we will see tremendous adjustments in the taste levels of more mature customers,” Richino said. “Each group will be looking for a more progressive viewpoint that is more similar to what younger groups are wearing.”
Five years ago, for example, New Balance’s classic windproof jacket was a best seller with older customers, but the current version is a waterproof, breathable, form-fitting jacket with a drop-tail that appeals to a variety of age groups, Richino said.
In coming months, the brand plans to expand beyond its running roots and into activewear for other sports. With gym workouts gaining popularity, New Balance plans to follow that trend, Richino said.
At Puma, Alden Sheets, president of worldwide apparel and accessories, said several factors have helped boost women’s apparel sales in the past year. For starters, women continue to be more outfit-oriented for exercise than men, he said. Interest in Puma footwear, especially among fashion-conscious, younger shoppers, has helped build business and increased distribution in nonathletic specialty stores, Sheets said.
“It has a lot to do with the footwear,” Sheets said. “When women buy our shoes, they’re more aware of our brand and they’re more apt to buy our apparel.”
Last year, Puma generated $40 million in wholesale volume in the U.S. and $165 million worldwide, and additional growth is planned this year. Women’s domestic sales account for 20 percent of total apparel sales and that figure is expected to climb to 30 percent this year.
Additional growth is expected through greater distribution at Galyan’s Trading Co. and Urban Outfitters, as well as a test at Pacific Sunwear. Puma is attracting teenagers, between the ages of 13 and 15, who think of the brand as a new one, Sheets said.
“We continue to look for growth in the fashion-chain part of the business, through specialty and fashion stores, rather than just athletic apparel,” she said.
Brooks Sports, another relative newcomer to the apparel scene, has made a dent in the market since its launch four years ago. Women’s apparel accounted for about 57 percent of the brand’s $17 million apparel business last year, said Mick Whitaker, vice president of apparel design.
Last year’s sales jumped 40 percent, which was not quite as much as the previous year, he said. That growth is coming at the expense out of other brands, since stores are not devoting more space to women’s apparel, Whitaker added.
Brooks women’s apparel is available in about 350 independent specialty stores and 15 big-box doors. Last year, Fleet Feet, a 60-unit specialty store operation, and Gart Sports, a sporting goods chain, gave Brooks vendors of the year awards. That shows how the Botthel, Wash.-based company caters to a variety of retailers, Whitaker said.
“The biggest benefit Brooks has is the incredible single-mindedness to understand runners and create fashionable and functional apparel for them,” he said. “We try to strike the cleanest fashion note that our customers relate to.”
While the men’s activewear business is flat, women’s sales continue to be strong for most stores, Whitaker said. When male customers favor basics, retailers tend to rely on big brands, since labels become major selling points, Whitaker said.
Even though male shoppers have moved away from fashion-oriented activewear, female shoppers continue to shop for “great colors, prints and fabrics,” he said.
Whitaker said Brooks has a “huge opportunity to expand [distribution of its running apparel] in sporting goods stores.”