A TOUGH TEEN SCENE
Byline: Melanie Kletter / Kate Bowers
NEW YORK — The junior market, always a fickle and volatile area, is looking even rougher than usual these days.
Most vendors in this market aren’t expecting fall and holiday sales to far exceed last year, in light of the difficult retail environment and sales slowdown throughout the industry. Many firms said they are focusing on key items, rather than an entire collection to drive sales and retailers are generally keeping their fall offerings tight.
“We are definitely keeping inventory on the lean side,” said Michael Burwasser, who operates the Brat catalog and bratcatalog.com Web site. “But much of the challenges in this market are the same as they have always been — having fresh and exciting merchandise that teens want to buy. So many retailers now have the same styles.”
Mark Schatzberg, president of the junior divisions and chief marketing officer at Byer California, said, “The indicators in the economy are not very optimistic. We hear and read all those things and know that the climate is not exactly stellar. We are a little cautious.”
Nonetheless, many industry executives said the junior market is in better shape than some other apparel sectors, since many adults often stop shopping for themselves first before they curb spending on their children. Also, the back-to-school and fall season usually provide a lift for the teen market, which generally does more business in the third and fourth quarters than in the spring.
Looking to the second half, a number of teen firms said they are banking on tweens and girls to help fuel business. Among the firms jumping into the tween market are Hot Kiss and Pink Panther, along with retailers Zutopia and Rave Girl, which are rolling out new units to capture more of this growing segment.
Another trend taking place across the junior industry is licensing. While many designer and better companies have already spread their name across a host of categories, teen companies are just starting to latch onto licensing in a significant way. Among the more aggressive firms in this arena are Rampage, XOXO, Mudd and Dollhouse, all of which have put their names on a number of accessories and lifestyle categories.
Also on the horizon are some new concepts aimed at large-size teens, an often-overlooked segment. Torrid, a new retail chain from Hot Topic, debuted earlier this year and plans to roll out additional units this fall, and Turnstylz, a concept targeting plus-sized teens, started its business this spring with a catalog and Web site.
Overall, fall and holiday fashions are denim focused, as firms look to capitalize on the continued strength in that arena. New treatments and washes, including glitter and graffiti trims, can be found in many offerings, and low-waist styles continue to dominate much of the action. In sportswear, T-shirts, deconstructed and preppy chic looks are on tap.
“It’s all about fashion novelty right now,” said Barry Bates, president of juniors for Seattle Pacific Industries, the maker of Unionbay. “[In denim] we’re focusing on it all, from tinting and washes to whiskers on front, all the way up to a more radical approach of safety pins and rips.”
With all the denim in the market, belted styles have become important for differentiation, vendors said.
“Every delivery, we’ve got to have a new hot belt,” said Marty Weisfeld, owner of New York-based Mudd Jeans. “We’re actually hurting the accessories business because we’re giving away good belts.”
Also coming on strong, especially for West Coast firms, are loose-fitting drawstring pants of the sort formerly reserved for slumber parties and lazy Sunday mornings.
A strong bottoms business, including continued demand for flood pants and capris, will likely continue to depress shorts and dress sales, vendors said.
“The dress business is going to be flat and we’ll need a lot innovation to stay flat,” said Larry Hansel, chief executive officer at Rampage, who nonetheless said he is on track to double last year’s revenues.
Also on the table are updated military offerings, as well as plenty of sweaters, lace embellishments and Asian-inspired looks. T-shirts, which flooded the market in the past year, also continue to be a hot property.
Sanrio, the company that owns the trademark for Hello Kitty, is entering the junior apparel arena with the debut of T-shirts featuring the feline character. Another new player in T-shirts is Always Fresh, which is offering tops with updated images of Disney characters.
Generally, West Coast vendors expressed slightly more optimism than many companies in New York. Paul Naude, president and ceo of Billabong USA, is expecting his company to have 35 percent growth this year, which he attributed to wider retail distribution and growing acceptance of its surf and sport-inspired apparel.
“We are a growing niche in the junior market,” he said. “The growth of the action sports apparel brands among juniors continues to be very strong.”
Self Esteem, the Los Angeles-based sportswear firm, is on track to double its sales to $110 million this year, due in part to its growing position in plus-sizes and tweens, said president Richard Clareman.
Dollhouse, the five year-old New York-based junior company, is banking on denim this fall and holiday season. The company, which only recently entered denim in a big way, is introducing a number of new denim offerings, including styles with foil treatments, graffiti, patchwork and glitter, as well as denim skirts in various lengths. Dollhouse last fall expanded into leather and suede, and it is continuing to offer a variety of suede bottoms, including miniskirts. In addition, Dollhouse has a new sweater category that features a range of styles, including dusters and fake-fur vests.
“Our business has been good overall and we are looking to be ahead of last year,” said Albert Shehebar, president of Dollhouse, who declined to give specific sales projections. “I am particularly excited about denim. We have gotten a very good response to our denim offerings.”
A new national advertising campaign is planned for fall and the company is also planning to continue outdoor advertising, which it started last year.
Illig, best known for its streetwear offerings, is looking to expand its business into a wider range of offerings.
“We are trying to mainstream the clothes a little without alienating our core customer,” said David Alpern, Illig’s sales manager. “I am feeling bullish about the second half of the year. The strength in our product line is sweaters.”
The label is now in about 250 stores and is starting to break more into suburban specialty chains such as E Street Denim, according to Alpern. Illig has also started e-commerce this spring, which has so far been a success and is also an important marketing tool.
Byer California, the junior and women’s manufacturer based in San Francisco, is banking on tweens as well as sweaters to drive business in the second half.
“The girls and tweens business has been a constantly growing and successful business for us,” said Philip Byer, president of the Amy Byer girls’ division.
Byer for the first time is starting an ad campaign, which will break in Teen Vogue, and the firm is also expanding its in-store shop program.
At DKNY Jeans Juniors, looks on tap for holiday include glitzy, novelty items such as red denim and bottoms with a print of Times Square. Athletic-inspired looks such as a velour jumpsuit and one-shoulder tops continue to be a top silhouette, said Kevin Monogue, vice president of sales.
Knits continues to be a strong category at DKNY Jeans Juniors, and the company is expanding its offerings of chunky knits. Other key items include more blouses, mesh tops and patchwork jeans reminiscent of Seventies looks. Logo T-shirts also remain top sellers.
Holly Fiene, vice president of design and merchandising for Los Angeles-based XOXO, said sleeve treatments, such as batwings, slits and raglans, offer newness.
Fiene said she plans to test spring early, purging the holiday’s “Moulin Rouge” trio of gold, red and black in favor of icy brights and shots of white.
“Things have gotten so stale that we have to shock them a bit,” she said.