STEPPING UP GROWTH PLANS
Byline: Melanie Kletter
NEW YORK — The cool trends of contemporary look to remain a hot pocket heading into the fall and holiday seasons.
The growing sportswear sector has become a consumer favorite by offering forward merchandise that offers value and costs less than designer looks, and a number of retailers are expanding their selections. This is giving the contemporary crew a brighter outlook in an otherwise gloomy climate for apparel.
Growth strategies among vendors in the segment include a continued focus on licensing and international expansion. Many firms such as French Connection, Betsey Johnson, BCBG and Bisou Bisou are opening their own stores in an attempt to build their brand names and assert more control over distribution and profitability.
Key trends for fall and holiday include a plethora of vintage-inspired pieces, as well as a continued focus on denim. Fur trim is an important element and sweaters remain a top category. Nautical-inspired styles and athletic influences are also in play for third- and fourth-quarter merchandise schemes.
“I feel very confident right now about the future,” said Ken Weiss, president of Easel. “Although it is a challenging business environment, we have reduced costs where we need to and we are operating more efficiently.”
Nonetheless, similar to all areas of the fashion world, contemporary companies remain under pressure to keep inventories lean and provide good value for retailers.
“The most important thing today is to be narrow and deep,” said Allen B. Schwartz, design director of the ABS by Allen Schwartz division of the The Warnaco Group. “You have to be focused. Stores aren’t buying with breadth or width. They are being very selective.”
Betsey Johnson is focusing on building up its retail distribution, as well as its wholesale operations. The firm, best known for its playful pieces, now has 42 signature stores and is on track to open three additional units this year, said Catherine Nation, executive vice president of retail and marketing.
“We are very product focused and we have definitely tightened up our product offering,” she said. “We are going back to our roots and the bodies that sell best, such as the baby-doll dresses. In our stores, we are making sure that inventories are low and we are not overstocked.”
While it is going back to its roots with some products, Johnson also is doing well with its new divisions, including expanded sportswear and girls’ businesses, said Kim Hingley, executive vice president of sales and distribution.
BCBG Max Azria has a multipronged strategy for growth in the second half, including increased international expansion, new licensing opportunities and wider wholesale distribution.
“We are expanding on many different levels,” said Max Azria, designer and owner. “We are launching our fragrance in September and we are looking for new licensing opportunities. We have a new flagship store opening in the former Giorgio location and we are also planning to open a SoHo store soon.”
Azria said the company’s sales are on track to reach about $280 million this year in the U.S., including wholesale and retail divisions.
ABS’s Schwartz said he is cautious about growth this year and is planning for sales to be flat with last year. He said “the first sixth months of the year were really difficult and we are taking it one day at a time.”
As a division of Warnaco, which is operating under bankruptcy, ABS has additional pressures beyond what most vendors are facing. Schwartz said his business has not changed much since Warnaco filed, but he also said he was relieved that Warnaco secured its debtor-in-possession financing.
“Hopefully, it will be a second chance,” he said.
Schwartz said denim has been a particularly strong category so far, especially styles with novelty and embellishments.
Custo Barcelona, which specializes in graphic tops, is starting a new advertising campaign this fall. The campaign, which was shot by Marino Parisotto, is set in Toscana, Italy, and features men’s and women’s apparel against dramatic backgrounds.
“This is very different from what we have done before and it showcases more of our product offerings,” said a company spokeswoman.
Custo also recently opened a store in Barcelona and is planning to open other units in Spain in coming months.
Wayne Rogers is expanding beyond its signature body-conscious knit tops into new categories, including dresses. Rogers, who took back the license for his namesake firm last year, said he is looking to build his brand by adding new product lines and expanding distribution.
Now sold in about 250 specialty stores, the line is best known for its slinky silk and spandex tops that leave little to the imagination. Rogers said he is scouting locations to open Wayne Rogers stores and also recently started a joint venture to distribute its products in Europe.
“Our business is great right now,” Rogers said. “We have found that our appeal extends to older women as well as young shoppers.”
Like many contemporary companies, Sharagano Paris is focusing on the hot denim category for fall and holiday, said David Shamouelian, vice president. Among its new denim looks are jumpsuits and styles with studs, grommets and lace prints.
The New York company currently has two stores, one in Manhattan and another in the Roosevelt Field mall in Garden City, N.Y., and it is looking into opening between eight and 10 new stores within the next year, Shamouelian said.
Now sold in more than 1,000 doors, the line has steadily evolved to include more sportswear items. The company also is embarking on an ad campaign for fall, including some outdoor ads, and is stepping up its efforts in Brazil and other South American countries, Shamouelian said.
Rem Garson, the leather sportswear firm, is banking on trends such as printed leather, pleating and distressed looks, according to president Marc Garson, who said orders are ahead of last year.
Garson also is planning an ad campaign for fall and is working to sign new licensing agreements to produce products for other companies and to expand its own brand name by licensing its name to additional categories. Garson now produces leather sportswear for Fubu and XOXO, and also sells sportswear under its Darryn & Cole knitwear label.
At Cousin Johnny, holiday bookings are far ahead of last year, driven by novelty items, said David Shelsky, president and owner. Among top-booking trends for fall and holiday are sweater coats, tweeded cotton, space-dyed cashmere and imitation cashmere and Lycra spandex sweaters. The company also has expanded into petites and large-sizes as new avenues for growth, Shelsky said.
“We are in such a jeans-driven cycle and many of our offerings go well with denim,” he noted.
Easel is offering new silhouettes and styles, such as leather-trimmed tuxedo pants that work with its core sweater offerings.
The firm also is doing more business internationally, and has a new distributor in London. In addition, it has stepped up its efforts in Hollywood to get its clothing featured in movies and on television shows, an area many contemporary firms have started to explore.
At knit specialist Essendi, the focus continues to be on body-conscious, sexy silhouettes.
“Initial fall shipping has been good,” said Robert Cohen, president of the New York-based company. “We have gotten reorders this week and last and we are heartened by that.”
While established brands look to increase their market share, some fledgling firms are entering the fray. Tina Hagen is relaunching her line after a few-years absence from the scene, and B. Lucid is launching a contemporary line under the Joey label.
In addition, a new showroom called 10 eleven 60, representing contemporary companies, has opened recently. The showroom is owned and run by Vanessa Witke and Philip Judson, each of whom formerly worked at Bisou Bisou.
The company, so far, is representing contemporary lines Pure Joy and Tailor New York. It also is launching a new line called Cote Ouest, which is made in Los Angeles by Nadia Mansour, as well as a line called Haley Bob, which is produced in Paris.
“This is a way for us to separate from the pack,” said Witke. “We feel we have a different sensibility and something new to offer.”