FINDING A PLACE IN THE OUTDOORS

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — The outdoor apparel market is quickly running out of open spaces.
With authentic brands like Sierra Designs, REI and Patagonia now fighting for market share with sportswear extensions from such firms as Polo Ralph Lauren and Rockport, securing some of the category’s limited retail space is getting highly competitive.
These new brands are also changing the definition of outdoor apparel, which generated more than $2.1 billion in retail sales last year. As new players try to edge their way into the business, the more established manufacturers are working hard to maintain their stronghold.
“Distribution is a big part of it, as more mainstream companies, department stores and some of the big-box boys come into the business,” said Sharon Leicham, director of clothing merchandising for Sierra Designs. “I worry a little about some of the companies that are getting into the market with inferior products. At least we know that when customers wear our products, they will be protected [from the elements.]”
But consumers are buying all those Gore-Tex jackets, zip-front vests, trail running sneakers and pants that can convert into shorts more for city sidewalks than for mountain trails. Given that pedestrian path, it’s not surprising that a few nonathletic firms have gotten into the action. Gap now offers ripstop nylon cargo pants, Nine West has shoes with toggles and Old Navy has flooded the market with what it calls “performance fleece” vests.
Now a few foreign outdoor companies like Karrimor and Berghaus are branching out distribution to the U.S., while athletic-oriented labels such as Nike ACG — “All Conditions Gear” — and Rockport’s XCS are offering more outdoor-oriented apparel as a springboard to open new accounts.
The more technical companies that pride themselves on their performance-oriented designs aren’t hung up on how consumers wear their apparel.
“The reality is the majority of people aren’t using these products for their ultimate end-use purposes. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that,” said Jordan Wand, vice president of RLX Polo Sport, Ralph Lauren’s line of performance-oriented apparel that caters to hard-core outdoor enthusiasts. “But it can be used for more functional elements.”
Wearing outdoor apparel for nonathletic purposes is in line what’s going on in the activewear industry, where 82 percent of all purchases are used for recreational activities, according to industry surveys.
“Most three-ply, Gore-Tex mountaineering jackets are not being used to scale mountains. They’re used for everyday use or multisport use,” said Les Szabo, president of North American operations for Karrimor. “The same holds true for all athletic equipment, whether it’s a basketball shoe or a technical backpack. It’s used for many other purposes.”
To distinguish Karrimor for its fall launch in the crowded U.S. market, Szabo said he was pitching the brand as one “with a modern, fresh style for the new generation of outdoor consumers between the ages of 18 and 35.”
While many shoppers wear outdoor apparel as everyday sportswear, younger customers are beginning to wear the garb for its intended use, Szabo said. Unlike how most of their predecessors worked out when they were young, teenagers and Generation Xers are turning to mountain biking, trail running, fast-packing, kayaking and other individual outdoor sports instead of team sports, he said.
“We have to offer some sort of alternative because the outdoor market is such a saturated one,” he said. “Many retailers are saying there is too much of a sea of sameness.”
XCS — Cross Conditions Systems — by Rockport is another label that bows at retail this fall. Joseph Hiess, president of Rockport’s apparel division, said he aimed to have outdoor specialty stores account for most of the brand’s distribution. To have wider appeal, the brand has “softened” the traditional outdoor look with more feminine silhouettes and colors such as cornflower blue, soft yellow and silver.
“Outdoor stores will bring in a new brand as a test,” he said. “They don’t buy much until a line is proven. They start with five or 10 pieces. We’d prefer to have them show a total look, from footwear to headwear.”
Wand of RLX described outdoor specialty stores as some of the brand’s “greater skeptics,” questioning whether a designer label would follow through with highly technical product. But after four seasons, those buyers recognize the company is committed to evolving the innovative line, he said.
“There are a lot of nooks and crannies in this business to sustain the growth,” Wand said. The increased competition will lead to some fallout among companies that fail to be innovative, he added.
Nike ACG aims to strengthen its retail base by building its salesforce on two fronts — specialty stores, including outdoor ones, and sporting goods stores, according to Gordon McFadden, president of Nike ACG. The company has hired an outdoor store salesforce that works on commission “to add business and focus on this important channel for us,” he said.
Nike ACG also plans to leverage the Nike sales force that sells inline skates to help build its outdoor specialty store account base.
As more companies, including RLX and Tommy Hilfiger, adopt outdoor looks, Sierra Designs is working “to be more valuable” to its 280 outdoor accounts by offering the right products, hangtags, deliveries, in-store displays, catalogs to be used in stores and a Web site packed with product and retailer information, Leicham said.
Despite being somewhat wary of newcomers to the field, Leicham credited Ralph Lauren for its design and Tommy Hilfiger for helping to make the look more acceptable among the masses, which has had a “residual effect” on the industry.
In addition, the Internet should help people get a better understanding of what they need for specific activities and how various products meet those needs. Leicham pointed to Geargoddess.com, a new information site that showcases women’s products based on sports, skill levels and preferences.
For its U.S. launch, Berghaus will sell the line on its Web site, beginning this summer. The brand’s stretch fleece jackets, shell jackets and layering pieces will be available in outdoor specialty stores this fall, said Hans Figi, brand manager.
“There will be a lot of information about our products on the Web,” he said. “We’re not a household name in this country.”
This summer, Web surfers will be able buy Berghaus online or the site will offer a store locator, Figi said.
“There’s a good chance that if someone is buying a $400 shell, they’re going to want to go to a store to try it on,” he said.
Ria Stern, manager for Tactel and Supplex at DuPont, noted that more companies were interested in the category, since outdoor activities can be shared by families on vacations or weekends.
Marco Tonazzi, managing director of Napapijri, which will introduce women’s apparel in about 30 stores this fall, offered another take.
“The main reason the outdoor lifestyle is important is that it is real. We’re living in a world that is getting more fake and phony,” he said. “Everything is seen on a screen which you cannot touch. People want to know they can still live, get hurt and bleed.”
One of the greatest challenges of breaking into the outdoor specialty store market is convincing buyers that a brand can be both technical and stylish, Tonazzi said.
“A lot of outdoor stores don’t see design as a positive factor. They think it should just be functional. That has made it more difficult for us,” he said. “Stores think if you make something nice, it’s froufrou on the surface and doesn’t work. Outdoor shops need to change that attitude.”

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