SPECIALTY STORES LOOK BEYOND THEIR CORE

Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — Specialty stores aren’t counting on consumers to get dressed to work out this spring, but they do expect them to want to look good while performing their leisure activities.
As the many athletic stores continue to struggle and the category is plagued by poor-performing brands, these specialty stores are trying to attract a wider range of customers with more streetwear and casual and junior merchandise.
Versatility is expected to be a major selling point this season, since more women want items for a variety of activities, not just those with athletic inclinations, according to a survey of seven specialty stores. Retailers expect women to scour the racks for items that double as casual and urban sportswear, as in the trend of wearing tankinis as sportswear and sports bras as athletic tops.
Muscle T-shirts, tube tops, sports bras and apron-style tops are a few of the body-hugging styles that are expected to rev up sales.
Reflecting on how shoppers, especially teenagers, are looking for alternatives to looks from traditional sneaker brands, two directional specialty stores have shifted gears for spring: The denim trend has permeated the activewear market so strongly that Jimmy Jazz and Dr. Jay’s will focus on denim instead of urban athletic brands.
“Denim is going to very hot. It’s just the way the business is going now,” said Jimmy Khezrie, president and chief executive officer of Jimmy Jazz. “We’re still going with denim instead of the sporting look. We don’t feel that’s what the urban customer wants.”
At Blades, a 16-unit East Coast chain, logo muscle tees are expected to be the key item. The store carries shirts from Roxy, Rusty, Mooks and Paul Frank at retail prices of $20 to $25. Orange, deep grass green, yellow and shades of pink and blue should be the most important colors, according to Sandra Rossi, apparel buyer.
Unlike last year’s ubiquitous spaghetti-strap top, the muscle tank has small cap sleeves and is made of stretch fabrics such as Lycra spandex.
Kathleen Mudd, owner and buyer for Canyon Beachwear, a 13-unit chain and e-tailer based in Santa Monica, Calif., expects shoppers to be grabbing tankinis, swimsuits with triangle or athletic tops, and sarongs.
“With the versatility of the tankini and these other items, they can be incorporated into wardrobes,” Mudd said. “They can be worn out at night with black pants or a skirt. The fact is that swimwear is useful as an apparel item.”
Customers like the looks of Lisa Curren, Anne Cole and Bacchata tankinis in the $80 to $120 retail range. Calvin Klein and Anne Cole are the brands of choice for two-piece suits with triangle or athletic tops.
Sarongs can be found from $24 to $180 at retail, and Tamara Catz’s embroidered version should be a standout, Mudd said. In addition to being worn as a skirt, a sarong can be worn as a scarf or as a pashmina shawl with a spaghetti-strap dress at night.
Hawks, which operates four stores in Ohio and Michigan, expects shorter-length board shorts and novelty T-shirts to be must-haves for spring and summer, said Jack Johnson, owner. Billabong and Roxy are the two key brands for shorts, and orange, tomato and yellow are the most important colors.
Last week, Hawks sold 48 units of Porn Star T-shirts — its first order from the company — and now plans to order more, Johnson said. Similar looks have been popular with core customers whose ages range from 15 to 25.
The retailer got into the women’s business last fall because half of its customers were women buying men’s apparel, Johnson said.
Khezrie, of Jimmy Jazz, a 36-unit chain, who is also chief executive officer of Mony, a six-store operation, is counting on denim to continue to be the most sought-after item.
Guess is “the star,” but Marithe & Francois Girbaud is “up-and-coming.” Reversed denim should also be important.
Warm temperatures should not steer shoppers away from denim pants, jackets and vests in the $50 to $120 range, Khezrie said.
Denim is also the summer favorite at Dr. Jay’s, an 18-store chain that carries women’s apparel in three of its stores, including a 30,000-square-foot women’s-only unit in Brooklyn, New York. Now that black or blue rinsed denim has become a basic item, shoppers are looking for anything with contrast stitching. Capri pants, flood pants and skimpy tops are also expected to be strong.
“The athletic look has kind of fallen out in the last few seasons,” said Jacqui Booker, women’s buyer. “The majority of my store is very bare. My customer wants the back out, the stomach out — she wants halterish tops.”
Guess should continue to generate strong retail sales. “On a good weekend,” Dr. Jay’s sells between 200 and 300 pairs of Guess jeans, Booker said.
Noting that the brand’s $98 rubber-coated jeans were a recent bestseller, she said, “Our customers sacrifice [comfort] to look good.”
At South Moon Under, a six-store operation based in Ocean City, Md., shoppers are looking for swimwear separates with ethnic-inspired, bohemian or animal-print designs, said buyer Janeen Mayers. Shoppers like the look of long tube tops and apron tops that can be worn for non-swimming activities.
“The whole sportswear trend is being transferred into swimwear,” she said. “The tops are being purchased as part of a suit, but customers want to wear them for other things, too.”
Jane Muhrcke, who, with her husband Gary, owns the Super Runners Shop, a four-unit operation in New York, pointed to microfiber shorts and Supplex nylon bra tops as summer staples. The shorts retail from $25 to $33, and the tops retail from $30 to $35.
“Wearing bra tops alone to work out has become very accepted in New York. It used to look a little skimpy,” she said. “Runners and in-line skaters in California started it a few years ago.”
Nike, New Balance, Asics, InSport and Brooks are the retailer’s top resources. In terms of color, black and navy continue to be bestsellers, but pink, purple and lavender should help sales, said Muhrcke.
Muhrcke and her husband, who won the first New York City Marathon in 1969, also own two franchised New Balance stores in New York. The bra top and shorts combination is also important in those stores, she said.
“Sometimes I wish so many women weren’t wearing them,” she said. “They’re not flattering on everybody.”

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