Byline: Karyn Monget

NEW YORK — Innerwear retailers were on the hunt last week for brands they hope will revitalize lackluster sales in the status brand arena.
Armed with bigger budgets for bestselling resources for fall and holiday — whether national brands, designer names or smaller labels that have a creative edge — senior management and buyers from major department and specialty stores as well as national chains and discounters, canvassed Madison Avenue showrooms for the next big idea, marketing concept or key item that will push them ahead of the competition.
Anything with a look of luxury — such as Venice and Chantilly lace trims, rich-looking embroideries and brocades, beading, and luxe fabrics including velvets, pashmina and a variety of silk and blends of silk and Lycra spandex — was at the top of the shopping list.
A key classification: dual-purpose items with a contemporary spin that will appeal to younger department store shoppers.
A main reason for the race for newness was the flaccid performance of megabrands in intimate apparel, an area that was widely regarded by retailers as a boom category for the past couple of years.
Merchants said they had been growing increasingly impatient over the past several months with what they generally described as poor sell-throughs and an overall lack of creativity in status brand merchandise, most of it from licensees. They singled out sleepwear, especially minimal, unadorned cotton knits, as the weakest category.
Generally, retailers noted that the disappointing performance of star brands — names they believed were like money in the bank because of their store-wide exposure — was beginning to impact total innerwear business, mainly at department stores that have invested heavily into these megabrand franchises.
Some also began to question the viability of designer licenses in the future, noting that in some instances, the fashion edge that typically is synonymous with a designer name — and what consumers expect from a designer name — has been missing from the menu.
Key megabrands, a majority of which are housed in huge in-store shops, include Calvin Klein Underwear at The Warnaco Group and several licensees — Ralph Lauren Intimates at Sara Lee Corp., Donna Karan Intimates and DKNY Underwear at Wacoal America, Tommy Hilfiger sleepwear at Cypress Apparel, and Liz Claiborne Intimates at Jockey International.
The newest licensees include Nike sports bras and related separates at the Vanity Fair Intimates division of VF Corp.; Tommy Hilfiger foundations, which are produced by the Bestform Group unit of VF, and Eileen West sleepwear at Charles Komar & Sons, which has expanded into at-homewear for fall and holiday.
At the mass level, Sara Lee Intimate Apparel introduced foundations under the Lovable label this year to 4000 mass market doors, and disclosed plans to roll out a line of licensed Lovable daywear and sleepwear this fall. A panties program, also produced under license by Lady Ester, will be introduced at the August market.
Terri Meichner, vice president of intimate apparel at Federated Merchandising Corp., said, “We have found that if the product is right, it doesn’t matter what name is on it. Yes, we are always looking for new resources, but we are buying deep with top-performing vendors.
“I actually think that we’ve been lucky because we have INC. It beefed up our business and made up for the softness in megabrands.” INC is a store-wide private label initiative of women’s apparel and innerwear at Macy’s.
Federated isn’t the only major player looking at private label as a core business. That was obvious at the Salon International de la Lingerie in Paris in January, where the bulk of American retailers attending the trade show were spotted sourcing for fabrics in the Interfiliere textile section.
Lynda Boyd, merchandise manager of lingerie at Kmart, who attended the Paris show, said, “We are looking at more private label development as well as branded opportunities at this market. Our panty and daywear business is trending forward. There’s been more newness in those areas than we’ve seen in a long time.”
Boyd added that trend presentations and “design ideas that were presentable” to the U.S. market were the main draw for Kmart at the Paris fair.
Brenda Lightner, senior buyer of intimate apparel at Marshall Fields, Dayton’s and Hudson’s, noted that a demand for luxury goods was driving the department store chain’s innerwear business.
“We recently launched La Perla at our flagship [Marshall Field] in Chicago. The luxury shopper is definitely coming in and spending money,” said Lightner. Bras by La Perla, an upscale Italian label, typically retail over $100.
Said one retail executive from a department store chain based in the Midwest, “Anything that has a new and special look has been selling well. You have to give consumers an exciting reason to come in and buy.
“It hasn’t been happening with the megabrands, and they’ve been around for a while. It’s items that are innovative like the Water Bra that are blowing out.”
Daniel G. MacFarlan, vice president and chairman of VF’s intimate apparel, knitwear and playwear coalitions, said, “Total VF intimates business is pretty good. 1999 was a year of a little lower unit growth. We were about 36 percent up in units for the year. Where our business is good is where you expect it would be — where there’s innovative new product such as The BodySculpting Collection by Vanity Fair. Clearly, newness is driving the market.”
Generally, MacFarlan noted that VF plans “to get more aggressive in Europe. The last two years we’ve improved operations of acquisitions. We want to expand our portfolio there. But we’ll be patient about it. We also clearly have a mind to get a foothold in Asia as well.”
Asked if VF wants to add the Maidenform brand to its extensive portfolio, MacFarlan acknowledged that VF is “still interested,” but would not elaborate.
Addressing the overall business climate at department stores, Charles L. Nesbit Jr., president and chief executive officer of Sara Lee Intimate Apparel, said: “It’s a challenge, but it’s really up to the major stores to revitalize the department store business. Look at what’s happened in Canada — they’re really down to four major retailers — Hudson’s Bay and Sears Canada which carry some department store brands, and Wal-Mart and Zeller’s.
“You have to ask yourself what will happen in the U.S.?”
Regarding the softening of megabrand business, Kathy Nedorostek, president and chief operating officer of Natori & Co. — and former president of the licensed CK Calvin Klein Footwear and Accessories division of Nine West Group — said: “It doesn’t surprise me, because they are licensees working with licensors. We at Natori are much closer to the product than a lot of megabrands are. We stay true to what we are all about. Here, we just make it happen faster.”
“How can I say this kindly?” said Nicholas Graham, founder and ceo of Joe Boxer Corp. “We’ve had increases with major stores of 50 to 60 percent in our sleepwear business, while status brand business was flat.
“People move on. The customer today is much more diverse than just wanting a status brand. I think status brands are one dimensional. There are so many more occasions and moods. We are offering not one idea, but many ideas,” said Graham.
Another industry executive observed, “I think retailers did think at one time that they had to do the megabrands [intimates], because they liked the success of the other businesses the brands were in like fragrance. Department stores want to capture that young customer, but they also have to compete with the zillions of options out there like the discounters and shopping online who are selling the same or similar merchandise.”
Richard Murray, president of Wacoal America, noted, “There seems to be a lot of unrest in the market. Our Donna Karan Intimates business is stable now, and selling very well at Saks and Neiman’s. This is a pivotal market for DKNY [underwear], which is our challenge right now. Every day there’s a lot of enthusiasm, and if anything, we are going forward.”
Added John Bowman, president of the Donna Karan division at Wacoal, “We are doing very nicely against plan with DKNY [underwear] when you take into consideration it’s against the launch market a year ago.
“There’s a growing appetite in Europe for DKNY Underwear. We’ve set up an organization with distributorships and we are getting good results in the U.K. We’ve expanded to 20 doors of House of Frazier stores.”
Regarding new product in the foundations field, Gwen Widell, Warnaco’s senior vice president of product development worldwide, said a bra style called Nothing But Curves by Warner’s has created “lots of excitement.”
“It’s really the push-up bra for 2000, because it gives push-up cleavage without water, gel or cookies in the bra cups,” said Widell.
She further noted, “Animal prints continue to be a very big deal. I think at this point it’s become a [lingerie] basic.”
Eileen West, who is known for her beautiful floral prints and cotton sleepwear, said the demand for luxury goods inspired her to expand assortments of her upscale Queen Anne’s Lace collection.
“The demand for beautiful, luxurious sleepwear tells me there’s a return to romance. That’s very exciting,” said West.
Jeanette Cantone, senior vice president of merchandising and design at Natori, agreed. She said reaction has been “excellent” to rich-looking sleepwear and daywear items that have a romantic edge, such as “La Vie en Rose”-inspired rose-printed georgettes, and a variety of reversible silk full slips, half-slips and camis. Items of pashmina such as long slipgowns and drawstring pants by Natori also are top-booking ideas, she said.
“It’s all about luxury fabrics that feel good against the skin,” said Cantone, noting that suggested retail for the pashmina items will be between $500 and $600.
Regarding the contemporary Josie label, Cantone said best-booking groups include Lolita-inspired baby dolls of floral-printed georgette with matching bikinis that “are held together at each side with ribbon that can be easily undone,” and lots of animal prints including dalmatian spots and leopard patterns in red, green, taupe, and black and ivory.
Lisa Leigh, director of sales and merchandising at August Silk Intimates, said, “I haven’t seen this much excitement and activity in the market place since 1992.
“I think it’s being fueled by consumer reaction to product, newness, fashion and color. All of that is being translated into intimate apparel, and retailers are rethinking their strategies.
“Dressy and sexy looks are important. I think we are really in a big silk cycle. Reaction has been excellent to silk Lycra blends, especially in a wide range of colors from mid-tone pastels of melon, shrimp and celadon, to deeper shades of plum, sage and violet.”

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