Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg

NEW YORK — The continued downturn in the sheers business is driving legwear makers increasingly to search for the harbor of distinct product niches.
Squeezed by major legwear makers wielding superior marketing muscle for promotions and by mass merchants luring customers with sharp prices, midrange to small legwear firms are countering with specialized and innovative merchandise.
Round the Clock is offering sheers with nonskid soles, for example, while Kunert is building a following with its legwear treated with aloe vera. The key is to stay loose and a step ahead of the bigger operators.
“As a smaller player in the industry, we see this as the only way to make a difference,” said Joyce Darkey, general manager of Pennaco Hosiery, the maker of Round the Clock and Givenchy legwear. “There are a lot of little needs that aren’t being addressed.”
It’s a constantly shifting course. “We’ve always had niche products as part of our orientation,” Darkey added. “Unfortunately, now we’re seeing even some of the giants take it on as their cause celebre.”
She said that for Givenchy’s “passion privee” group, Pennaco has developed shaper shorts and control-top capri-length sheers. Both items retail for $12.
The company expects to sell 25,000 units of the capris this year, according to Darkey.
In June, the company will ship Round the Clock sheers with nonskid soles to stores. The item is expected to be popular with women who want something to wear with sandals in warmer months, Darkey said.
For its reintroduction to the U.S. market this fall, Gerbe is trying to position itself as a niche brand by offering many fashion options. The 53-piece collection features sheers, tights, bodysuits, socks and maternity sheers. Wholesale prices range from $7.90 for socks to $85 for a bodysuit. The brand is expected to be carried in 10 stores, said Regina Littles, national sales manager.
Gerbe won’t just toss its collection into the market. “When approaching the stores, we’re not asking them just to sell something; we want to work with them,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘Let’s look at your needs and your clients’ needs. Is she dying to have this?”‘
This fall’s anticipated return of the suit is expected to make legwear more important, but retailers are remaining cautious, Littles said.
“Stores want something different. But at the same time, they want something different that will sell,” she explained. “They have to keep in mind that women in Hollywood might pick up a few things, but they want to stick with something that real women will purchase.”
At Kunert’s store in Commack, N.Y., shoppers are looking for “different” styles such as sheers with extrawide waistbands, aloe vera-treated sheers or tights with more unusual patterns, said Ernst Lange, general manager of L’s Wear, the U.S. distributor of Kunert in the U.S. The brand’s “cut for comfort” sheers and knee-highs with adjustable waistbands and kneebands are bestsellers for the company.
“Everything has to have an additional feature. Otherwise, women can stop by any grocery store or drugstore to pick up a pair of sheers,” Lange said. “Even the design has to be different — having just a plain polkadot print doesn’t do it anymore.”
As shopping for legwear in mass-marketers becomes more of a price issue, companies are trying to differentiate their brands by developing more unusual products, Lange said. “Product-wise, there is so much hosiery already out there.”
The plethora of products can indeed pose a challenge, but that is why true niche products can help open accounts, according to Dianne Miller, managing director of Oroblu.
Many retailers find out about Oroblu due to buzz about the brand’s “Shock-up” sheers, which are designed to lift the derriere, she said.
“A lot of new customers call us because they know about Shock-up, and often they think we are [only] Shock-up,” Miller said. “That offers us an opportunity to explain about our other products, and generally we’re able to entice them.”
For spring 2001, Oroblu plans to introduce Shock-up with an ultrasheer leg instead of a sheer one, Miller said. “Excell,” a line of sheers with graduated compression that helps smooth out cellulite, is another popular niche product for Oroblu. The opaque version retails for $34, while the sheer one retails for $28.
“Boutiques are definitely interested in these products. Niche products are a great way to get the name in a store,” Miller said. “Now, we’re looking to expand distribution.”
Unlike Oroblu, Fogal of Switzerland is not offering products that fit into the body-enhancing niche.
In fact, when sheers designed to lift the derriere or to contour hips became more popular about six months ago, Fogal management sent a memo to its stores to inform its salespeople that “we will not do it, because it’s not healthy for the body,” said Diane Hounsell, shop manager of Fogal’s stores at 510 Madison Avenue. She said Fogal will not develop contouring products until the concept is “perfected.”
Instead, Fogal is branching out into new territory by offering more fashion items beyond its vast rainbow of colors. The particular niche is sheers and tights in animal prints, which Fogal is pursuing for the first time, Hounsell said. The $50 retail items are available in zebra prints or leopard prints. Introduced two weeks ago, the animal-inspired designs have been attracting a lot of attention among shoppers, Hounsell said.
“We think it’s important to have more variety for people to choose,” she said.