Byline: Anne D’Innocenzio

NEW YORK — In the race to satisfy the consumer, mainstream resources are turning to the spin cycle to keep pace.
Washable fabrics have long been the mantra for apparel manufacturers that cater to budget-conscious consumers. However, in the past year, such apparel firms are dramatically expanding their offerings to include tailored jackets and trousers in such fabrics as challis and wools.
The emphasis is in the moderate market, and many companies now offer about 80 percent of their fall lines in machine washable fabrics. Better giants, such as Liz Claiborne Inc., Pendleton Woolen Mills and Bernard Chaus are also waking up to the call for easy-care garments.
The catalyst behind the trend is the consumer, who is becoming more resistant to paying for clothes that need to be dry cleaned, according to manufacturers. Apparel vendors, feeling pressure from retailers to increase their machine-washable assortments, are now turning up the heat on their suppliers to come up with specially treated fabrics.
That adds about 15 to 20 percent to the cost of fabric per yard, but most apparel makers said they could afford to absorb the extra costs and not pass it on to consumers. Washable fabrics directly translate to increased sales volume, executives said.
“It’s a major issue,” said Conrad Szymanski, president of Bealls Department Store in Bradenton, Fla., which operates 55 stores. “It’s particularly germane in the moderate market. People don’t want to pay $29 to $39 for a career jacket and then have to invest $6 on dry cleaning.”
He said the retailer carries washable and dry-cleanable linens, but the big volume is in washable.
“The consumer is time poor. We are doing everything to make her life easier,” said Denise Seegal, president of Liz Claiborne. In the past couple of seasons, the company expanded beyond washable merino wool sweaters to include washable cashmere sweaters in Collection. This fall, Claiborne is offering washable jackets with a wool hand.
Carefree has been a key element in LizSport, which features twill and linen clothing, Seegal said.
Chaus is also stepping up its offerings in washable clothes to include tailored rayon, polyester and Lycra blend trousers as well as matte polyester blouses, from ruffled looks to bow styles.
“This gives the consumer more of an incentive to buy,” said Judith Leach, vice president of design at Chaus. “It’s an added bonus.”
She added that Chaus was working with trim suppliers to make interfacing and pocketbags machine washable.
“Who would dream that they could take a blazer and throw it in the washing machine?” asked Bob Salem, marketing director at The Leslie Fay Cos. “The impact on washable fabrics that cater to the traditional target customer is extremely important.”
Two years ago, about half of Leslie Fay’s offerings were hand or machine washable. For fall, that figure is 90 percent.
Leslie Fay’s washable garments have expanded beyond polyester and now include tailored jackets in rayon polyester and wool blends and 19-momme silk blouses.
He added that consumers were interested in the washability and easy fit. Salem pointed out that the more he travels throughout the country, the more he realizes that the issue if not just the cost of dry cleaning; many customers don’t have access to dry cleaners.
“As a rule, dry cleaning just doesn’t work,” said Kurt Erman, president of Notations, referring to the price resistance.
Three years ago, about 60 percent of the line was hand or machine washable. Now, that figure is at least 90 percent.
Notation’s machine-washable offerings include moleskin jackets, tailored looks and challis dresses.
“Consumers are telling stores, which are telling us,” he said. “We are working with the mills.”
Erman said the company’s increased offerings in hand-washable garments resulted in an increase in sales of 20 percent last year.
This year, J.G. Hook has increased its assortment in machine or hand-washable items to 80 percent. Last year, the figure was 60 percent, according to Eric King, a partner at J.G. Hook.
King noted that the decision was based on the bottom line, citing “lost business on some items that needed to be dry cleaned.”
Take the case of J.G. Hook’s embellished merchandise, which accounted for 20 percent of last fall’s offerings. All of it had to be dry cleaned and consequently did not do well, King said. This fall, the company made sure that most of its embellished items could be hand washed. It worked with its mills to develop different treatments.
“Business is so tough,” King said. “Everyone is fighting for orders.”
Lasting Impressions has stepped up its washable assortments to 70 percent this fall from 50 percent last fall. The washable category now includes suits and other tailored garments.
“Consumers have been demanding washable fabrics,” said Marie Levine, marketing director. “Now the technology has caught up with the demand.”
Previously, washable items were limited to tops in polyester. Now, they include tailored jackets in wool blends.