Byline: Miles Socha

NEW YORK — An H&M-caliber feeding frenzy it’s not.
But long-bedraggled bridge departments are showing promising signs of life for spring, and many retailers are citing brisk sales of suede skirts, cropped pants, wrap blouses and nontraditional suits.
They agreed that an intensive focus on fashion items, novelty and color was perking up a price tier that has been dogged for the past two years by excess inventory, rampant markdowns, creeping prices, eroding margins, sameness in styling and sharp competition from the contemporary and better price zones.
“For spring, we’re exceeding our sales plan, and we’re seeing improvement in regular-price selling,” said Ann Stordahl, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of Neiman Marcus, one of the first retailers to put the brakes on what it saw as “artificial growth” in bridge. “We’re definitely trending better than last year. Our plans in bridge are still obviously conservative, but we are seeing positive trends.”
“The business has been good for nine months in that area,” agreed Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president and fashion director at Bloomingdale’s. “There’s actually more fashion and better value. Fashion-forward things are selling. Dumb, safe things are not.”
The positive news comes after two rough-and-tumble years in bridge during which several players exited the business, including RL by Ralph Lauren, Andrea Jovine and Isaac by Isaac Mizrahi. Emanuel/Emanuel Ungaro, once GFT USA Corp.’s most profitable division and a $150 million bridge powerhouse, is being rebuilt by a new licensee, de V&P Inc. Mondi of America liquidated earlier this year, and the trademark is being relaunched under license by Gilmar SpA.
Vendors recently predicted stability for the category in the first half of 2000, convinced that a “lifestyle” approach to fashion, color and embellishment and an item focus would bring new vitality to the business.
Echoing many of her retail peers, Stordahl said the new formula seems to be working. Color and novelty are driving sales today in bridge, as customers zero in on items such as capri pants, gingham-checked shirts and wrap blouses.
“We’re seeing the customer is definitely picking up more items as opposed to buying complete head-to-toe outfits,” she said. “The bridge collections are trying to be more trend-driven, and they’re seeing positive responses with that concept.”
At Saks Fifth Avenue, Lorraine Oddo, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of bridge and special sizes, said bridge had been gaining momentum over the past three seasons.
“We have very edited assortments, and we’re focusing on the key items and trends of the season,” she said. “We’re having very nice sell-throughs right now, and a lot of it is because we’ve focused on key items and trimmed out the excess.”
Among the best-selling looks at Saks this spring are blue silk shantung pantsuits from Ellen Tracy, Liberty-print blouses from Kors Michael Kors, stretch-denim zip-front jackets from Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, embellished cropped pants from Dana Buchman and wrap blouses from Lafayette 148.
James Aguiar, fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman, agreed that fashion is motivating the bridge customer, whom he finds is not very brand loyal.
“Customers are responding to color first and foremost. They want the look of the [designer] collections at a lesser price, and these businesses are providing these looks,” he said.
Among the top sellers on Bergdorf’s fifth floor, where a mix of bridge, contemporary and so-called “gold range” lines (priced between bridge and designer) are housed, are fitted trenchcoats, colorful sleeveless sweaters, python and crocodile-look separates, leather skirts and keyhole blouses.
Retailers even cited some positive trends in sales of suits and jackets, long the bread and butter of bridge. They said the fact that designer collections for fall 2000 emphasized ladylike suits and pulled-together dressing bodes well for the category.
Stordahl said suits rebounded with the past holiday season, but not traditional styles. For example, among the bestsellers Neiman’s cited were a lime-green shantung hooded jacket with matching cropped pants from Ellen Tracy and a fitted, three-quarter-sleeve Philippe Adec number with cropped pants, both in green doupioni silk.
There are other surprises. Ruttenstein said leather and suede had been the unexpected hit of bridge collections this spring. Bloomingdale’s has practically sold out of DKNY’s nude leather jackets, skirts and pants, which retailed up to $895, as well as Tahari’s coral-tinted suede skirts for $468 and Vakko’s python-print leather jeans-style jackets for $450.
“Nobody had any idea it was going to sell that well,” he said. “In the past, those things have sold best in the fall.”
Still, despite the signs of improvement for spring, retailers describe the future growth potential in bridge as conservative. A recent study by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter estimated the bridge business peaked in 1996 and has declined about 8 percent a year since. The investment firm is forecasting flat sales for 2000, as reported.
Stordahl said Neiman Marcus had scaled back its bridge area in terms of space, number of vendors and inventory levels.
“Our whole strategy continues to be growing fine apparel and keeping the bridge area more flat,” she said, adding that the retailer has concentrated on adjusting the amount of merchandise on the floor “to better reflect the demand.”
Nordstrom, based in Seattle, also remains skeptical about a major turnaround in bridge.
“I haven’t seen any significant improvement,” said Annette Dresser, vice president of women’s contemporary, an area that includes more “modern” bridge resources like DKNY and Tahari and fast-growing contemporary vendors such as BCBG Max Azria, Laundry by Shelli Segal, Vertigo and Theory. “[Bridge] could do better. We would definitely like more modern workwear from our bridge resources. There has been a void in our mix, and customers are asking for it.”
Dresser said some of Nordstrom’s best-selling items were what she called “modern jackets” that tend to be soft in construction and attitude and can be worn for a variety of occasions, dressed up or down. These include zip-front jackets with banded collars, jeans-jacket styles in updated fabrics and long “topper” jackets that are a few inches above the knee and can be worn with skirts or pants. Other salable trends are suede and leather pants and skirts, “techno stretch” pants and feminine blouses.
Dresser stressed that bridge needs more fashion items to compete with the fast-growing contemporary sector.
“Our customers are so busy and they don’t go looking for product just to wear to work,” she said. “I feel the category can definitely be viable if resources evolve with what the customer is demanding.”