VENDORS GAME FOR FALL SWEEPS
Byline: Rosemary Feitelberg
NEW YORK — Sometimes it takes an Olympian effort to get things going.
Challenged by the fact that women’s activewear has not taken off as much as it has been hyped, manufacturers expect the category to get a boost from the exposure this September from the Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, as well as a push from the development of more performance-oriented fabrics and the advent of new fitness-specific activities.
At an Adidas fashion show Monday, U.S. soccer player Shannon MacMillan noted that her team’s games would all be televised. That was not the case four years ago during the Olympics in Atlanta, even though MacMillan and her team won the gold medal.
“That shows how far we’ve come since ’96,” she said. “I hope it brings growth and viewers to our sport and other women’s sports.”
As the official outfitter of the U.S. Olympic Committee, Adidas will suit up athletes for the awards ceremonies. In August, the company will begin selling replica $120 warmups to select sporting goods stores and at its online Olympics concept shop at Adidas.com.
Through separate deals, Adidas is also sponsoring the U.S. teams for gymnastics, boxing, weightlifting, fencing and men’s volleyball. In total, the brand is outfitting about 3,500 athletes in 26 sports.
Adidas will launch an Olympic-oriented advertising campaign in early August and is considering TV commercials.
Nike expects Olympic track star Marion Jones, the most widely hyped female track star since Wilma Rudolph, to bring home some gold from the Games and raise awareness about female athletes.
Jones, a Nike-sponsored athlete and former NCAA basketball champion, aims to be the first female track star to win five gold medals at an Olympic Games.
“I think there will be a lot of interest in Marion Jones — not just the athlete but the story behind the person,” said Jackie Thomas, director of women’s marketing for Nike.
In the next few months, Nike plans to share her story, as well as the stories of lesser-known athletes and fitness enthusiasts through its new integrated marketing plan. The pitch is designed to appeal to a broader base of female athletes, not just hardcore participants, Thomas said. Nike knows that many consumers are intimidated by the muscular, elite athletes who routinely appear in its ads, she added.
“For most women, sport is probably — at best — two hours of their day. We want to connect with them with what they do the other 22 hours. In the past, we’ve defined for consumers what sport is, instead of allowing them to define it for us.”
Wieden & Kennedy is working on “one of the most substantial investments” Nike has made in marketing to women. In January, the print and TV campaign will be introduced, with Internet ties, customized magazines and other marketing tools bowing next spring.
Nike also plans to present a more stylish image by designing more looks that can be worn on or off the courts. The brand will introduce its first yoga-inspired collection in 2001.
Next month, Puma will launch Nuala, a yoga-inspired collection developed with supermodel Christy Turlington. For the launch, she will make special appearances at the Saks Fifth Avenue stores here in Manhattan and in Beverly Hills, Calif., and Boca Raton, Fla.
Serena Williams, a Puma-sponsored athlete who just won the Wimbledon doubles title, with her sister, Venus, the singles champ, is expected to make a splash for the brand at the Olympics and at the U.S. Open. She will sport a fashionable tennis look at both events that will be offered to consumers later in the year, according to Alden Sheets, president of worldwide apparel and accessories.
In terms of retail, sporting goods stores and department stores are still struggling with the women’s activewear business, Sheets said.
“Our international business is phenomenal. But in the U.S., big stores are seeing blah sales,” he said.
“The smaller a unit gets, the more successful the business seems to be. Maybe it’s because they specialize more, turn inventories quicker or focus on fashion.”
In that same vein, Puma is looking for sites in San Francisco and Boston to open freestanding stores similar to its unit in Santa Monica, Calif.
Companies like Danskin, Prana, Prince and Fitigues aren’t banking on the Olympics to drive second-half business, but they said their efforts are equally strong.
Carol Hochman, president and chief executive officer of Danskin, said, “Even though the total business is not good in sporting goods stores, women’s apparel is definitely outstripping other businesses.”
Sporting goods stores’ renewed interest in the category, lifestyles trends, an emphasis on performance-oriented fabrics, refocused design, and improved production are some of the reasons why women’s activewear sales are strong, she said.
In recent months, Danskin has fine-tuned its production by having its factories focus on specific items and using contractors for other styles. Performance-oriented bottoms, for example, are made at Danskin’s facility in York, Pa., and cotton knit items are now produced by a contractor in Guatemala.
The company has also increased its commitment to women’s sports. The Danskin Triathalon Series, a competition for women, has added its seventh site, a race in Orlando, Fla., in September. That should increase participation to 25,000 — a 25 percent increase over last year’s series, Hochman said.
Prince has put the brakes on its fitness wear collection, which was tested last year, in order to focus more on its core apparel business — tennis wear. To try to attract a broader base of women, the company has diversified its tennis line to include items such as tanks and tennis dresses with sewn-in sports bras, said Sandy Connelly, product manager for apparel.
“We did away with the fitness collection because the market was already saturated,” she said. “Also, people see our name and know we’re in tennis.”
The fall tennis line also has a greater emphasis on lightweight technical fabrics since “customers definitely respond to them,” Connelly said.
Active Apparel Group, the maker of Everlast activewear, is using technical fabrics like EverDri, a proprietary polyester microfiber, and Lycra spandex blend in its line. The company is also offering more leggings and capri pants to make the collection more stylish, said George Horowitz, president and ceo of AAG.
“The women’s activewear business is growing nationwide, due to changes in the lifestyle areas,” he said.
Given that, AAG is working with retailers to promote special events, by e-mailing customers and hosting special performances. Last month AAG unveiled its renovated 15,000-square-foot showroom, which is 40 percent larger than its previous one. A boxing ring, additional office and display areas have been added to the site at 1350 Broadway.
Later this month, Everlast will offer demos and dancers at The Sports Authority’s store opening in Tampa, Fla., and Sportchalet’s store opening in Chino Hills, Calif.
On another front, Prana, a Carlsbad, Calif.-based company that has focused on climbing apparel, has branched out into women’s yoga-inspired apparel. In the next six months, the company plans to mail at least 10,000 catalogs, said Mike Hill, who shot the book and serves as marketing manager.
With the word “Prana,” a Sanskrit name that means life force, people in the yoga community respond to the product even though they are unfamiliar with the company, Hill said. In addition to the catalog, Prana’s yoga-inspired activewear is offered at yoga studios.
Cargo pants with a drawstring waistband at $42 and a camisole at $32 are current bestsellers.
For holiday, Fitigues, a $30 million Chicago-based activewear maker and retailer, is offering its first ski-inspired line. The Teflon-coated 18-piece group was two years in the making, according to Andi and Steve Rosenstein, the couple who own the company.
Cotton thermals, nylon bonded mesh and wool and cashmere blends are used in the collection, which wholesales from $48 to $80.
Fitigues aims to sell the line to the top-20 ski specialty stores, and sales of the ski-inspired line should account for 20 percent of the company’s retail sales and mail-order business for holiday, Rosenstein said.
Activewear makers are expecting a big boost from the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, in September.
Adidas, the brand that will outfit 3,500 athletes at the Summer Games, will play up its ties to Sydney in an upcoming ad campaign, and Nike plans to share women athletes’ stories through an integrated marketing plan.
Yoga Lessons: Nike plans to launch a yoga line in January, Prana has introduced a catalog dedicated to yoga wear, and Puma will debut its yoga-inspired Nuala label next month.
Puma is scouting for retail space in Boston and San Francisco.
Fitigues will unveil a ski-inspired line for holiday.