HOPE FOR HOSE
FALL PROMISES RELIEF FOR THE WILTED LEGWEAR MARKET, ESPECIALLY IF A BACKLASH AGAINST CASUAL PANS OUT.
Byline: Alice Welsh Doyle
The siege may be breaking for the hosiery market as soon as this fall. So say manufacturers who, after several years of suffering from trends encouraging bare-leggedness, are counting on help from new product innovations and the latest shifts in the fashion world and the workplace.
Relief, if indeed imminent, won’t be arriving a moment too soon. Manufacturers unanimously re-port that sales have eroded mostly because of the growth of the casual workplace and fashion’s focus on the bare leg. “Sales started to decline after 1993, with the mass market hit hard first, then traditional department stores and now designer brands in the last 18 months,” explained Karen Bartoletti, vice president and general manager of licensed and specialty brands at Sara Lee Hosiery.
“The sheer business in department stores has been declining about five percent a year since 1994,” said Julia Townsend, vice president and general manager of women’s department store brands at Kayser Roth Corp. “Designer hosiery did not begin to decline until 1999, and it’s continued into 2000. Sheer hosiery is definitely the most difficult part of the total legwear business.”
Manufacturers were cheered by what they saw on the runways for fall — lots of skirts, covered legs and a more elegant, refined look.
“Apparel is moving toward feminine dressing, more interest in skirts — and the blouse is back,” said Townsend, noting that she’s also been encouraged by all the covered legs in fall magazine editorials.
Others appear to be less convinced of the power of media to influence legs. “We really focus on what the customer wants, not what’s shown in Vogue,” noted Barbara Russillo, president of DML Legale Hosiery.
Nonetheless Russillo did acknowledge that DML was pleased with all the high-shaft boots on the runway, since their presence bodes well for tights.
Russillo added that the company is staying away from bright colors but will pick up on the mesh trend in classic colors. “Stores are a little gun-shy about newness, and some are even leery about mesh.”
Kayser Roth will be less conservative. Townsend said the firm believes in the mesh look for its Hue brand. It even added fishnet tights to its basics program along with two other new basics — a shaper tight with extra control in the panty and thigh area, and a matte opaque tight with higher denier. Customers can choose between five basics, priced at $17.50 retail for any two styles.
At DKNY, it’s “color, color, color, and less about texture,” said Bartoletti. Key color schemes include a pink/red group and greens, yellows and oranges. “It’s not just one color family but eye-popping color,” she added. Hanes’ fall line includes an “elegant blue” story as well. The Donna Karan line will focus on texture, but it will be imbued with a sense of luxury. “Beautiful hands with a luxurious feel,” described Bartoletti.
While such fashion details may come and go, legwear players agree that comfort is an everlasting trend. Manufacturers are focusing on innovative new yarns and styles that make wearing hosiery more enjoyable — especially control top.
For spring, Calvin Klein introduced a product called invisible control, said Kayser Roth’s Townsend. “It’s truly an innovation. It has the standard girdle-top support but without the visual panty. It’s sheer all the way up from toe to waist,” she explained.
“The control top has not changed much in 30 years, but it’s a product women really care about,” Townsend said. “Their complaints are that it doesn’t look sexy and it’s not comfortable. This new product has made a big difference in our business and accounts for 20 percent of sales.” Calvin Klein added an opaque version for fall; both retail for $11. Kunert, a German-based line in its second year here, is working with a new Dupont yarn. “It provides graduated compression, so it’s designed to revitalize and relax the legs. It provides better blood circulation in your leg and helps prevent fatigue,” explained Ernst Lange, president of Kunert USA.
Kunert is attempting to broaden its appeal beyond simple comfort with a line bearing the trademark Wellness.
The 40-product line includes special comfort bands that can be adjusted by the customer with a device included in the package. The line also features cotton soles and styles with aloe vera in the yarn.
Spanx is a new product entering the control mix this fall. It’s a cross between hosiery and classic control products such as the biker short. Based in Atlanta and created by Sara Blakely, Spanx produces footless pantyhose with seamless control. “It has a knitted band in the bottom that doesn’t leave a welt, and it can move anywhere from the knee to the ankle depending on what you’re wearing — capri pants, slacks, dresses,” explained Blakely, who spent two and a half years on the product’s prototype.
“There’s no rubber cord in the waist, and the gusset is all cotton, so you don’t have to wear underwear,” said Blakely. She went to market in August and, she said, has sold 3,000 pairs, with Neiman Marcus a major buyer. Spanx retails for $20.
Manufacturers said toeless styles are another product category doing well. “Toeless is a huge rage,” said Bartoletti. “Not everyone is comfortable with bare legs, but they don’t like their toes encased. We call it the ‘sausage’ look. They want a finished leg, to be more comfortable in strappy sandals or to show off a pedicure.”
Toeless, she said, has helped to renew interest among customers who’d strayed. “Those who opted out of hosiery now have this as an option.”
Donna Karan is also featuring toeless in her popular Nudes collection.
Hue is introducing toeless for spring, said Kayser Roth’s Townsend. “It’s a niche product primarily for younger customers. And based on our consumer research, it’s an item especially appropriate for spring/summer, because of the shoe styles.”
Toeless styles will be a part of a larger program called “summer options,” devoted to products designed for particular types of shoes, said Townsend.
Along with innovation and fashion, changes in workplace and consumer attitudes may also give fall sales a shot in the arm. “The corporate casual dress codes are getting a review by a lot of businesses,” said Sid Smith, president of the Hosiery Association. “Companies tell us that they’re not going away, but casual is being reinterpreted, because they went too far from the initial vision.”
At the same time, casual has not necessarily been all bad for legwear. The acceptance of casual dress in the workplace has also given some women the freedom to go against that grain. “There are a number of women who, even though they can be casual, will choose to dress up on certain days. Dressing up in the workplace makes people feel polished, professional and finished.”
Kunert believes that with so much fashion emphasis on the leg, “there is a group of people who will return to hosiery as a part of their daily outfit; they are going back to skirts and suits.”
Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but there are encouraging signs in the workplace.
According to a benefits survey by the Society of Human Resource Management, casual dress peaked in 1999, with 95 percent of employers offering some form of casual dress, either once a week, every day or in some other mix. That figure has dropped to 87 percent in 2000.
“It’s too soon to tell if it’s a trend,” cautioned Kristin Accipiter, a spokesperson for the group; next year’s statistics will give a better indication of whether dressing down is seriously being reevaluated.