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NEW YORK — Change is the order of the day in better sportswear.

Relaunches and new brands are hitting the selling floors. For next fall, Nautica will enter the arena, and Calvin Klein and Liz Claiborne will each get a face-lift. Last season, Kenneth Cole Reaction (produced by Bernard Chaus) and City Unltd., (produced by Liz Claiborne Inc.) launched on the better floors. This comes after years in which mainstays like Jones New York, Anne Klein and Lauren Ralph Lauren dominated.

It isn’t the first time manufacturers have seen the opportunity for growth in the better area. About two years ago, companies hoped to fill the space occupied by Lauren Ralph Lauren, which at the time was produced by Jones Apparel Group. As the Lauren license was being transferred back to Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., Tommy Hilfiger started H Hilfiger, Jones launched Jones Signature, Michael Kors came out with Michael Michael Kors and Liz Claiborne created Realities. In the shakeout, H Hilfiger dropped from the wholesale race, but is now being relaunched in its own retail format; Michael Michael Kors went through growing pains, but worked its way back; Realities went under, and Claiborne ended its license for City DKNY and replaced it with City Unltd.

“Up until about a year ago, the focus has been on the junior customer and all of the money teens have to spend,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD Group, Port Washington, N.Y. “Now the focus has shifted to the Boomer consumer, who is gaining steam on their spending and starting to spend more on apparel than teens.”

Women overall last year spent $97 billion on apparel, a number that continues to rise, Cohen said. In 2005, teens spent $41 billion on apparel, up from $39 billion in 2004. Boomers spent $34.5 billion on apparel last year, compared with $34.3 billion in 2004. While the teen number rose significantly, Cohen predicted Boomers will soon spend more than teens.

Although teens have enormous spending power, the Baby Boomers will spend more as their disposable income increases, while teens will spend less. “In just about two years, Baby Boomers will be spending more than teens,” Cohen said.

This story first appeared in the March 22, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

With increased competition at retail, brands are being forced to take charge and make changes, he said. This competition doesn’t happen only among brands that hang together on the same floor, but across a wider sector.

Liz Claiborne realizes that those changes need to take place. The company hired a new designer, Richard Ostell, to overhaul the collection and add more value and career-related pieces. Now, with Jones Apparel Group contemplating a sale of the company (see related story on page 1), changes in that better business could be on the horizon.

“This customer shops in more than one place in order to find value,” Cohen said, “so these better brands are competing with mass retailers, who are adding more fashionable merchandise, and they are also competing with moderate, who are working to increase their value with better fabrics and added details.”

Cohen said that 55-year-old women want to look like they are 35, but in a modern, more appropriate way.

“We see that these women still have the money to spend, but in order for us to get her to spend it, designers need to address her needs,” said Jill Doneger, a market analyst at The Doneger Group, a buying office here. “They need to realize that if they lower the rise on their pants, it still cannot be too low. They need to keep the sleeves on, since many women don’t like showing their arms. These were the biggest problems not addressed at first.”

Designers finally seem to be on the right track, she said.

Andrea Goldreyer, another market analyst at Doneger who follows the better sportswear market, said there has been an increase in spending on career-related apparel.

“There’s been a real turn-around in career,” she said. “She’s buying suit essentials, which is really new and encouraging since it’s been more casual in the past.”

Goldreyer said customers are picking up on pants and jackets, which has been good for business since jackets are usually expensive pieces on the floor.

Retailers said that overall, the better market is on the right course. The consumer is looking for modern classic, not trendy fashion, and the labels on the better floor have been improving their mix to meet the changing needs of the shopper.

“The world, as well as fashion is changing,” said Tom Crystal, senior vice president and general merchandise manager for Boscov’s, a 40-unit family-owned chain based in Reading, Pa. “Women today want to look sharper, not necessarily trendy, but modern and in good taste. These people on the better floor make attractive, age-appropriate clothing when there is a shortage of that in other areas of retail.”

Nicole Fischelis, fashion director for Macy’s East, agreed.

“Each brand on the floor has its own identity, which is a great mix for our stores,” she said. “I think the floor looks better than ever; everything is very aspirational and on the right track.”

Fischelis said she was impressed with the new look of Calvin Klein, and is devoting a great deal of space to the relaunch in the fall, complete with window displays on the Broadway side of the Herald Square flagship.

“The new designer [Chris Jackson, who joined from DKNY] has totally captured what Calvin Klein should be,” she said. “It’s modern and great looking, I see great things for the brand.”

Fischelis also mentioned Michael Michael Kors as a strong brand on the floor.

“Michael is very involved in the line, which brings a great taste level and great spirit to the product,” she said.

Fischelis said she is also doing well with pieces from City Unltd. and Kenneth Cole Reaction. “They are evolving in a positive way,” she said.

Crystal said he always has success with Liz Claiborne, Jones New York, Lauren Ralph Lauren, Anne Klein, Sigrid Olsen and Rafaella.

“Jones has always been great, but now they are even better, with more novelty and added touches that really make them special,” he said. “Liz is also doing a great job.”

Crystal is particularly looking forward to bringing Nautica into the mix next fall.

“I was so pleasantly surprised with Nautica,” he said. “It looks really great, and Denise [Seegal, president and chief executive officer of VF Sportswear Inc.’s Nautica and Kipling brands] is a great merchant. She has a hit with this one. The collection is refined, beautiful and done in great taste.”

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