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NEW YORK — While the business world is getting a little more dressed up, there’s no sign of a slowdown in the casual arena.

This story first appeared in the March 19, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Maybe it’s due to an increased emphasis on personal time and life outside of work, but “lifestyle” is the mantra these days with everyone from major brands and firms like Liz Claiborne, Jones New York, Sag Harbor, Rousso Apparel Group, Tommy Bahama and Tommy Hilfiger to Sigrid Olsen, White + Warren, August Silk, City DKNY, Lynn Ritchie, French Cuff, Dockers and Contrepoint — all offering a variety of options for life outside work.

Even retailers such as Nordstrom calls one of its catalogs “Lifestyle” — featuring easy, relaxed clothes like washable suede barn coats, printed T-shirts and comfortable shoes to complete the look.

Because casual is so hot, direct retailer Newport News president Geralynn Madonna said the company is expanding its casual offerings for fall.

“We’re really based on versatility and when the customer sees a fabulous jacket, we show her how to use it in a casual way and dressy way,” Madonna said. “Our customer doesn’t want to spend even $25 on an item if she can’t do different things with it.”

As Bernard Holtzman, president of Harvé Benard, whose casual business represents about 30 percent of its $30 million volume, said: “Casual is the way people want to look and it gives you a certain individuality. It’s not cookie-cutter, which is the way we used to dress. It has nothing to do with the workplace because people dress by profession. It’s weekendwear, an extension of yourself and it gives you a chance to be more individual. It’s an awesome category and it’s not what it was a few years ago.”

In the sportswear arena, Holtzman said the casual business is what’s looking the hottest — with playful items like silk cargo pants and zippered hooded sweatshirts looking the newest and also offering comfort, which is key.

“When people are buying, they’re selecting casual things that fit into their lifestyle,” he said. “With work, you change your sweater or blouse and you have a whole new outfit. But emotionally, casual is what people are being drawn to. Comfort is a big factor. Anything hooded is blowing out of the store, so maybe it’s like you’re back in a cocoon in your hooded jacket,” given the war and terrorism worries gripping the nation.

Christina Dolce, director of sales and marketing at Contrepoint, said women don’t just want to wear T-shirts and jeans anymore, hence the popularity of the peasant top last year. The company has sales of about $8 million to $10 million annually operating in the better arena.

“This Baby Boomer customer is multitasking and running around with her older children or younger grandchildren,” Dolce said. “She needs a versatile wardrobe.”

Barbara Benenson Warren, co-founder of the better-to-bridge knitwear maker White + Warren, agreed, saying: “The majority of our business is done in casual wear. The whole casual lifestyle is not just about a trend, but it’s what’s happening at the cultural level. Our lifestyles have changed tremendously where the demand for formal attire is just diminishing.”

Likewise, Heather Pech, group president at Jones Apparel Group overseeing the casual lifestyle brands of Jones New York Sport and Easy Spirit, said consumers have changed the way they dress over the last couple of years and all directions are pointing toward casual.

“There’s been an emphasis on comfort and that’s the number one driver for purchase,” Pech said. “Casual is no longer about weekend dressing. Casual and lifestyle is really 24-seven. It’s how people want to live, dress and how they want to feel. The product is about versatility, and you can have anything from knit dressing to velour active leisure, dressy stretch fabrics, woven shirts and knit tops. It has to work for her seven days a week, but also 12 months a year.”

Liz Claiborne executive vice president Trudy Sullivan said the company views the casual category as an extremely lucrative business, taking up a significant chunk of its $3.72 billion in sales last year. Its main casual brands are Lizsport, Lizwear Jeans and Liz & Co., while even bridge lines Ellen Tracy and Dana Buchman have casual components.

“We look at casual as ranging from really relaxed to ultra-weekend all the way through to dress casual, which is a bit more refined,” Sullivan said. “I’d say every apparel line has a casual component now. It’s everywhere and it’s just how people live today.”

For the company’s spring advertising campaign, it sent a very relaxed, casual message by photographing model Vendela with her real friends and family members. “This is a real-life situation,” she said. “Our customers can relate to their lives. They’re not aspiring to be anything than what they are. We thought a campaign to show real moments was the way to go. But there are elements in it that go from most casual to relaxed casual to refined casual. The good thing about casual is there is a good spectrum of choice and once you have this range, it’s hard to give it up.”

City DKNY and Tommy Hilfiger’s spring ad campaigns also showed a more casual, relaxed side.

Shot in the Caribbean island of Mustique, the Tommy campaign features natural shots of couples on the beach wearing casual clothes like linen shirts, relaxed pants, miniskirts and drawstring pants. Peter Connolly, president of marketing at Tommy Hilfiger USA, said the campaign looks real and authentic, and “develops the synergy between the clothes, the location and Tommy’s vision, and how Mustique inspired the spring collection. It just all looks like it should be together.”

City DKNY showed several shots of a girl on the streets of Manhattan for its campaign, wearing versatile looks like a ribbed tank with a white trenchcoat, zip-front jackets and cargo pants. Company president Ninette Ricca said featuring images depicting multipurpose and multiuse products was important in a world where people are looking to get the most options out of their wardrobe.

For fall, the company will continue in this direction with a variety of options that could go from day through weekend, such as corduroy jackets with feminine detailing; velvet jackets and flat-front pants; boiled-wool peacoats, and stylish velour active-leisure pants and hoodie sweatshirts.

“She’s an ageless customer, and for her, everything depends on her lifestyle,” Ricca said. “The important thing is having the feel of casual and multifunction and versatility.”

Meanwhile, newer and updated brands on the casual lifestyle scene include RQT, a division of Requirements, Caribbean Joe and SoHo Compagnie. Dorene Gorman, division head and designer director of RQT, which is planned to launch at retail this fall, said: “There are a lot of Baby Boomers who are not dowdy women yet don’t have a lot of options for casual lifestyle clothing. Maybe now they’re ordering from J.Crew or Sundance, but that doesn’t address it for the whole population.”

Gorman has first-season expectations of $2 million, with first-year projections at $5 million. The line will feature items in cotton stretch, such as cargo looks and flat-front pants, all wholesaling for $12.50 to $16.50.

Caribbean Joe principal Ken Sitomer said the casual sportswear line that launched last year has far exceeded sales projections.

“The margins, they really came back and we’ve increased within the doors,” Sitomer said. “We put a lot of marketing into place — you’d call it a soft shop, according to the stores. But the signage and the fixtures have made a big difference.”

First-quarter sales this year are expected to hit $40 million to $41 million, compared with last year’s first quarter of $9 million, Sitomer said. The formula: moderate, casual clothes with tropical influences.

“When you truly do give value, it reflects in good selling, low markdowns and, every 30 days, we offer new product, something new to buy,” he added.

Taking a cue from better-priced retailers like Zara and Chico’s, which offer stylish options for casualwear, Amit Datwani, vice president of SoHo Compagnie, expects to hit a $3 million sales goal in 2003.

“We thought that more fashionable casual sportswear would filter into the moderate market, so we updated our line,” Datwani said. “Everyone is saying their customer is looking for something different and new. The main concern is getting it within the right missy fit. But we take the big trends from the designer market and junior market and interpret them for this customer.”

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