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One brand’s demise is another’s opportunity.

So goes the bridge market this year, as Dana Buchman exits the arena to become an exclusive moderate line for Kohl’s and Ellen Tracy transfers hands, creating an opening for other collections to fill the vast spaces these venerable brands once occupied. While this could be read as yet another bad sign for the long-troubled bridge market, players with a more contemporary aesthetic are looking at the change as the kick the tired floor has needed.

M Missoni, Tory Burch, Lafayette 148, Eileen Fisher and Magaschoni all are reporting increased space and orders for 2008 — up as much as 50 percent — even as general retail and macroeconomic environments contract, illustrating the shift has begun.

Charles Nolan, which launched exclusively with Saks Fifth Avenue in fall 2004, expanded into a full wholesale business with 185 doors for spring. A year after Premise’s spring 2007 launch, the line’s sales are up more than 10 percent from fall 2007 to fall 2008, going from 75 to 110 doors. Vittadini, a bridge-priced relaunch of Adrienne Vittadini, is returning to about 175 doors for fall, and other lines such as William & Augusta are choosing to launch in the bridge price range, reflecting a gradual shift from recent years when new design talent zeroed in on contemporary.

Compounding the market’s changes is the ongoing shift in the bridge consumers’ preferences, changing the departments from floors of power suits targeting a women in her 50s to ones filled with lines best described as “contemporary graduates.” According to Jill Doneger, a bridge market analyst for The Doneger Group, the thirtysomething consumer who grew up in contemporary, but has since grown out of it, now matches the numbers of the mainstay bridge customer.

“The customer and her circumstances have dramatically changed, and both better and bridge brands need to change with her — with fresher assortments, more youthful sensibilities, more forgiving silhouettes,” said Catherine Sadler, president of the New York marketing firm Catherine Sadler Group. “In bridge, many brands look like luxury versions of the contemporary floor and the younger, more casual brands (such as Tory Burch and Elie Tahari) are stealing space from old standbys like Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein.”

This story first appeared in the April 9, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Tory Burch is increasing door count and depth this year. The brand is in 300 doors, up about 20 percent from 2007. “Retailers are definitely being cautious but, despite that, we have seen an increase in purchases per door, and we’re cautiously expanding our doors,” said Tory Burch president Brigitte Kleine. “There’s definitely an opportunity for anybody new coming into this segment because the customer is not as loyal” to traditional bridge lines anymore.

Another brand with a strong personality, M Missoni, expects more than 50 percent growth in sales in 2008, ending the year with more than 200 doors, a double-digit rise, though most of the growth comes from gaining space within existing doors. Missoni’s diffusion brand sales have been growing at about 50 percent for three years, consistently gaining space in retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s, according to Graziano de Boni, president of sales, marketing and retail worldwide for Valentino Fashion Group, which holds the license for M Missoni.

“We’ve been on that floor for the last seven years, believing that this market would come back but, until two years ago, no one was looking at it as an opportunity,” de Boni said. “The change I expected is happening. Now bridge is going to be again an interesting floor for today’s consumers who are looking for more designed product. A lot of department and specialty stores are looking for resources in our department, while many other floors are slowing down.”

Lafayette 148 did about $75 million in wholesale volume in 2007, and expects to do about $92 million in 2008. The brand is in the same approximately 400 doors this season, but it expects almost 25 percent sales growth for the year — consistent with its growth rate for the last several years — due to gaining floor space, particularly for fall.

“With the changes on the floor this year, we have certainly become a more important resource to our retailers,” said Lafayette 148 president Debra Clark. “We’ve seen our growth coming from our existing retailers, as we have increasingly been gaining space on the floors.”

Charles Nolan, a bridge veteran who spent a decade at Ellen Tracy before leaving as chief designer in 2001 and then did a two-year stint at Anne Klein before starting his own line in 2004, said the retail environment — and the bridge customer in particular — has changed and that those mainstay brands did not change to address the changing customer needs.

“Just because you have a formula doesn’t mean you can do the same thing forever,” Nolan said. “The key is to recognize the different mind-set of the customer. The key shift that happened culturally is everybody is younger today than she was 10 years ago, and the social definition of what she needed from her clothing has changed. Bridge was a bridge between designer and popular price clothes, but does that even exist anymore — doesn’t a woman have everything in her wardrobe? Instead of thinking of our brand as a bridge business, we think of it as a designer house with more affordable prices.”

This customer doesn’t want the boxy suits in beige, black and red that the bridge department consistently delivered for years. She wants color, fashion and a cut that’s more forgiving than contemporary, but still more slim than the ample cut traditionally associated with bridge.

Doneger predicted that a single resource won’t immediately reclaim the entire space vacated by Dana Buchman and the transition of Ellen Tracy, but rather retailers will test several vendors by giving them additional space. According to Doneger, for the bridge customer, quality and fabric are the priorities, followed by fit and finally price.

“There is an opportunity with all of the closings,” said Roseanne Morrison, fashion director for The Doneger Group, the fashion merchandising consulting firm in New York. “Bridge is the biggest opportunity since contemporary took off — it may take five years, but it’s starting. This woman is the one with money to spend.”

Retailers are trying to adapt to this taste by dropping the term bridge from their floors. Saks Fifth Avenue now calls its floor Modern and Bloomingdale’s calls its The New View. Those floors look more like contemporary floors than their prior incarnations.

“If you think of the customer as the graduate of contemporary, she likes fashion and she will be more adventurous,” Morrison said. “Even when she wears a jacket, she’s not wearing it as a suit, but rather as a new layering piece.”

The bridge department can also expect a big boost for fall from the return of the jacket, which has always been associated with the department because it caters to professional women. The “outfit completer” is also a high ticket item that shoppers will pay more for than pants or a top, even if they only buy one for the season.

In addition to the sportswear jacket, outerwear is also playing an important role. “Even though we are sportswear manufacturers, outerwear has been incredible,” said Wesley R. Card, chief executive officer of Jones Apparel Group, which own Anne Klein, adding that orders for the brand are down for 2008. “When the economy is tough, nobody says to her, ‘You are wearing the same coat two days in a row.'”

Ironically, the tough economic conditions may stand to benefit bridge. In part, it has encouraged a “trickling down into bridge both up and down” from designer or contemporary, according to Doneger. “With the way of the world today, people are investment buying — and that’s how bridge came about,” Doneger said, adding that people are buying more for need than want, and closer to season.

At Lord & Taylor, bridge sales are trending well, but the stores have “considerably less inventory,” according to Lavelle Olexa, L&T’s senior vice president of advertising, sales promotion and public relations. Olexa added “we will continue to rework the floor and bring in new and important resources,” which this season included Premise, Ports 1961, Badgley Mischka’s bridge line and Charles Nolan.

“We’re more edited than we’ve ever been. We think it’s really important for the customer to see what’s new, including colors, prints, fuller skirts and jackets,” Olexa said. “It’s always the basics that suffer when people respond to the difficult economy because they want something that will make a difference in their wardrobe, so it becomes an emotional purchase.”

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