By Julee Greenberg
It can take time, but for contemporary designers, it’s all about building an empire.
Even if these companies may be smaller than the major design houses, designers in the contemporary sportswear market — serving a wide range of women — are really gaining ground. It shows in the numbers. While the sportswear market as a whole is a $39 billion industry, the contemporary sector is a fast-growing piece of the pie, representing between 10 and 15 percent of market share.
However, it’s also a difficult area to define: Some find their spot as a natural progression from trendy junior brands for women entering their early 20s, while others stake their claim as designer brands at better prices for women of all ages.
Whatever the target customer, many department stores are extending their mixes and specialty stores are delving deeper into the realm, raising the profile of the contemporary crowd.
“It seemed as if this market used to be a watered-down version of designer,” said Julia Neaman, owner and designer of the three-year-old Julia brand. “Today, more than ever, contemporary is its own entity.”
Whether they are brands that have been around for years or fashion fledglings, contemporary designers all seem to have the same goal: to grow their brands into complete lifestyles offering everything from home products to shoes.
Some recent examples among the established firms:
- Rebecca Taylor just scored a deal with Vans to create a special edition line of sneakers.
- Betsey Johnson is launching her much-anticipated Betseyville line for fall retailing.
- Cynthia Steffe is moving to a larger space to compensate for more lines shipping to retail each month.
Meanwhile, newer labels are making themselves known. In just six years, Juicy Couture has grown to more than $47 million in sales and remains a top seller at Bloomingdale’s and Scoop. Seeing the potential in the contemporary brand, Juicy was purchased by Liz Claiborne Inc. in March.
After the success of Walter Baker’s View Collection, he recently launched Walter, a higher-end version of View. Today, Baker’s two brands have helped him reach the $25 million mark.
Then there’s the newbie So Low. The nearly two-year-old brand has gotten off well, tracking to hit $3 million to $6 million in sales this year.
“I really wanted to get into contemporary because these are the clothes I buy myself,” said Sarah Siegel-Magness, owner of the Los Angeles-based So Low. “It’s always the most exciting section of the stores and it’s a lifestyle thing. It’s something I can wear and understand.”
During the past two years, So Low has made a name for itself with its signature runway/active-inspired clothes and mixing of french terry with cotton woven fabrics on pants, hoodies and skirts. But Siegel-Magness really hit it big when hot young actress Hilary Duff wore a So Low striped skirt on the movie poster for “The Lizzie McGuire Movie,” which hit theaters May 2.
“We got a lot of calls for that skirt,” she said. “It was great because it really helped us get our name out there. The poster was everywhere — on billboards in Times Square, on Sunset Boulevard, in magazines — just everywhere.”
While those in the industry compare So Low with Juicy Couture, Seigel-Magness isn’t concerned about the competition.
“I think there is a lot of room in this market for creativity,” she said, “As long as each company has a slightly different approach, then it’s fine. Juicy is a great company that has been around for a lot longer than I have. I’m inspired by them and I think that we can both run successful businesses and appeal to the same customer.”
While many of the newer labels are taking their time to develop the brand name, others have decided to jump into the mix by launching full lifestyle offerings. Now that Juicy Couture has the financial backing of Liz Claiborne, Pam Skaist-Levy and Gela Taylor, co-presidents and founders of the brand, plan to extend into new product offerings, as well as open freestanding Juicy stores. The same goes for Cynthia Steffe. Steffe still runs the day-to-day at the company, but the brand is financially backed by LF Brands.
“I’ve just started talking about getting into licensing,” Neaman said. “I’m looking into accessories and fragrances, but I may need to be more established before I get into licensing.”
Others would say they could use licensing in another way. It can be used to build the brand. That’s been the case with Nanette Lepore and Rebecca Taylor. Lepore has two licenses to help build her name — one to distribute in Japan and the other is a fragrance. Taylor just signed a license to produce and distribute a jewelry collection in Japan.
“For the first few years of our company we have strived to build a solid foundation, with no areas of concentration in terms of sale,” said Beth Bugdaycay, co-owner of Rebecca Taylor. “At this point, we believe that we have the foundation to enable us to reach out to different territories and provide easier accessibility to our vendors.”
That includes the new jewelry license, but also new for the Rebecca Taylor brand is handbags in the U.S.
“We are bringing our handbags into the U.S. for the spring collections,” Bugdaycay said. “We did very well in Australia, picking up over 20 new accounts, which is pretty miraculous, considering there are only 19 million people in Australia.”
Tibi’s designer Amy Smilovic has also taken a big step in branding. In the past, her label was mostly sold at small, high-end boutiques, but this year it is pushing the larger stores and is now in Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom and Harvey Nichols. Smilovic said she is looking at a few different opportunities for licensing, but has yet to sign anything. As of now, she creates collections for A Pea in the Pod maternity wear. Also this year she has created two labels, Pink, a casual element of Tibi, and Green, a dressier segment of the line.
Betsey Johnson has been in the contemporary business for 40 years and it was just last year that the designer attempted licensing. Her first license agreement was one to distribute throughout Europe and the second was to produce children’s wear under the Betsey Johnson label. Both license agreements, executives said, have outweighed expectations, causing the designer to look into further deals.
“We were always interested in licensing, but now we are really aggressively looking for partners so that we can launch items like lingerie and shoes,” Chantal Bacon, Johnson’s business partner told WWD in March when she announced the launch of Betseyville, a casual line produced in-house.
Tracy Reese, who has been in business for just about seven years, has just started thinking about licensing to grow her brand. Her $12 million company has expanded to this point entirely by her own, in-house collections — Tracy Reese and Plenty. Reese said she would like to sign licenses for home products and shoes, and is aggressively searching.
“Contemporary is the place for fast fashion,” Reese told WWD earlier this month. “The contemporary customer is hungry for the latest thing.”
That’s the exact reason Cynthia Steffe has increased her offerings so she can ship product to stores twice a month. Steffe said after browsing the contemporary departments of several department stores, she has seen the same women there week after week. So, the demand for newness in the contemporary area is increasingly gaining.
“It’s funny, I was in a store one day and the contemporary area was packed,” Steffe said. “I spoke to the sales associate and she said it was busier than it’s been. When I left I realized that it was the first day of school in September. These women sent their kids to school and rewarded themselves with some new clothes. It’s truly amazing how you can track their shopping patterns.”
Daniel Bohbot, owner of the two-year-old Hale-Bob line, said he has just begun his research into licensing. First, he said he wanted the line to be known for something. Bohbot, whose brother Marc owns True Meaning and Bisou Bisou, had years of experience in his family business, so he said he knew that there was a niche he could fill with Hale-Bob. Today, the brand has become known for its signature feminine printed chiffon and beaded sportswear and dresses.
Now on track to bring in $12 million this year, Bohbot said he’s in the process of preparing his first license, a Hale-Bob shoe line, ready for retail in time for holiday. While he said he plans to remain picky about choosing licensing partners, he would like to launch handbags, children’s wear and cosmetics.
While licensing seems to be on the minds of many contemporary designers, there are still those who choose to grow organically, without licensing. Andy Oshrin, president of Milly, understands his company’s limitations.
“There is no way that a small company like Milly can compete with those big ones,” Oshrin told WWD earlier this year. “But that’s not our plan. We are focusing on what we do well and what Milly represents. We aren’t trying to be somebody else.”
Oshrin said he isn’t ruling out the prospect of licensing in the future, but for now he and designer Michelle Smith are focusing on the growth of the core collection.
Lindsay Morris at Fork/// has a similar mentality. She said she isn’t looking into licensing and prefers to perfect her core line before opening up to anything else.
“We are focusing on our sales right now,” Morris said. “I’m finding out where are customers are and what they want to see from this line.”She said she’s noticing a change in the contemporary customer in recent years and plans to focus on that.
“This market has changed a lot over the years,” she said. “Right now, it seems like people are turning to contemporary to find that special piece to add to their wardrobe. I like where it is right now because I know I treat each piece in my collection as a piece of art.”
Photos By John Aquino