Bridge sportswear and ready-to-wear has quite a cross to bear.

This story first appeared in the June 19, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

There’s no apparel category that is more misunderstood and less clearly defined than bridge, yet it holds a vital spot in many key stores and is home to some of the top brands in the business.

While industry insiders commonly talk about the seemingly straightforward term, there is still confusion today as to what the bridge market really encompasses and who the bridge customer really is. Though it was originally invented in the early Eighties in an effort to logically describe the price point below the designer level and above the better zone, today the term connotes a variety of style sets with corresponding elements of sportswear, ready-to-wear and the overarching moniker of career apparel.

When asked to describe the bridge market, designers and retailers responded with a colorful set of answers ranging from those who called the term obsolete and passe all the way to one designer who dubbed it the “bastard area” of a department store.

“I don’t even know what the term means anymore,” said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director at Bergdorf Goodman. “We don’t use the name bridge internally because we don’t feel it’s applicable.”

According to several fashion executives, the negative connotations and dumpy aura surrounding the sector started in the mid-to-late Nineties, when retail floors were flooded with too much similar merchandise. Executives said secondary lines — a term invented to escape the bridge image — such as Emanuel by Emanuel Ungaro, DKNY and CK Calvin Klein led the bandwagon for Seventh Avenue firms looking to make a profit by increasing volume, which in turn led to too much diversity on the floor and a confused customer.

“About four years ago, [bridge] companies grew really quickly and then ended up with an abundance of merchandise rather than really being merchandised in an interesting way,” said Steve Fabrikant, chief executive officer and designer of his namesake line. “It was sort of how to make a quick buck.”

Fabrikant said it was tempting for businesses to sell as much as they could in the bridge market, in a type of strike-while-the-iron-is-hot mind-set, when a lot of designers started launching diffusion lines — another term invented to escape the bridge image. Fabrikant said a major mistake by these companies was creating bridge-priced items that were just watered-down versions of designer garments, instead of understanding the customer and designing accordingly.

At Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, understanding the lifestyle of the Oscar woman helped build that brand, according to president Maria Viccaro. She also said there was a misconception by the industry in recent years of who the bridge woman was, even though she acknowledged bridge as “just a price point.”

“We underestimated this customer’s sense of style,” said Viccaro. “She doesn’t want to look dowdy. I think it’s the responsibility of the manufacturer to provide some must-have product to buy immediately at full price. I think the manufacturers who were doing bridge had the wrong image.”

Viccaro said the bridge product became unappealing and boring in the late Nineties, even though the bridge customer wanted fashion in her wardrobe and appreciated quality. She explained the difference between bridge and designer customers by comparing them with two models of Mercedes-Benz: “The designer customer is an S500 and the bridge customer is a C-Class, but they’re both a Mercedes.”

The combination of the economy and Sept. 11 has also affected who the bridge woman is today. Executives agreed that the bridge woman has a different set of priorities following the terrorist attacks, especially in regards to spending a lot of money on apparel.

Teri Jon president Bruce Blaustein said tough financial times make women more value conscious, a situation that puts more emphasis on the bridge market, since a woman might think twice before shelling out big bucks for designer-priced clothes.

“Interest rates are low, stock portfolios have gone down, the dot-com crash, it all contributes,” Blaustein said. “A woman still wants to walk into a room and look like she’s wearing a $2,000 dress and not have to spend that type of money. The bridge market is offering that now.”

Richard Tyler, who launched a bridge line called Tyler in April that retails mostly under $300, said offering less pricy clothing just makes sense nowadays. Tyler said he started the line out of a desire to make clothes for a younger and smarter clientele who knows how to be stylish.

“I don’t think [of Tyler] as bridge, but yeah, it is bridge,” Tyler said. “Instead of spending $900 on a pair of pants, spending $150 to $200 just makes more sense.”

For Tyler, the bridge women he designs for is young and could pull in a salary ranging from $50,000 to $200,000. At a recent Richard Tyler Couture trunk show at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, he said there were a lot of mothers that had been clients for over 10 years and were shopping with their daughters or daughters-in-law. He said both women liked the younger line and the elders snatched up items to pair with older Richard Tyler pieces from their closets, confirming his theory that the bridge market encompasses a wide range of women.

The clientele at Kors Michael Kors — the bridge line launched in 1996 — appeals to a woman who appreciates the quality, style and luxury that the line offers. According to Jeanine Elias, vice president of sales and merchandising at Kors, the bridge customer is not determined by age. Instead, she said Kors appeals to a wide audience that appreciates the quality of the line. She also stressed that Kors doesn’t talk down to the consumer.

“First there is a woman who buys mainly collection and a few pieces of bridge for her casual weekend clothes,” Elias said in reference to three general types of Kors customers. “Second, we have a customer who buys mainly bridge clothes as her base wardrobe and a few pieces of collection for special occasions. Lastly, there is a customer for whom bridge is still a bit of a reach — she mostly buys lower-priced clothes and will look to bridge for a few more expensive pieces each season.”

However, a younger woman is how Joan Kaner, senior vice president and fashion director at Neiman Marcus, described a new breed of bridge shoppers. While middle-aged career women used to make up the majority of the bridge population, Kaner said younger career women are vying for a piece of the market, since they don’t have a place to shop for stylish work clothes.

“There is a young woman who is going into her first job as a recent college graduate and needs clothing,” Kaner said. “Little cropped tops and low-slung trousers aren’t going to make it in the business world. I think they realized they were missing that audience.”

Kaner also said that bridge lines, like other sectors in the fashion industry, started to represent a lifestyle. Elements of weekend wear, eveningwear and corporate attire in a woman’s wardrobe started to appear under one label. This resulted in companies updating their labels and offering more fashion with a younger attitude.

“I think everyone’s emphasis today is on the young woman,” said Kaner. “I think a lot of people want to be young and stylish and bridge used to be more serious, like investment interview suits. But then [vendors] realized she wanted something with a little more fashion.”

Even though fast fashion isn’t the objective for bridge, Kaner said the sector could benefit from shorter lead times to turn a trend sparked from the street. However, bridge executives said they didn’t want to take the emphasis on trends too far, out of fear they would end up looking like a contemporary line.

Still, companies such as Ellen Tracy, Chaiken, Elie Tahari and Anne Klein have all flaunted a younger attitude in efforts to level the bridge playing field.

Anne Klein recently revamped its image by hiring Charles Nolan to redesign the collection and by opening a slick SoHo boutique. Starting this fall, Anne Klein will be carried at Bergdorf’s, which Burke said would not have happened in the past.

“We never would have bought it the way it was before,” Burke said. “It’s not the Anne Klein it used to be. It’s very much an example of what the new bridge is.”

Burke also said the store offers lines that fit into the bridge price range, but defy the old stereotype of a career-oriented shopper, such as Catherine Malandrino, Katayone Adeli, Elie Tahari and Theory.

Chaiken is another bridge-priced line that shed its working girl image by trading in suited looks for eclectic item-driven styles, as creative director Jeff Mahshie puts his stamp on the clothes.

“I think bridge connotes more career clothes,” said Mahshie. “We know our customer to be a 30-year-old career girl, but she can also be young or older because we do a lot of mothers and daughters.”

While Mahshie said he doesn’t consider Chaiken as a bridge resource, he understands it’s sold there from a price standpoint.

When describing its bridge clientele, Saks Fifth Avenue takes a more general approach. According to Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising and communication, bridge was originally a price point, but the term is taking on new meanings today. She said the bridge shopper has evolved from a career-oriented woman to a lifestyle-driven sector that seeks appropriate clothes for all elements of a woman’s life.

“She’s not defined by a lifestyle,” Lividini said. “The bridge customer is every customer.”

What Is Bridge?

NEW YORK — Bridge means different things to different people. Here’s a sampling of how some key executives define the category:

“Basically, everyone knows that bridge is just a price point.”

— Maria Viccaro, president, Oscar by Oscar de la Renta

“I think bridge connotes more career and suit looks.”

— Jeff Mahshie, creative director, Chaiken

“For a while it was very career. Now it’s much more varied and lifestyle driven.”

— Dana Buchman

“I don’t even know what bridge is anymore.”

— Robert Burke, senior fashion director, Bergdorf Goodman

“The term bridge doesn’t mean anything anymore. We make beautiful, luxurious and elegant clothes that become reduced when people say, `Oh, Lafayette, they’re just a bridge resource.”‘

— Aileen Dresner, executive vice president, Lafayette 148 New York

“Bridge is that area just below designer, not quite known as gold range. It’s our opening price point.”

— Joan Kaner, fashion director, Neiman Marcus

“I’m not sure that I know how to define bridge. It’s broken up and segmented.”

— Howard Bloom, president, Chetta B

“With bridge now, it’s more fashion. It’s more of a designer’s point of view.”

— Richard Tyler

“In many cases, it’s a department. Bridge tends to be more career oriented.”

— Steve Fabrikant

“The specifications are much different than they used to be for the bridge woman. She’s the retired woman in Palm Beach or a lawyer’s wife or the lawyer herself.”

— Bruce Blaustein, president, Teri John

“The bridge customer is every customer. It’s evolving from something that was just a price point into something that is lifestyle.”

— Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising and communication, Saks Fifth Avenue

Bridge Breakdown

Average age: 35-54

Salary: $50,000-$70,000

Household income: $100,000+

Average clothing size: 12

Average number of items bought at one time: 3

Percent of bridge customers that have graduated from college: 64

Percent that are full-time workers: 68

Percent that have children: 50

Percent of bridge women that will buy designer clothing: 7

Source: NPDFashionworld