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The images splashed across the big and little screens hold up the California ideal of women cavorting in pricy bikinis or navel-baring designer jeans. But, that’s only part of the state’s fashion picture.

This story first appeared in the January 22, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Many retailers shop California vendors in search of more than the contemporary and juniors fare that signifies the homegrown marketplace. It’s moderate they’re after, and powerhouses such as Koret, Byer California and John Paul Richard, along with a growing group of smaller manufacturers, are stocking the shelves nationwide.

Their advantage? The state’s moderate misses’ resources fold California flavor into their designs — flirting with casual, even sexier styling or looking to the directional contemporary market for ideas — all at prices the masses can afford.

“California clothes suit our resort lifestyle here, since our consumers come looking for fun, good-looking items that don’t have to be name brands,” said Eve Thomas, owner of Sports Connection in Sun Valley, Idaho, which carries a mix of moderate and better lines from California.

Despite the widespread popularity of the California aesthetic, the picture for the moderate sector is not entirely rosy, as firms are faced with the mandate to innovate or perish. Last month, Teddi of California, a moderate fixture in the state for more than 40 years with about $75 million in sales, shuttered its doors as it tried to regain course after vacillating between traditional and updated looks.

Innovation is key, but it takes many forms. Here is a look at some of the other top trends shaking up this market.

Pricing Pressure

Although vendors and retailers might debate the exact definition of the moderate customer, typically she is between the ages of 35 and 55, though customers a decade on either side of that range can fit the bill. She shops at price points from $35 to $75 retail per piece, and doesn’t go over the $100 mark.

With wholesale price points often less than half of retail, some moderate vendors are crying foul when they hear about the lofty markups.

Malibu Star owner Raffi Sarkissian said his two-year-old Encino-based activewear line of hoodies, bottoms and T-shirts, which wholesales for $18 to $24, often retails for $140 a set. He blames the overheated contemporary market, and the likes of Juicy Couture and its $200-plus athletic sets, for raising the pricing bar. “That market has pushed prices up, and they’re getting it,” he said.

Revisions At Retail

Giving product a greater fashion edge is a big trend in the moderate category, for both resources and retailers.

Malibu Star, which is expected to post $1 million in sales this year, has boosted demand and broadened its reach with garment-dyed colors tailored to geographic territories — such as brights for resort areas and darker colors for the East Coast. “Clean-cut clothes, but with appealing colors, are what customers want — they’re not hiding behind blacks and browns,” Sarkissian said.

Among stores, Gottschalks Inc., the Fresno-based department store chain, has said it prefers to follow a slow and steady formula to retail success and continue with its consistent vendors such as Koret and Columbia Sportswear.

In contrast, San Francisco-based Macy’s West has taken more dramatic steps to address the changing face of the sector. The chain, a division of Federated Department Stores Inc., which relies on California vendors such as Byer California’s AGB career line for its “trend-right product” and “quick turnaround,” is growing its fashion denim business with brands Kikit, Zena and French Cuff and introducing new vendors to the moderate zone.

“We are creating more of a moderate Impulse zone to highlight novelty tops with jeans and capris,” said Judy Larch, Macy’s West vice president and divisional merchandising manager of moderate sportswear, referring to the store’s Impulse contemporary department. “We’ve increased our penetration to updated versus traditional overall.”

Return To Youth

Influenced by the widespread popularity of the contemporary category, vendors such as Malibu Star and Calabasas-based John Paul Richard’s JPR Uniform are seeing an uptick in demand for younger silhouettes in their lines.

“There’s a resurgence in skirts now — from pleats to flounce — and we see them getting shorter, going up to 19 and 17 inches when 21 inches was the norm,” said JPR president Bertan Kalatchi.

Even mainstays in the business acknowledge that it’s time for adjustments.

“Our strategic plan is to broaden our merchandise mix to appeal to a wider audience. And you’ll see that happen in the next 18 months,” said Harold Brooks, president of San Francisco-based Koret, Kellwood Co.’s second-largest women’s business and home to brands such as Napa Valley, Melrose and the division’s namesake label.

Already the company has launched its Beliza label, a casual line of knit tops, sweaters and stretch bottoms with a bridge flair for moderate budgets, which is expected to ship in February and pull in $50 million in three to five years.

Updates To Denim

The emergence of California’s updated moderate denim players, who are servicing the trend-thirsty consumer left out of the contemporary denim flood of newcomers, is good news for some and bad for others.

Fallen denim giant Levi Strauss & Co., the California Gold Rush outfitter whose moderately priced blue jeans have apparently lost favor with the fashion savvy, has weathered seven straight years of declining sales after its revenue peak of $7.1 billion. In 2002, the company reported sales of $4.1 billion, and company officials have said 2003 will come in 2 to 3 percent lower.

On the other hand, junior denim resource Z. Cavaricci in Los Angeles has used its youthful heritage to its advantage, borrowing that styling for its 10-month-old misses’ denim line and keeping the same name for its youthful connection.

The 60-piece collection, carried by Marshall Field’s and Dillard’s, offers denim jeans, twills, skirts and dresses in toned-down versions of the younger brand, with simpler washes, flares and stitching. “Buyers kept telling us that this department needed help, that consumers were being underserved and — holy smokes — there was money to be made,” said president Jim Cavaricci. Wholesale prices average $18, with first-year sales projections of $10 million, Cavaricci said.

Moderate dressmaker 24 Karat in Walnut, a city in Southern California’s Inland Empire, is known for its Indian-styled product and launched a denim division last year, embellishing jeans with embroidery and sequins. The line is now carried at Nordstrom Rack and Sakani Spa and Salon in Oakhurst, 20 miles outside Yosemite, as well as at stores in Chicago.

Prints Charming

Print-driven looks are what keep a number of retailers coming to California resources in search of novelty and joie de vivre.

“Prints are what’s popular here — from nautical to surfboards to lighthouses — and that’s something I’ve found in California and other resort areas such as Hawaii and Florida,” said Heysa Janssen, owner of Cinnamon Bay in Aptos, 10 miles south of Santa Cruz, which carries California lines Weekend Clothes Line, Citron and Faith.

That’s good news for Weekend Clothes Line, a division of contemporary and resortwear group Line-Up, based in Irvine. The moderate line, which focuses on updated weekend-driven sportswear in stretch fabrics with conversational prints, launched 18 months ago. First-year sales eclipsed $2 million, according to owner Kevin Knight.

“California is driving this market all day — sportswear with lively prints that stand out and give this business a kick,” Knight said.

Making The Brand

Particularly in moderate sportswear, to compete against the deeper pockets of New York titans Liz Claiborne Inc. and Jones Apparel Group, smaller companies often find themselves playing catch-up.

At Biyaycda, a sportswear firm in Carson, 20 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, the $40 million business is projected to grow 15 percent this year, buoyed by strength in tops and skirts.

Based on those numbers, owner Lisa Minardo plans to boost hiring by 10 percent this year. However, what’s missing from her strategy, as well as that of other California moderate vendors, is branding — the name recognition they’ll need in order to play David to Claiborne’s Goliath.

“We all agree that we need to turn Biyaycda into a brand — that’s what we’re shooting for,” said Minardo, “but we’re still in discussions as we just try to grow the business.”