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NEW YORK — Picking up where the poncho left off, vendors said the sweater jacket, which plays off last fall’s popular blazer and bouclé looks, is shaping up as the big knit trend this fall.

The look will not be alone, though. Also populating stores’ knit areas this fall will be plenty of crocheted fashions, chunky but lightweight sweaters, and even a style dubbed the “swantcho,” a type of cardigan produced by Cousin Johnny that drapes to give a poncho-esque look.

This story first appeared in the February 23, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

As fashion’s chameleon category, knitwear’s versatility can easily pick up on the season’s hottest trends.

“Sweaters can take any of the trends,” said Debbie Martin, vice president and group creative director of Liz Claiborne Apparel. For fall, Martin said knits feature cardigans that take on the appearance of shrunken blazers, feminine touches such as bows and lace, and the continuation of vibrant colors. Claiborne will also continue to have sweaters that mix in other fabrics, such as leather or twill or denim.

“We feel pretty bullish about knitwear,” said Martin. “It don’t think it’s going to be double-digit growth in sweaters, but I think we will do quite well.”

New York-based sweater producer 525 America is betting on the sweater jacket look with the launch of Project 1951, a contemporary line for specialty stores bowing for fall and starting off with a focus on the jacket trend.

“The jeans customer, which today is everybody, is looking for the item top,” said 525 America’s president Robert Bock.

The Project 1951 line, which wholesales from $44 to $200, features a variety of yarns, including cashmere and mohair, and an emphasis on details, such as fur trims or coconut buttons. First-year wholesale volume for Project 1951 is slated between $1 million and $1.5 million.

Women’s represents about 80 percent of 525 America’s $20 million in annual volume, with the balance coming from home and men’s.

“Sweaters have become more important in the market over the last season,” said Christine Schoning, design director for Ralsey, a sportswear and knitwear firm here.

The poncho’s popularity last year was just the tip of the iceberg, she said, adding that sweaters are easier than shirts, which can be more difficult to care for and restrictive to wear. They can also drive multiple sales.

“People are never going to buy two of an overall sequin top,” said Schoning, adding that shoppers will snatch up the turtleneck in a variety of colors.

For fall, Ralsey will have cardigans in various lengths, from a shrug version to one that reaches the knees.

Yarn trends are leading to sweaters that are softer to the touch, as well. For Ralsey, that means cashmere blended with wool, cotton and rayon that is easier on the skin, but lighter and less expensive than 100 percent cashmere, and a silk-nylon blend that offers a luxe feel. The brand’s sweaters wholesale from $19 to $29. Ralsey, which has wholesale volume of $100 million, was acquired by sourcing powerhouse Li & Fung in October.

However fall 2005 business turns out,  sweater vendors will most likely think fondly of poncho sales last year, though the look was far from perfect.

“Everyone’s talking about how we move on from the poncho, which was so huge for everybody,” said Kelly Shelsky, co-owner of Cousin Johnny, a contemporary sweater collection here. Part of that migration for the brand is the swantcho, a sweater-poncho hybrid that drapes in the front and sides for a poncho-like appeal.

“What happen with ponchos is, it got cold,” she said, which restricts their usefulness. The swantcho, said Shelsky, is “just a little more user-friendly than the poncho ended up being when it got cold.”

Cousin Johnny, which wholesales from $48 to $78, pulled in wholesale volume of $14 million last year from more than 1,000 specialty stores.