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NEW YORK — The aesthetics of the product were the main ingredient for getting orders at this month’s fall-transitional market. Luxurious looks were a high priority, along with comfort and feel-good fabrics.

In the quest to differentiate themselves from other stores as consolidation shrinks the marketplace, retailers have become more demanding about new ideas and concepts.

Merchants didn’t walk away disappointed and a number of vendors are reaping the rewards through exclusive styles and prints, as well as programs for proprietary store brands at major department and specialty stores.

Smaller boutiques are also getting in on the action, and there is a new crop of entrepreneurial labels at several trade shows: Lingerie Americas in Manhattan, the newly created Boutique Lingerie fair staged by designer Samantha Chang here and in Los Angeles, and two French fairs — the Salon International de la Lingerie in Paris, and the Lyon, Mode City show in Lyon, France.

Howard Upchurch, president of Sara Lee Intimate Apparel, said, “Clearly, the Invisible Look collection of bras and coordinating panties was the best-booking collection for Barely There. There was a strong [retail] response to our new ad campaign, and they really liked all of the different silhouettes and colors. The strapless bra, mostly seamless, can be worn six different ways.”

Top-booking fashion colors included dusty carnation red, lilac and pink cashmere.

Upchurch said the launch of the Invisible Look collection this fall will be supported by a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign that will use “whimsical humor.” The campaign’s slogan, “No Ruffles. No Seams. No Funny Shapes Under Your Clothes,” will feature amusing visuals of bras adorned with lettuce heads, pine cones, headlights and mini umbrellas alongside sleek, unencumbered bra styles by Invisible Look.

A bra group called Lace Desire by Bali also was a top seller because it “combined clean function and innovation with lace for a softer, prettier look, while still having features like no-slip straps,’’ Upchurch said. “Wonderbra is doing well because it continues to focus on its roots of uplift and shaping.”

The best-booking style by Wonderbra was a convertible strapless bra, he said.

As for the mood, Upchurch added, “Retailers are generally upbeat for spring. Bra business was great in January, and February was good. The first couple of months of this year were a step up from last year.”

This story first appeared in the March 27, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Liz Morris, vice president of marketing at Maidenform Inc., said a “huge hit” for fall is a bra group called the Lite Bra Collection by Maidenform. Styles include a Lite Pad-Less Pushup Bra and a Lite Pushup Bra that “has no bump pad.”

“It features shaped inserts in the cups, and this seems to be what the market is really reacting to,” Morris said.

The launch will be supported by a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign with the tag line, “The Weight Is Over.” The collection will also feature a new lavender M logo.

Josie Natori, chief executive officer of the Natori Co., said reaction was strong to elegant at-homewear pieces that had a “couture-like quality,” especially fashion items from the luxe Josie Natori collection. She noted that the company gave a modern spin to old-fashioned bed jackets in the Natori collection with styles that can be worn as ready-to-wear.

“They’re no longer dumpy-looking bed jackets,” Natori said. “They’re something to keep warm in, but they’re also very fashionable. The fabrics and ready-to-wear styling make the difference with offerings such as a super-soft polyester microfiber…and a basketweave-pattern polyester viscose, which has a tailored look.”

Richard Leeds, chairman of Richard Leeds International, said styles that combine whimsy with a message of women’s empowerment got strong response.

“We decided to stay on the lighter side and give people something whimsical to dress up in, like Supergirl, Wonder Woman and Bat Girl,’’ Leeds said, noting that graphics are updated and sophisticated. “That has really helped push our sales.”

For example, panties with coordinating tops featuring Wonder Woman and Tinkerbell have sayings like “Goddess” and “Perfect,” while a precocious-looking Tweety bird is juxtaposed alongside “Bad Chick Club.”

“All logos are hotter than hot,” Leeds said. “The tween and junior markets are on fire and we are designing into it. I think that’s where the growth of the company is being generated.”

He added that “everybody — tweens, teens and adults — are jumping on a sensibility bandwagon right now.”

“The licensed comic strip dog and cat characters from ‘Mutts’ have been “extremely well received,” Leeds said.

Sue Koo, vice president of design at the Leeds firm, said an Asian-inspired brand with kitsch appeal from the bath and beauty field called Miso Pretty also drew strong reaction with a line of licensed sleepwear featuring edgy graphics.

“There’s definitely excitement over new properties and Miso Pretty got great reaction from department and specialty stores,” said Koo.

Victor Lee, president of NAP Inc., which reintroduced the Gossard bra label to the U.S. after an 11-year hiatus, said, “We’ve already booked close to 5,000 [Gossard] pieces and there are still some major stores to hear from. And we received strong response to our Crabtree & Evelyn sleepwear and loungewear collection, which is sold at major specialty stores and over 200 Crabtree & Evelyn stores worldwide.”

Lee added that two other brands have been well received: Disney Couture, a line of floral-printed sleepwear and loungewear of Modal featuring licensed characters Bambi and Alice in Wonderland, and Princesse Tam Tam, which offers sleepwear that can be merchandised with bras and panties. Princesse Tam Tam, based in Paris, is expanding in sleepwear since it was sold in January to Fast Retailing, a Japanese wholesaler and retailer.

Harvey Perlowitz, president of the Anne Lewin division of NAP, said the number-one selling classification by Anne Lewin was two-piece knit lounge sets in a “soft, fluffy, luxurious hand” of 100 percent nylon. Another top seller was a sleepwear group of rayon and spandex in sage green or lavender trimmed with antique-looking ivory lace, said Perlowitz.

At Hanky Panky, a daywear and sleepwear specialist, baby dolls were the hot items.

“A collection of mesh and signature lace baby dolls with signature lace thongs was outstanding,” said Gale Epstein, president and creative director of Hanky Panky. “Another group that is doing really well is our English garden printed signature lace chemises with charmeuse trim. Stretch lace chemises in general are doing very well. My guess is they are lounging pieces, at-home dresses.”

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