DALLAS — Wrinkle-free is proving to be a big hit among several women’s sportswear makers.

Firms such as Eddie Haggar Ltd., here, and Cherokee Apparel, Sunland, Calif. — pioneers in wrinkle-free products — as well as the Lee Co., Counterparts and Donnkenny, are forging ahead with expanded wrinkle free offerings. Levi, Strauss & Co., is reportedly getting into wrinkle-free products in its women’s Docker’s line, as well.

Eddie Haggar Ltd.’s line of women’s separates called EHL No-Wrinkle was launched a year ago with a pair of pleated cotton pants. For this spring, the line has swelled to include skirts, shorts and pull-on pants, and jackets may be offered in the near future.

Industry sources speculated that Haggar’s no-wrinkle collection could rack up sales of $25 million this year versus $16 million a year ago. Total sales at EHL this year are planned in excess of $175 million, versus last year’s $65 million.

A large part of the increase represents business generated by EHL’s Palmetto’s/Essentials division, acquired late last year from Hartwell Co., Hartwell, Ga., as reported. EHL plans to roll out the no-wrinkle concept for the Palmetto’s junior’s and children’s division in March for fall selling.

“Women really want the no-wrinkle product,” said Eddie Haggar, president of the sportswear firm. “Not having to iron garments is very important.”

In addition to cotton, some of the looks now also are rendered in blends of polyester and rayon gabardine and cotton and linen. Wholesale prices for fall start at $15 for a slim cotton belted skirt and peak at $36 for cotton and linen pants.

The fall collection, to break in March, also will include no-wrinkle belted and pleated denim trousers wholesaling for $17.50 and coordinating wrinkle-resistant woven cotton chambray tops, at $15.

Trendwise, the collection is anchored by a neutral palette. All the no-wrinkle items are offered in petites, misses’ and large and tall sizes, with petites and talls reportedly the fastest checking.

Haggar profiled the no-wrinkle customer as the woman seeking apparel versatile enough to commute from work to weekend and whose household income averages between $35,000 to $50,000.

“The no-wrinkle concept is unbelievably underexposed to the public,” said Paul Robb, executive vice president at EHL. “We’ve conducted focus group studies composed of women aged 25 to 49, and they had very little recognition of the no-wrinkle concept. But they all said it was fabulous.”

Robb said EHL is planning an aggressive point-of-sale fall advertising campaign set to break around Mother’s Day that trumpets the assets of no-wrinkle and that could also tout EHL’s 30-day money-back guarantee.

About 2,000 department stores currently are buying EHL No-Wrinkle merchandise, including Robinson’s, Los Angeles; Macy’s West, San Francisco; and Mercantile Stores Co., Fairfield, Ohio.

Aurelie Cavallaro, merchandise manager for moderate sportswear at Mercantile, said the chain is considering picking up Haggar’s new no-wrinkle separates.

“No-wrinkle, or care-free as we call it, is very important, particularly in the moderate area,” said Cavallaro. “We will be considering adding Haggar’s new no-wrinkle separates — the shirts were very appetizing.”

She said Haggar’s cornerstone no-wrinkle pants continue to have excellent sell-through and that all Mercantile’s 100 stores carry the item in misses’, petite and large sizes.

Joe Elles, president of Cherokee Apparel, Sunland, Calif. said wrinkle-free certainly is an added enticement to purchase apparel but that women want more.

“No-wrinkle is not enough to buy a garment,” he asserted. “You’ve got to start with great casual styling and fabrication.”

Cherokee will introduce in March for fall two new no-wrinkle pant silhouettes, both cut from cotton twill: a pleat-front model with back elastic and welt pockets and a pleated style with a Hollywood waist. Both wholesale for $14.49.

Cherokee launched its first wrinkle-free item, a pair of traditional pants, in fall 1992. That model, though, will be phased out by early fall and is being replaced by the two new styles.

Elles projected the firm’s wrinkle-free line, touted as Press-Free Cotton on the garment tag, to post sales of $30 million this year, more than double 1993 volume. The pants are targeted for moderate department stores.

The Lee Co. launched its wrinkle-resistant line of casual pants last June. Today, all of its casual pant offerings are wrinkle-free.

In January, Lee’s wrinkle-free casual shorts, priced to retail between $28 and $30, hit the selling floor, and for fall, Lee is introducing wrinkle-free causal cotton stretch pants, according to Richie Russell, senior product manager, casuals.

“The 100 percent cotton casual pants have been excellent. The initial sell-throughs were phenomenal. Things have cooled a little bit, but the product is performing extremely well,” said Russell. He said wrinkle-free casual pants were offered in misses’, petites, long and women’s sizes.

Lee uses a garment process that makes the product wrinkle-free after the item is manufactured. “It gives a softer hand and makes a more durable garment,” he said. This process is a wet treatment applied to the finished garment, in contrast to pre-curing, where the fabric is resin-treated at the mill with no further processing, and post-cured, where the fabric is treated at the mill and the finished garment cured by being baked in ovens.

For fall, the new cotton stretch casuals are priced to retail between $36 and $38, he said. The company is also offering yarn-dyed fancies, using the wrinkle-free process. “We’re looking into the possibility of doing wrinkle-free shirts,” he said.

Counterparts offered its first line of wrinkle-free cotton twill pants this spring, and is expanding into wrinkle-free gabardine pants for fall. Called Performa Gab, the pants are a 55/45 blend of Fortrel polyester and rayon. The gabardine pants are priced to retail for around $30, said Jay Levtow, president of Counterparts.

“What’s exciting is it’s one of the newest fabrics in the career vein. Our focus in the wrinkle-free issue is to offer the performance without the premium of price.” He said the wrinkle-free process of Performa Gab would only tack on additional $1 at wholesale. The firm is also continuing with its wrinkle-free cotton pants for fall. With cotton pants, there’s a $2.50 upcharge to add the wrinkle-free process.

To familiarize the customer with Performa Gab, Counterparts will have hangtags and point-of-sale signage for retailers. “Retailers are beginning to respond to the nice hand and drape. Performa Gab really has great crease retention,” said Levtow. “We’ll add it to our quick response basic stock program,” he said.

Donnkenny is booking its second season with 100 percent cotton wrinkle-free pants. The first collection is currently being shipped to stores. “We’re putting signage in stores and tagging all the pants,” said Richard Rubin, chief executive officer. “We’re treating this as a core product.” The wrinkle-free cotton pants are priced to retail just under $30, he said.

“It’s booking as an item and now we’re coordinating other products with it. It booked in every demographic area. For fall, we’re adding more colors,” said Rubin.

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