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NEW YORK — After years of struggle, legwear makers are approaching 2004 with renewed vigor.

This story first appeared in the January 12, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Hosiery and sock firms saw strength this past fall and holiday season, as legwear made a comeback on the fashion runways and in magazines and popular culture, leading to improved sales at retail. Spring bookings have been healthy, fueled by color, novelty and prints such as polkadots and stripes, as well as fashion-oriented athletic looks.

“Novel and different is what is selling now,” said Barbara Russillo, president at Legale. “There is a new generation that is willing to try things like colored fishnets and toe socks.”

Elie Levy, president at E&E Hosiery Inc., said, “Stores are being less cautious and a little more free when it comes to buying legwear. The market is up, we caught Saddam and consumers are feeling more optimistic. Momentum is picking up.”

For January market week starting today, most legwear companies expect to firm up their plans with stores for spring and summer, and some are offering a preview of trends for fall. Typically, this market is smaller than November and March, and is generally a fill-in period where markdown-related issues are sorted out.

Nonetheless, some companies are undertaking big changes as the year gets under way. Kayser-Roth, one of the largest operations, which makes legwear for firms including Hue, No Nonsense and Calvin Klein hosiery, said it has restructured its design, marketing and sales teams, and merged into two divisions: department and specialty store, and food, drug and mass.

As part of the change, a number of executives have been promoted and given additional responsibilities. Julia Townsend has been promoted to executive vice president and general manager of Kayser-Roth and will oversee the combined operation. Molly Mott has been named vice president of sales, and Catrinel Popa will serve as vice president of merchandising and design.

The three executives had worked in the department and specialty store divisions and are now in the newly created positions, where they will oversee both areas. Jed Holland, who had been vice president and general manager of food, drug and mass division, has left the company after 20 years, said Kevin Toomey, Kayser-Roth’s president and chief executive officer.

“This merger gives us the opportunity to invest more in design and new products,” said Toomey. “As one company, we will have more leveraging power and greater efficiencies. We will be able to bring more new products to market faster since we won’t be competing against ourselves for resources.”

Among those boosting their legwear staple is Soxland International, which just signed a licensing deal to make socks and tights for junior sportswear brand Chinese Laundry. The offerings include fishnet stockings, tights and legwarmers, many of which have embellishments. The collection will bow at March market in time for fall selling.

“This is a lifestyle brand and legwear is a way for us to expand our name,” said Zak Benedon, president of licensing at Chinese Laundry.

This is Soxland’s first licensing deal, said Susan Reese, vice president of sales at Soxland. “Retailers want brands now and this is a new way for us to build our business,” she said.

Price points for the Chinese Laundry collection are still being determined, but first-year sales are projected to reach about $1 million.

Other firms are looking at new ways to garner buyer attention. Legale has introduced a line of socks designed to be worn with thong sandals. The cotton socks come with whimsical patterns such as brightly colored butterflies and flowers. Legale has also seen strong bookings of toe socks as well as liners made of microfiber, said Russillo.

ETC, which now makes Chereskin legwear for women and men, is showing brightly colored trouser socks as part of its new offerings for Chereskin women. Also booking well in the core ETC line are athletic-inspired looks.

“Business is better than it has been,” said Robert Sussman, president at ETC.

Sales for the Chereskin women’s collection, which made its debut at November market, are expected to reach about $2 million.

Among other firms, E&E is showing new takes on novelty styles, with offerings such as socks that have a “funky heel,” said Levy. These have a character on the heel that can be seen if the wearer has on shoes and not boots. Other standouts this season include colored fishnet stockings. E&E also has started offering flip-flops as a way to supplement its legwear business.

The company now makes socks for Hot Kiss under license and is looking to link up with some other junior firms.

Ozone Designs, a line made in France, has seen buyer interest in several novelty offerings, such as over-the-knee brightly colored socks with polkadots, socks made of sheer materials and striped prints, said Laurie Mallet, president and ceo.

While the bulk of Ozone’s business is in specialty stores, Mallet said Canada’s Holt Renfrew chain recently picked up her line.

“Last year was tough but I believe business will be better this year,” Mallet said. “The indicators are in place for a strong year for legwear.”