NEW YORK — Marisa Christina is leaving behind the conversational, schoolteacher sweaters — think warm and fuzzy images of cats, dogs and apples — and is going for a more sophisticated look come fall.

This story first appeared in the March 12, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“Even our Christmas sweaters will be more subdued,” said Kristine Wortman-Zajac, vice president of merchandising and design at Marisa Christina, the better-priced company known for extreme novelty sweaters, during an interview at the firm’s showroom at 1410 Broadway here. “The customer is just getting younger in attitude. Before, we used to joke and say we were dressing the ‘blue-haired ladies.’ This is the first time the people who work here actually want to wear the product and that’s really encouraging.”

Glimpses of the modernized and updated Marisa Christina hit stores this spring, while the full makeover will launch for fall. New features of the knitwear-driven line, which originated in 1970 and has projected retail sales of $60 million to $65 million this year, a 12 percent increase from last year, include more solid bottoms, jean jackets with fur trim, duster sweater coats with embroidery, velvet flat-front pants with tuxedo details and boiled wool jackets with lace trims.

While novelty still has a presence, it will have a cleaner sense and be less obvious, said Wortman-Zajac. Before, “high-level” novelty sweaters comprised about 75 percent of the line; now, it’s down to 25 percent, Wortman-Zajac said. Today’s novelty looks might include sweaters with hand appliqués, ribbon embroidery, sequins and little scenes with a house, bridge and Christmas tree.

“We’re giving her an edgier attitude, but still addressing the missy fit. After all, the average size in America is a 12 and 14,” she said. “Customers are just more aware. People are living longer and even my mom, who’s 75, is a lot more modern than her predecessors.”

Company president Mike Dees called the refocus an evolution.

“When ‘Murphy Brown’ was on, Murphy wore a Marisa Christina sweater and I thought, ‘She can’t wear that, she’s too young and too hip,’” Dees said. “But what we realized lately was that we had a perception that our customer was more mature than she really was. It was a hard lesson to learn and a fun lesson, but she wanted to evolve and now we’re trying to invigorate the company a little bit.

“Being in business today means you have to take ownership all the way to the actual consumer — merchandising so that it’s meaningful. We’re pushing for a stronger real estate presence and for the first time, we have started to build in a sales promotional vehicle.”

Toni Browning, chief executive officer of Proffitt’s, a division of Saks Inc., said the new direction of the line looks “terrific.”

“As the business has changed, Marisa Christina has adjusted to more of what the customer is looking for, which is not as much embellishment — something that has an attitude and is more sportswear inspired,” said Browning, noting that the retailer carries the line in all of its 26 doors. “We have a very traditional base with the line but we also do well with the new product.”

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