LAS VEGAS — With athletic-influenced styles a key trend in casual sportswear circles, vendors and retailers attending the Super Show said it’s time for activewear brands to shape up.

Buyers from major department stores, wooed here by Nike’s swanky presentation of fall product at the Hard Rock Hotel, dropped by the show the next day to check out yoga and bodywear lines. Nike has been conspicuously absent from the show since 1998, and so its party on Sunday was seen as a return of sorts. A Nike spokeswoman called it “a perfect time to recommit.”

Some 100 nonexhibiting firms also purchased passes to check out the Super Show activity at the Sands Expo & Convention Center, where the three-day event closed Jan. 23.

At Sunday’s Financial Day, retailers huddled with analysts to outline game plans to court an influential, active female consumer who purchases apparel for herself and her family. Although athletic brands have pontificated about female consumers for years, many conceded the opportunity remains underdeveloped and that assortments need to be fresher and more focused to her needs.

John Riddle, ceo of the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, said sales in the category declined 2.8 percent in 2001 and projected flat sales and retail consolidation for 2002.

“The real key for us is getting apparel to work,” said Alan Cohen, chief executive officer of The Finish Line, which has seen its soft goods revenues decline since 1997. “I used to think we could just sell more shoes to grow, but I’ve changed my mind.”

Among the strategies to woo women is to revamp cavernous, gym-like stores into sleek shops organized by sport. The Sports Authority’s Marty Hanaka and Foot Locker’s Matt Serra were among the ceo’s whose power-point presentations included beauty shots of redesigned stores.

Gart Sports Co. chairman and ceo Doug Morton said of the chain’s 58 remodeled Sportmart stores, “We’re going from a Costco look to something more upscale.”

To help turn around lagging soft-goods sales, several retailers plan to launch private label programs, overseen by talent recruited from the apparel industry, rather than from the sporting goods business. But, cautioned Galyan’s Trading Co. ceo Robert Mang, “Private label is not a panacea. We have to remember [brands] brought us to the party.”

George Horowitz, ceo of Everlast Worldwide Inc., said the industry has been losing out to flashy marketing efforts by entertainment, music and fashion companies.

The company, which saw single-digit growth in apparel and double-digit-growth in hard goods last year, has worked for more movie and television product placement, such as supplying apparel and gear to the film “Ali.”

Underarmour, which hit big in the men’s market with synthetic layering systems, recruited Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes to consult on its women’s line, which bowed at the show.

“I’ve worn Lycra [spandex] since I was six years old,” said Dawes, who advised the brand to crop tanks to the waist, scale down the logo and replace crew styles with more flattering V-necks.

There are 11 styles, offered as heat gear, cold gear and all season, with color-coded hangtags. Plank predicted the Baltimore-based company’s revenues would reach $50 million next year, with the newly launched women’s line accounting for roughly 25 percent of that volume.

Vendors are hot on the trail of layering systems, doing everything from slapping on a moisture-wicking coating to working with technical yarns to create proprietary “dry” fabrics. Several vendors, including Russell Athletic and Nike, cited moisture management garments as premium new initiatives. Nike will debut its Cool Motion layering system at the women’s World Cup Soccer series in 2003 in China, while Russell has tweaked its Dry Release fabric to give it a softer hand.

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