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NEW YORK — Among the few statistics in our numbers-crazed society that probably aren’t kept with any accuracy are the percentage of rumpled Americans or how often people spill things on their clothing.

Sales of easy-care apparel, though, indicate there are still plenty of clumsy, iron-resistant consumers out there.

Wrinkle-resistant styles made up 9.4 percent of the 1.9 million units of women’s sportswear sold during the 12 months ended in May. A year earlier, they had a 7.8 percent share of the market, according to STS Market Research, which derives its results based on tracking the purchases of more than 12,000 men and women.

A survey last year by Cotton Incorporated’s Lifestyle Monitor showed that 55 percent of women bought wrinkle-resistant apparel in the previous year, and 30 percent of the group polled purchased water-repellent clothing. Apparel with treatments that are intended to save consumers from themselves can save time and money in the form of hours at the ironing board and dry cleaning bills.

However, adding that element to garments boosts production expenses. Manufacturers often assume some of the costs and pass the rest on to the consumer. For some, the price is worth it, as the treatments help drive full-price selling in an era of rampant price promotions.

Liz Claiborne Inc. was among the first companies on the bandwagon. About eight years ago, the firm added what it described as “carefree” looks to its namesake line. The carefree portion of the Liz Claiborne brand includes machine-washable fabrics, such as wrinkle-resistant linens, cottons and microfibers, and washable wools.

The road for easy-care looks has become smoother for the company as retailers and consumers become more familiar with the product.

“We’re not having to convince the retailers as much as we had to two, three years ago,” said Fritz Winans, group president of Liz Claiborne brands. “It’s not limited just to basics anymore. Today, we have it in all segments of the line.”

Slightly less than 20 percent of the Liz line is in the carefree program and “there are possibilities for us to take it to higher levels,” Winans said.

There are financial incentives to expand the carefree program, as well.

This story first appeared in the July 21, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“It’s able to maintain a higher average unit retail price,” he said. “It’s truly performing well at regular price.”

For spring, the Liz line will include dual-action products that have stain resistance and stain release. “That’s the next chapter in carefree,” Winans said.

Stain release helps get ground-in spills and dirt to come out in the wash.

The industry, though, isn’t barreling toward all easy-care products. Not all fabrics take the treatments well and prices may be prohibitive.

“The more advanced stuff that we’re doing is definitely a lot more expensive,” Winans said.

For example, Liz has cotton knitwear that has color-retention, antipilling, smoothness and shrinkage-control treatments.

“We haven’t put it on some of the garments because it would be prohibitive for us in terms of being able to achieve our margin goals,” he said. “We kind of pick our spots.”

Carefree has expanded and received praise from retailers, but it has not been a silver bullet for the Liz brand. Last year, the label’s many product categories produced sales of about $1.4 billion, a 12.2 percent decrease.

Improvements are being sought, even though there have been advancements in many of the underlying technologies that produce these attributes.

“Durability has typically been the number one issue over the years with a lot of finishing technology,” said William Rearick, director of textile chemistry research at Cotton Inc.

Properties such as stain resistance — often achieved through the use of fluorchemicals, which reduce the surface tension and prevent liquid from immediately sinking into the fabric — have washed out of apparel too quickly in the past.

“Those kind of chemicals are well-known,” he said. “They’ve been around for many, many years, but they’ve been perfected now to a much greater extent.”

The technology has advanced to where it can withstand 20 to 50 washings, he said.

Judith Leech, executive vice president of design at Bernard Chaus Inc., said, “Machine washable and easy care is a really key issue for our consumer.”

Chaus markets shirts that don’t require pressing, as well as outerwear that has waterproofing.

“If she can make her life simple, it really is a big appeal,” Leech said. “It’s a key issue to the consumer. People do not want to press their shirts.”

The easy-care treatment adds about 50 cents a yard to the price of the fabrics, she said.

“We kind of eat that expense to make the clothes more appealing to the consumer,” Leech said.

The STS research shows that casual pants were one of the biggest winners in the wrinkle-resistant race, where wrinkle-resistant styles saw their share of the market rise to 15.3 percent from 10.8 percent a year earlier. Likewise, 10.1 percent of woven sport shirts sold over the 12-month period were wrinkle resistant, compared with 5.6 percent a year earlier.

Jones New York Signature, which launched in spring, has ventured into easy care with a noniron cotton pinpoint oxford shirt, said Kathee O’Brien, executive vice president of design for the Jones New York casual divisions of Jones Apparel Group.

The noniron treatment is added in a baking process and allows for the finished product to be machine washed and dried in a dryer.

“The fabric still feels like beautiful pinpoint cotton,” O’Brien said.

The shirt, which she described as “a nice basic shirt,” has performed well at retail and has been expanded into more colors and patterns. O’Brien said while these are modest steps, the firm was looking into ways to further promote the easy-care attributes and the market demand for such products would grow.

“People just don’t have time,” she said. “They don’t want to spend the money on taking it to a dry cleaners and have it laundered. Also, it travels well.”

Casual Pants
Dress Pants
Casual Shorts
Knit Shirts
Dress Shirts
Woven Sport Shirts
Total Units Sold During the 12 Months Ending May 2003, in Millions
Wrinkle-Resistant Share of Those Units
Total Units Sold During the 12 Months Ending May 2004, in Millions
Wrinkle-Resistant Share of Those Units
Source: STS Market Research