What are American consumers buying this year? Men’s underwear and fleece hoodies, according to market research firm NPD Group.

This story first appeared in the August 27, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Men’s underwear “is need-based, typically on an 18-to-24-month cycle,” said Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for NPD, which released its apparel market category sales figures for the first half of 2009. “As long as that continues, it means that the consumer is out there spending on necessity.”

Number two-ranked fleecewear was a standout, particularly because of young consumers.

“The weather being cooler this year could have contributed to this as well, but really, fleece is more of a teen item — this was a category that did reasonably well for teen retailers,” said Christine Chen, retail analyst at Needham & Co.

She pointed out hoodies have been a key category for firms like New York-based Aéropostale, which targets 14- to 17-year-olds in Aéropostale stores and 7- to 12-year-olds through its P.S. from Aéropostale units. Both Aéropostale Inc. and Kearney, Neb.-based Buckle Inc., a big seller of hoodies, pulled well ahead of youth-focused competitors in quarterly results — and marginally above analysts’ consensus expectations.

Brands such as Alexander Wang, Southpole and Rock & Republic are also riding the hoodie wave, as they grow or introduce lines that include their own versions.

Looking ahead, Cohen said intimate apparel is an industry bellwether.

“It’s an important category to see how women are feeling again, and it reflects how much desire they have to buy,” he said. “This will tell us when the rest of the fashion market will start to make its move.”

Although most categories posted first-half sales declines compared with the same period a year ago, Cohen said certain segments of specific categories are strong.

“We clearly aren’t seeing huge top-line category growth,” he said. “However, if you dissect these categories by segments, you’ll find certain standouts — like denim for the bottoms category.”

Denim has been a top performer for retailers such as True Religion Inc., Chico’s FAS Inc. and Buckle. Gap Inc. is introducing an overhaul of its denim offering this month.

“Denim has held up really well in this environment, especially if you consider denim has been hot for five years now.…Retailers have been trying khakis and cords, but denim is the place to be,” Chen said.

“The multiple-use factor is huge,” she said. “Divide that cost by the number of occasions you wear it, and it’s cheap.”

Chen pointed out the segment has seen a lot of fashion newness and innovation.

“Premium denim may have peaked in 2005, [but] you have a move from boot-cut to skinny-cut in 2006,” she said. “The skinny is peaking now for people everywhere, not just New York and L.A. And now it’s the boyfriend cut emerging. If the actual silhouette changes, you have to go out and buy the latest. At all price points, jeans seem to be the bottom of choice.”

Peter Nordstrom, executive vice president and president of merchandising for Nordstrom Inc., said in a conference call this month premium denim “has held up pretty well. I think where vendors have been able to deliver newness, it’s worked.”

Recently-launched denim lines include: Reiss 1971 and denim veteran Michael Glasser’s latest venture, Cj by Cookie Johnson.


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