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dress for success

dress for success

Byline: Rock Neelly

Heading into 2003, there was a lot of optimism about a rebounding economy. That turning economy was supposed to accelerate the transformation of Corporate Casual from the too-casual culture associated with the dot-com bust to a more refined look that would go along with companies getting back down to business. Buttoned up for business, as it were.

This would in turn lead to an increase in demand for logoed dress shirts that would tidy up a corporate image perhaps tarnished by the very casual golf shirt and khakis look, or worse, by the T-shirt and jeans ensemble often associated with failed Internet enterprises. Buttoned down for business, you might say.

Suppliers introduced a wide variety of new dress shirt styles and fabrics in long-sleeve, button-front wovens intended to be perfect for the office. It seemed logical to predict strong woven sales going into this last year.

It didn’t happen.

In fact, the numbers say woven sales slumped dramatically in 2003, based on STARS report figures that track sales from imprintable sportswear industry wholesalers.

Why? You could point to the war with Iraq and the incessantly stagnant economy as major reasons that consumers and corporate budgets alike seemed to remain resistant to discretionary purchases such as apparel.

While the woven category as a whole suffered in 2003, there were bright spots, and optimism reigns for dress shirt sales in 2004.

Many suppliers told Wearables Business they have had success with basic oxfords, frequently involving uniform programs. With an ever-increasing number of promotional products distributors dabbling in the uniform market, basic dress shirts worn by wait staffs, counter people, floor salespeople and any other uniform use you can think of figure to keep the category strong in 2004.

And the 2004 dress shirt market outlook is strong in both traditional offerings and the higher fashion new styles needed for Corporate America (the “Q&A” sidebar on page 26 offers several reasons for optimism).

But the optimism is tempered with caution. A new wave of fashion fabrics, such as stretch poplin (cotton/Lycra blends), polynosics, and Tencel, have come about in recent years with mixed results – the occasional supplier will do very well with different fabrics like these while others will introduce them and drop them in a year’s time.

Yet, when a strengthening economy is considered, and a dress shirt category finding renewed success at retail, wovens in general and dressier styles in particular should – albeit a year late – live up to the sales expectations at businesses throughout the land.

For PPDs in 2004, “Dress for Success” is less prediction and more a reflection of a promise finally arriving.

Oxfords always in style

The traditional dress shirt is divided into two types: poly-cotton blends that are usually used in uniform programs; and pinpoint cottons, dress shirts usually of fine cotton with high single counts that lend themselves to executive use.

Edwards Garment, a manufacturer and provider of uniform apparel based out of Kalamazoo, Mich., offers a wide range of more traditional dress shirts. “Dress shirts are really our forte,” asserts Larry MacDonald, senior vice president of sales for Edwards. “We offer oxford cloth shirts in both 60/40 poly-cotton blends and 100% cotton in a wide range of sizes for men and also for women. The oxford is still our best seller.”

In the 60/40 poly-cotton oxford, Edwards carries both long and short sleeves in five colors: white, black, blue, blue stripe, and French blue. The men’s style is available in S-5XL, and the women’s, XS-3XL.

The pinpoint cotton shirt (#1925 men’s short sleeve, #1975 long sleeve, and #5975, women’s long sleeve only) is offered in Edward’s Signature Collection, and available in five colorations: white, blue, a gingham pattern with small checks, a blue stripe and French blue.

The women’s pinpoint has no pocket and a soft collar. The men’s cut is the more traditional pattern with a button-down collar and a left chest pocket. The pinpoint collection is constructed of 80/20 singles cotton, giving it a soft, smooth hand and a prospective home in any corporate manager’s closet.

John Schader, director of Apparel Central in Monroe, N.C., also confirms the continued popularity of oxfords. “We offer men’s and women’s S-3XL in our Express Mark brand, and as far as our dress shirts go, they continue to be our very best sellers.”

Minneapolis-based PremiumWear is adding an oxford shirt to its Munsingwear line with a new wrinkle – or more accurately, with fewer wrinkles!

This new 60/40 oxford (#MUN682 for men, #MUN692 ladies) has both wrinkle- and stain-resistant features. Both men’s (S-6XL) and ladies’ styles (S-4XL) are available in white, light blue, canvas, and French blue.

Doree Wendling, director of marketing for PremiumWear, describes the shirts: “The men’s shirt is a traditional cut, with button-down collar and left chest pocket, but the ladies’ is unique. It has a tailored, adjustable collar, princess seams in the front (vertical darts) for a more feminine silhouette, and a straight hem so the shirt can be worn either tucked in or worn out.”

PVH big on uniform shirts

PVH Career Apparel, the home of Izod, Van Heusen, and Arrow shirts in the promotional market, offers one of the widest varieties of dress shirts to the promotional market.

Erwin Schiowitz, senior vice president at PVH, concentrates on three different markets. “We have a retail division, and also market through wholesalers, but we also sell some specialty uniform items on a direct basis.”

Those specialty items include woven shirts designed for pilots, security guards, and also the traditional 60/40 oxford broadcloth shirts, as well as fine pinpoint cotton dress shirts.

“The 60/40 traditional oxfords, unlike the 85/15 singles cotton pinpoint,” Schiowitz elaborates, “are primarily used for auto parts stores, sales people behind the counter or waiters – people who need to launder the shirts often. We offer oxfords two ways. At our wholesalers, we offer S-3XL for men and through S-2XL for women. On the uniform side, we offer exact neck and sleeve sizes, as well as women’s sizing.”

Van Heusen’s uniform division offers neck sizes, 14-22″, and sleeve lengths are available 31-39″. Women’s shirts are available from size 4 to size 28. On the more fashionable side of the business, Schiowitz is excited about a new Van Heusen style.

“Our new style for 2004 is a frosted cross-dyed woven pique. Vat-dying the 55 % cotton-45% polyester fabric creates the frosted look,” Schiowitz explains. “The cotton absorbs more of the dye, and the polyester less, keeping some white coloration. The shirt looks softer and has that frosted look.”

The frosted cross-dye’s unique woven fabric has a dobby feel and mimics pique, the industry’s most popular fabrication. “The tight weave,” Schiowitz confirms, “makes this shirt (#13v0515 men’s, and #13v0516 women’s) great to embroider.” The style is available in S-3XL men’s and S-2XL in women’s.

SanMar, a wholesaler based in Preston, Wash., has many dress shirts to choose from in 2004. “Our Port Authority dress shirt line offers perhaps the widest range of fashion in the industry,” describes Lee Strom, senior marketing manager at SanMar. “Among our many styles, we offer a ribbed ottoman woven, a Teflon-coated, stain-resistant 100% cotton twill, and a even a stretch cotton poplin with 2 percent Spandex.”

Both SanMar’s stretch poplin (#611 men’s, #L611 women’s) and Munsingwear’s version with 3 percent Lycra (#MUN650 men’s, #MUN632 ladies) offer extreme comfort as the small percentage of expandable fabric gives the wearer a greater range of motion.

Some polynosics disappearing

And what about the fabric dejour of last year, polynosic? PVH’s Schiowitz thinks the party is over. “Polynosic is virtually all polyester, and some consumers think it’s hot. The fabric has been dead at retail for the better part of two years. Van Heusen has no styles using that fabric this year.”

Apparel Central’s Schnader agrees. “Our two polynosic styles in the 2003 catalog were very stylish, but they just didn’t find an audience in the promotional market. They’re both coming out of the line in 2004.”

But SanMar’s Strom has a different take on polynosic. “We still stock a polynosic style (#S630 men’s, and #L630 women’s). SanMar’s philosophy on the #S630 is ‘feel it, wear it, want it.’ We’ve marketed it by going the sampling route. The fabric feels great, but it is a tactile experience. You’ve got to get it on bodies to sell it.”

Scarborough, Ontario-based Ash City has not abandoned polynosics, but rather has embraced the soft and silky fabric by introducing three long-sleeve polynosic wovens for 2004 in its upscale Il Migliore line. Style 87009 is the Men’s Nailhead Polynosic woven shirt, made of 82% polynosic/18% polyester. Styles 87010 and 77005 are the men’s and women’s Dobby Polynosic wovens, made of 57% polynosic/43% polyester.

Vancouver-based supplier ID Wear is keeping some polynosic knits in its line, but has dropped the two polynosic woven dress shirts – one men’s and one women’s – from its 2004 collection. ID Wear’s John Graham says the decision to drop the polynosic wovens had little to do with the items themselves, but rather the fact that by 2003, lots of suppliers had polynosics in their lines.

“Eventually what happens is you have so many suppliers offering it, it becomes a commodity; the buyer becomes bored. It becomes an ‘I can do it cheaper than you,'” Graham says.

He mentions polarfleece and denim as previous examples. They were at first unique, but before too long, “everybody and their dog had it. The cache value of the item was in the tank.

“For us, the whole concept of dropping our polynosics wasn’t because they weren’t great shirts, because they are. It was because everybody had them, and the cache value was in the dump.”

New fabrics create buzz

Even without polynosic wovens, ID Wear still offers some of the more innovative fabrications in dress shirts, including “two really cool ideas,” Graham says.

One is the luxurious new Stretch Bengaline Shirt. Styles 2570 “Ceylon” for men and 2575 “Bengal” for women, are made of a 97% cotton, 3% Lycra blend Bengaline. “Bengaline is like a really high-end cotton – it’s the Cadillac of shirts,” Graham says, comparing its feel to Tommy Hilfiger or Polo shirts that retail for around $100.

The men’s style has a hidden button-down collar and a left chest pocket while the women’s has a tailored stand shirt collar. Both have adjustable cuffs and are offered in white or blue. The other new dress shirt style that has Graham excited is the 100% garment dyed Tencel shirt, also offered in men’s (“Rio” style 2580) and women’s (“Ipanema” style 2585) versions. “It has this soft hand and feel and look of Tencel, but it’s garment dyed, so it has that softly faded, washed feel,” Graham says. “It’s super soft but very dressy.”

Graham says the goal at ID Wear is always to provide fashion, and part of the reason the supplier can be so effective in that regard is because ID Wear’s parent company, Pimlico Apparel, does so much business in the way of private label for major retailers. They see what retailers will be stocking six months before it goes in the store, and are able to react quickly with styles such as the Garment Dyed Tencel and the Stretch Bengaline.

“They are really executive shirts. These are shirts that we would traditionally do for our retail clients,” Graham says. “These are beautiful shirts. No one else has them, and we’re a year ahead.”

Rock Neelly is a North Carolina-based promotional apparel industry expert who has worked on the supplier side for many years and has been an occasional contributor to Wearables Business.

An insider’s view of what’s happening at retail

A ‘Q & A’ session with Leisa Yetter-Brown, divisional vice president and division merchandise manager for Men’s Clothing and Furnishing at Elder-Beerman, a department store chain of 67 stores

Some promotional product industry insiders estimate the woven shirt market (Dress Shirts, Twills, Denims, and Camp Shirts) is down substantially at the branded wholesale level for the 2003 calendar year. Estimates on yearly sales run from over 20% down on the East Coast and Midwest against last year’s numbers to a staggering decrease of 45% in the South and over 30% in the Far West.

Despite this difficult selling environment at the promotional product level, Wearables Business spoke with an expert on the retail side of the dress shirt market who sees good potential for promotional dress shirts in 2004.

Leisa Yetter-Brown is a 15-year veteran of the retail department store wars. In the past, she has been on merchant teams for Federated and Mercantile department stores. Yetter-Brown is currently Divisional Vice President and Division Merchandise Manager for Men’s Clothing and Furnishing at Elder-Beerman, a department store chain of 67 stores, based out of Dayton, Ohio.

Wearables Business: How’s business at retail these days?

Yetter-Brown: The past few years, with the economy down, pending war and 401k’s going down the drain, the retail clothing market was damaged a lot. The men’s clothing industry was hit hardest. Women make about 70% of the men’s purchases and during that time, the man of the house fell to the bottom of the priority list. This year is different. The stock market is coming back, and now that men aren’t seeing their retirement getting destroyed, they’re coming back to buy. Men’s clothing and furnishings at retail are trending up season to date. Dress shirt business is up six percent, and our tie business is up two percent for the year.

WB: Has the Corporate Casual movement hurt Men’s at retail?

Y-B: We’re seeing more guys suiting up again. Both suits and suit separates are showing increases in 2003. Corporate Casual, I think, has peaked, and as the economy comes back, we see a move back to more traditional business attire.

WB: The promotional apparel market often follows what is happening at retail, but sales are really off in woven shirts right now. What do you see at retail for wovens? Any good news?

Y-B: Yes, I do see a good future for wovens. Business casual is cycling down. Your readers should be showing dress attire to their corporate clients again. I think 2004 will see resurgence in wovens. Elder-Beerman’s sales started cycling back about six months ago.

WB: What’s selling?

Y-B: Color is driving the market right now. This is good because it enables us to do a crossover business into a sport shirt look from Van Heusen, Izod and Geoffrey Beene. We sell 80% solids and 20% patterns overall in dress shirts. However, on the sport shirt side of the business, patterns and stripes are hot. The Kenneth Cole and Ben Sherman brands are showing a lot of biased cuts…

WB: What’s that?

Y-B: A biased cut shirt is pieced fabric. Stripes may be vertical on the front, diagonal on the collar and cuff. This is a new fresh update for the woven business.

WB: So if color is driving the market, what’s the “in” color?

Y-B: Red, red, red. Elder-Beerman is very successful with many shades of red in dress shirts right now. Ruby, russet, and burgundy all are tracking well right now.

WB: Bright red dress shirts are selling?

Y-B: Oh yes, our upscale line, Geoffrey Beene, a PVH brand, offers a ruby sateen, a shiny red right now. It is moving so well this fall that we’ve got it on replenishment. For now, it’s a basic for us.

WB: Any other colors?

Y-B: French Blue also has held up well. It has continued to trend well for two years now. We’re seeing French Blue bodies with white collars come back right now. A very European look.

WB: You’ve been to New York in June to Market Week, and to Las Vegas in August for MAGIC (Men’s Apparel and Gift Show) recently. Any new colors for spring 2004?

Y-B: In the spring, we soften the hot color story. So red becomes terra cotta. We think the color red has some legs, so in our upscale products, red is still there. I do see more lavender and plum entering the men’s dress shirt market for spring. Same color story, but more pastels is generally the case.

WB: What started the sales rebound for dress shirts?

Y-B: Performance fabrics were the start for us. Last fall, in September of 2002, our suppliers started marketing men’s pants with wrinkle resistance, stain guard, and Teflon treatments. Those new pant offerings sold very well. Men’s saw those same performance fabrics and treatments available in dress shirts for Father’s Day of 2003.

WB: Are the shirts still 100% cotton?

Y-B: Not generally, but yes, 100% cotton is available. If the customer wants to pay $60 for a 100% cotton dress shirt with wrinkle resistance, we’ve got it. That’s too expensive right now for most of our customers. Most of our shirt sales are $30 and under from branded and private label resources.

WB: What about patterns?

Y-B: Basic banker’s stripes and tattersals will always be in the assortment for the traditional customer in oxfords and broadcloths. Although, the Young Men’s Department is selling plaids and stripes very well.

WB: Tell us about trends in Young Men’s.

Y-B: Young Men’s is all about layering. A woven worn untucked and unbuttoned over a tee, with a vest on the outside. Sean John and Ecko are two of the more popular brands right now at Elder-Beerman, and both sell wovens within their collections.

WB: And how about the Women’s Department? In the promotional market, we see most companies offering companion pieces of men’s styles, usually for uniform programs.

Y-B: There is nothing comparable to that at retail. There are stain resistant shirts in Missy in oxford and broadcloth, but that’s about it.

WB: Any final words of wisdom?

Y-B: We sell to some of the same customers. We offer wovens in dress and casual styles. That seems to be your readers’ target too. Our numbers are trending up for the year. I think we’ve turned the corner in the men’s industry. You can draw your own conclusions, but I interpret the market for growth in the future.

Suppliers mentioned in this article:

Alpha Shirt Company: 800-523-4585 Apparel Central: 800-322-1746

Ash City: 800-761-6612 Edwards Garment: 877-355-0183

ID Wear: 888-433-3646 PremiumWear: 800-347-6098

PVH Career Apparel: 800-999-0146 SanMar: 800-426-6399

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