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Women’s wear gaining acceptance: Suppliers have it. End Users want it. PPDs can get it for them

Women’s wear gaining acceptance: Suppliers have it. End Users want it. PPDs can get it for them – company clothing in women’s sizes, business casual, etc

Kim Mitchell

Imprinted apparel has been a major marketing tool for almost 30 year, a cornerstone among promotional products that establish brand and build corporate identity. More recently attention has turned to the emerging women’s segment, a small but potentially lucrative sector of the industry.

The move toward women’s wearables seems logical enough, considering that about 50 percent on America’s workforce is female. But too often is an option that gets overlooked.

Indeed, it often seems easier for overwhelmed clients to find a stylish man’s shirt and use small and extra-small sizes for the women. The approach might fly for an afternoon company picnic put in the workplace women aren’t keen on looking like they’re wearing daddy’s shirt, no matter what the quality.

So while it might be a pain to split out ladies shires when you’re ordering 500 pieces, make sure your client understands that women really appreciate the giver for making the extra effort to buy something that fits them.

I think women have just about had it when the company they work for hands them a man’s gift shirt claiming its unisex,” says Israel L. Porras, sales

manager for Medley, Fla.-based Bay Reef. Golf Shirts. “It’s a bit insensitive almost like. You’re hot important enough for us to go through the trouble of ordering a golf shirt in your size.”

Another reason to consider a sales pitch for women: Often women often are decision makers when it comes to the wearables their companies buy. It’s not hard to determine which distributor they’ll buy from between one that offers unisex sizes only or one that offers a choice of specific men’s and women’s styles.

Keep in mind that women approach clothing differently than men. They enjoy flexibility in clothing. They like clothing that flatters, and choices in fabrics, color and style. They seek softer fabrics and slimmer silhouettes. They crave styling details such as finer buttons. Think shaped, not fitted. Women want the option to wear a match of a men’s polo with a reverse placket or to have a scoop or V-neck that coordinates with a men’s shirt.

Face it. Do you know many women that want to dress like a man, aside from Joan of Arc and Annie Hall? No, of course you don’t.

Why are we arguing the point for women’s wearables? “It’s something that I find humorous,” says Bay Reef’s Porras. “In retail women’s wear is around 75 percent of the business’ he notes. “And it’s just in the last few years that the promotional apparel industry has realized that women also need wearables.”

Well, better late than never.

“When we first offered the ladies styles, the reception was incredible, but frankly speaking, the sales accounted for a very small percentage of the overall orders,” says Eric Rubin, president of Long Island City, NY-based Blue Generation. “It has increased at a rapid rate over the past year as more people realize women’s wear is available. We’ve made a very big inventory commitment to the ladies styles… and we feel it will continue to grow.”

It is true that while women buy more clothes and love fashion, men wear more decorated apparel, says Karen Benton, senior designer for Grandview, Mo.-based King Louie International.

“Even within our office, as a rule, men will wear decorated apparel far more than women:’ she adds. “Men like identifying in this way with the company, their favorite team, a golf tournament or a vacation spot. Given the freedom, women generally identify with their own unique taste and style.”

Simultaneously, the women’s segment is enjoying continued growth thanks to more available options in fit and fashion, Benton says. “When it’s necessary or desirable for women to wear decorated apparel, they appreciate having real choices,” she concludes.

MARKET POTENTIAL

“I think that we get a lot of attention for our women’s line. ‘What’s new in the ladies’ line?’ is a popular trade show query’ notes King Louie’s Benton. “We added larger sizes to all our women’s styles and extra-small to several wovens to accommodate more large program purchases. I think we just have to be realistic that a large order for women’s shirts isn’t going to equal a large order of men’s shirts. An added benefit of nurturing the ladies’ line is gaining attention for our entire line. After all, women play a huge role in the buying decisions for all sales including men’s shirts, activewear, and jackets.”

If the women’s market segment is to reach its full potential, it is up to promotional products distributors to build awareness of women’s products and up to manufacturers to make those products readily available, says Vickie Lents, marketing director for Winston Salem, N.C.-based Hanes Printables, which offers the Hanes Her Way line.

“Most end users are used to looking for unisex offerings and building the awareness of women’s wear is a major challenge for all manufacturers,” Lents says. “Both companion programs and stand-alone women’s collections have tremendous potential, if we can continue to build the awareness among both PPDs and end users,” she says. “Additionally, availability continues to be an opportunity for growth.”

Porras agrees. “I’d say that the reason for (women’s wearables) being such a small percentage of sales is the lack of availability of the product.”

Educating buyers on how to coordinate pieces is key to moving the segment forward, says Rachel Newman, manager of new business venture for Leland, N.C.-based Outer Banks, which this year introduced a coordinate grouping to help buyers. “Many buyers are men and have historically been somewhat afraid to purchase women’s apparel. Through our educational pieces we are hoping to train the buyer in how to make those decisions. Once this buyer is more educated, I feel sales in women’s apparel will increase.”

TRENDS

Measuring the pulse of business and corporate casual has become a new national pastime, largely due to the tightening national economy. While some are heralding the demise of business casual, most manufacturers say the segment continues to be their strongest seller. They predict that the segment will see more growth in the short term.

“We still see that the traditional polo is the most popular because it is easy to outfit men and women in it,” says Outer Banks’ Newman. “But I think that this may change as the buyer becomes more educated on the shirt options that they have.

Newman predicts that future growth likely will occur outside traditional sport shirts into more fashionable shirt options, and move outside of 100-percent cotton into some Rayon and Spandex blends.

“Through focus groups that we conducted in 2001 we are seeing that buyers are beginning to understand that women want more fashion/style options — whether that’s a unique placket look in a polo or a non-placket shirt — women will wear these more outside of that initial company picnic or sales meeting. In this sense we feel very strongly about our new 5082 that coordinates with 5081 — giving the men the polo shirt they want and ladies a stylish option to a polo shirt, yet they all still coordinate.”

“For 2002 we have introduced four new ladies options,” Newman continues. “We now have three non-placket options and a new ladies tailored jacket. All of our styles will coordinate with our men’s sport shirts and jackets.”

At the same time, women are demanding more fashionable options and that translates into mock turtlenecks and scoop necks, Newman adds. “They want softer fabrics and a more flattering fit. Yet corporate America wants a coordinated look to their uniforms, sales meetings, trade shows, etc. To accommodate this, Outer Banks has introduced three new options — a short-sleeve mock with 5 percent Spandex, a short-sleeve scoop neck with 5 percent Spandex, and in our Outer Banks Air fabric a short-sleeve cross-over scoop. The Air style coordinates with three men’s styles and the other two coordinate with any of our solid men’s sport shirts.

Bay Reef specializes in polos and sees plenty of growth opportunities. “We feel they have become the staple of the casual workplace:’ says Bay Reef’s Porras. “Although in the past, due to limitations in sizing, it was mostly men that wore golf shirts to work. Today, because of new styles and improved fit, women also feel comfortable wearing them. School teachers have become leaders in this aspect.”

Toward that end, Bay Reef is introducing its 100 percent cotton pique, side seam polo shirt which features a welt knit collar and cuffs, topstitch shoulders and armholes, a one-inch drop tail and three woodtone buttons. The shirt is available in eight colors.

While some hail the arrival of man-made fibers, others say they are seeing the pendulum swing back toward natural fibers. “I think they will still lead the charge in women’s wear for the coming year,” says Jim Saxon, vice president of special markets and brands for Denver-based golf and corporate casual apparel supplier Sport-Haley. Saxon says other trends to watch are cool colors, mercerized cotton that is washable, and silks tops, bottoms and sweaters.

He adds that business casual remains very strong in the fair climate areas where being outdoors is expected. For the corporate market in 2002, “we have more knit tops, sweaters, shorts and outerwear,” he says. “Function in a lifestyle collection is what sells product.”

King Louie’s Benton agrees on the importance of functionality. “It is what makes a garment or line more desirable for the women’s market. Women have rigorous daily schedules. We don’t wear a dress and apron and high heels to clean the house or for a hectic day at the office. The clothes we reach for most often are functional, comfortable, easy to care or, and coordinate with other items in our closet.”

Developed in 1997 for the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), King Louie International created a dedicated label, TimeOut for Her, that includes ladies’ placket shirts, wovens, feminine tees, cardigans, jackets, and twin sets. Seven new styles have been added for 2002.

“Business casual is of course popular, but we sell women’s in a pretty even mix through resorts, college, and promotional markets,” says Benton.

Feminine detailing such as scoop or jewel necks, tight stitch detailing, smaller or more feminine plackets with appropriate buttons and prettier colors are all popular features that distinguish TimeOut for Her’s line, she adds. “For instance, the Katesmill we introduced this year has a short, one-button placket with a pretty, square, pearl button and nice detail on the set-in trim at the sleeveless armhole,” she says.

“Our shirts are not just scaled down versions of our men’s shirts,” says Blue Generation’s Rubin. “For example, our ladies counterpart to our biggest-selling twill shirt has a tapered body, shorter sleeves, no pocket on the chest, and of course buttons on the ladies side.”

Blue Generation is expanding its ladies’ offerings for 2002. “Due to the tremendous reception we received when we first offered our ladies cotton twills and denims, for 2002 we expanded ladies to 17 colors in long and short sleeve from small to 3XL,” Rubin says. “In addition, this year we added a ladies version of our cotton polo pique in 12 colors, and in our Teflon treated poly/cotton stain-resistant servicewear line, we’ve added ladies twills and polos.”

Polos and twin sets continue to be key womens’ products for Sport-Haley, says Saxon, adding that he does not see wovens pushing out knits.

“I think most women want continuity from a company,” Saxon continues. “That is why we have been so successful in the women’s market. While our tops and bottoms may look different, the fit is always the same.”

ACTIVEWEAR

Business casual is an important driver in the embellishable sportswear market, but activewear and leisurewear are still very strong. “For women, we really see two fundamental trends – the importance of color and the popularity of knits,” says Renee Thomas, merchandise manager for Hanes Printables.

“Knits are very, very strong with women because they offer exceptional comfort, softness, versatility and ease of care in addition to being a tremendous value,” she adds. “This is especially true in T-shirts, which for women have really become a wardrobe essential. They are also an inexpensive way for women to update or add color to their wardrobes.”

As an example, Hanes Her Way offers a women’s basketweave pique T-shirt, which finds popularity in the business casual segment and which offers an updated look from the traditional sport shirt.

“We developed the basketweave pique T-shirt as a more feminine companion to our Stedman by Hanes men’s basketweave sport shirt, but we are finding that many women are purchasing this shirt on its own because of its dressy, professional look,” Thomas continues. “This T-shirt works great under suits or with pants and skirts. Side by side, the Hanes Her Way basketweave pique T-shirt is probably a more updated, professional look than a man in his sport shirt. The feminine trim and narrow cut work great with the very polished two-tone look of the basketweave.”

THE RETAIL INFLUENCE

Retail continues to influence the entire embellishable sportswear market on many different levels, Thomas adds. “The popularity of hoods at retail has definitely impacted our business, says she notes. “We now offer pullover and zip hood jackets in different colors for both adults and youth.”

Retail also influences color and fabric trends. “Our new Hanes Beefy Silver T-shirts are made from cotton and Nativa Rayon for a soft, silky hand,” she says. “This type of technical fabrication as well as the unique color palette were definitely spurred by what we have seen both at retail and on the fashion runways.”

The influence of retail can also be problematic, says Outer Banks’ Newman. “The real problem is balancing fashion in a market that needs a conservative/corporate look and wants to maintain SKUs for a number of years, not just a season,” she says. “We have combated this with introducing fashionable classics, like mocks and scoop.”

OUTERWEAR

Outerwear is a new trend for women’s promotional wear, and while there has been word that 2001 saw some companies stuck with outerwear inventory due to weak sales, many industry players say the segment still has significant potential.

“There are a couple reasons why some may have higher levels of inventory due to low sales, says Outer Banks’ Newman. “Since women are used to wearing men’s jackets, buyers are not accustomed to purchasing both men’s and women’s outerwear. At the same time some manufacturers offer jacket styles only for women, when corporate America demands that if there’s a ladies jacket there should also be a matching jacket for men.

Outer Banks believes in the future of outerwear and in 2002 offers a ladies tailored microfiber fleece jacket that coordinates with a men’s jacket, Newman concludes.

At Sport-Haley, outerwear continues to be a big seller. “We have had and continue to have increases in outerwear,” Saxon notes. “We design windshirts and vests for women that are beautiful, with great prints and trims. Our outerwear is also very affordable and Sport-Haley has a tremendous cult following in the golf market. For the corporate market we have more knit tops, sweaters, shorts and outerwear.”

King Louie also is showcasing its Brodie Ladies’ hooded athletic jacket of 100 percent combed cotton jersey. Featuring a feminine fit, the jacket offers a pieced hood with drawstring, full-zip front, set-in sleeve, knit cuff and waist in a 1×1 rib knit trim.

‘We’ve tried outerwear such as windshirts and we received a very poor reaction,” says Darla Czech, director of purchasing for Minneapolis-based Trimark Sportswear Group. The company continues to see strong sales in polo and woven shirt companion pieces. “Twin sets have been just okay,” she adds.

COLOR

“Color also continues to be very important and we’re expanding our boundaries with new colors moving forward,” says Rene Thomas of Hanes. “Our new Hanes Beefy Silver T-shirt line is a great example of the new trends in colors with a washed down look in colors like plum, chamois and graphite. We also see colors like brick and rust to be very important in 2002.”

Blue Generation is another big believer in color options, says Rubin. “We currently offer 30 colors in denim and twill, 15 of which are offered in ladies,” he notes. “The excitement of color is one of the driving forces behind the Blue Generation line. This year we added sangria and keely green to our ladies selection.”

Others maintain that conservative colors work best. “If we’ve got navy, red, white and yellow in men’s, then that’s the colors we’ll put in me women’s complemetary line, says Trimark’s Czech.

“Originally, we considered expanding our colors when we decided to go into the ladies line,” says Bay Reef’s Porras. “But when we asked our customers we continuously received the same response: basic colors. Apparently, corporations are not interested in the pinks, periwinkles and tangerines as we had originally thought”

RELATED ARTICLE: Companion pieces: The same, only different

It’s clear that women hate wearing men’s shirts, but women don’t object to apparel with the same leak as their male counterpart’s outfit, but styled for them. This is called a “complementary” item or companion piece, and some industry players hail it as the future of women’s promotional wear.

Companion pieces offer continuity to the client and comfort to the female wearer. Everyone wins and everyone is enthusiastic about them.

A list of suppliers too numerous to mention all offer matching men’s and women’s styles that don’t really match; that is to say, they are made of the same colors and fabrics, but the styling is gender-specific.

“The key to our ladies sales is that they are a match-mate to our men’s styles,” says the Blue Generation’s Eric Rubin. “This way, women can look as professional and neat as the men without having the shoulders hanging down to their elbows and the sleeves rolled up four times. We see tremendous growth going forward using this concept.”

Companions also are the focus at Bay Reef this year. “We thought it would be important to coordinate our lines for the first year,” says Porras. “We can re-evaluate next year and see what did best, what special request we received and if we need different colors for the ladies line.”

Hanes Her Way is looking at new opportunities within the companions market, which it believes offers significant opportunities for growth. “Our perspective on companions is very broad – on a base level, we look for ways to coordinate between our men’s, women’s and youth programs for team or group activities in the T-shirt, sport shirt and fleece categories,” says Vickie Lents, marketing director for Hanes Printables. “Specifically, within the uniform and business casual segments, we look for new and innovative opportunities for companions in sport shirts and T-shirts, like the Hanes Her Way basketweave pique T-shirt.”

“Women are responding very positively to these type of creative styles that offer a more feminine look,” Lents continues. A key selling point of the Hanes and Hanes Her Way companion program is value – the Hanes and Hanes Her Way companions are offered at very affordable prices, yet they also offer the style and unique features.

King Louie offers eight options with several additional styles that are targeted at a unisex market, says senior designer Karen Benton. “Remember, the deal often hinges on the availability of the right women’s style, although the final breakdown will often be weighted with the men’s shirt order. We are very committed to couterports.”

Sport-Haley also does a lot of business in the male/female companion piece market. “We look to do more going forward,” adds Jim Saxon, vice president of special markets and brands for The Sport-Haley apparel.

Darla Czech, director of merchandising for Trimark Sportswear Group, says companion pieces play a key role in the company’s new catalog, which features a union of exclusive brands such as Rivers End Trading Company, LA Loving, On Tour, and a new outerwear brand, Outer Boundary.

Decorated scarves make ideal accessories

Forget the women’s shirts and jackets for a minute and consider a women’s accessory that is an versatile as it is elegant: the scarf. “Ladies’ scarves have always been a popular wearable item for women,” says Patrick Walsh, president of KTP Design Company, a New York-based supplier specializing in ties and scarves. “They are also among the most versatile of all wearables. Scarves are available in many different fabrics, from satin silk to polyester jacquard, among others. There are also many sizes available from oblongs to squares.”

Scarves can also be tied and worn in many different ways, adding to their versatility. And the design options are endless, Walsh says, ranging from a conservative step-and repeat pattern to a gorgeous all-over print. He refers to custom-designed scarves as “wearable art.” They can also be designed to match a men’s tie, offering an upscale unified look.

Walsh notes many other possible uses: “Ladies’ scarves make perfect executive gifts. They are also popular uniform accessories, especially for service industry clients. You’ll find scarves included in many company store programs. They also make great promotional giveaways.

“In fact, we recently produced a scarf to promote Viagra,” Walsh says. “The Viagra scarf was tastefully designed, by subtly incorporating the Viagra pill into the pattern, and emphasizing the same shade of blue used in the pill. The result was an elegant scarf that turned out to be a highly sought-after promotional product.”

Kim Mitchell is a Denver-based journalist and a frequent contributor to Wearables Business.

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