Having increased the number of colors, styles and fabrics in their women’s lines, activewear manufacturers are predicting a strong fall season. Fleece is expected to continue as the leading fabrication, they said, but some new fabrics, such as French terry and various cotton and polyester blends, are likely to fuel orders.

The one hurdle in the season, manufacturers said, is one they have faced every season — the fact that non-sporting goods stores still have not found a niche for women’s activewear.

“Department stores have been floundering for years,” said Leslee Grant, women’s marketing manager at Nike. “They hang activewear in various departments, so the consumer doesn’t know if she should look in the weekend, bodywear or authentic activewear departments.

Manufacturers said most department stores do not maximize the potential of the women’s activewear business. In contrast, they cited specialty store Lady Foot Locker as a store that does an exceptionally good activewear business.

Lady Foot Locker is a “trend setter for our industry in the way they merchandise the goods,” said Joseph Kirchner, vice president and general merchandise manager of the Adidas USA textile division.

For fall, Adidas has added more thematic groupings, with designs inspired by such themes as field hockey and archery, said Kirchner. “We will offer products for different taste levels and different channels of retailing,” he said, adding that roughly 40 percent of the Adidas line is aimed at the junior consumer and the rest is for women. The junior merchandise is styled with large Adidas logos and multi-colored number and sport-name badges.

Kirchner said he expected fleece tops, middle-to-high price warmup suits, and big tops with badges or embroidery to be best sellers.

Adidas, which has a wholesale price range of $12 to $60, does “approximately 35 percent of its volume with sporting good stores; 30 percent in department stores; 25 percent in specialty stores like Lady Foot Locker and the rest in different types of distribution,” said Kirchner. “The sporting goods stores take the basic goods while department and specialty stores take on the fashionpieces.”

He said that although Adidas’ women’s business is growing one-and-a-half times faster than its men’s, the “split is still 75 to 25 between men’s and ladies.”

Champion Products, whose women’s business has comprised primarily school uniforms and college sweatshirts, is offering an expanded, more fashionable line of activewear, said Sharon Wilkes, design director.

“We still have a very authentic base to our company but we see the peripherals growing,” she said. The Champion line will be composed primarily of fleece “in a range of 20 colors, like rich amethyst purple, bright sunset orange, and pastels as well as classics,” said Wilkes.

Champion, whose line wholesales for $7.50 to $40, will also test market a women’s “funky sweat pant” in major metropolitan areas, said Wilkes.

“We’ve always been doing women’s as part of the men’s line,” said Wilkes, “but never made a real statement with women’s wear before.” She said the company does “a huge business with Lazarus, Lady Foot Locker and Athletes Foot.”

Bassett Walker, which last year had a wholesale volume of $230 million in fleece, according to Tom Butler, executive vice president, will add more bright colors and pastels in the line and introduce two new fabrics. One fabric is called Sturdy Sweats by BW, a 9-ounce polyester and cotton, and the other is a 95-percent cotton and 5-percent acrylic blend with “improved softness and performance.”

“Fabric and fabric weights are becoming more and more important,” said Butler. Although many companies are pointing to an influx of fashion into the activewear field, Butler said, “We have a lot of basic merchandise that is selling well, like a cotton rib fabric we use for basic elastic waist pants and different tops.”

Last year, he said, Bassett Walker, whose wholesale price range is $4.75 to $12, did most of its volume with retailers like J.C. Penney, Mervyn’s, Target.

Nike, which redirected its women’s line last spring by offering more fashion colors and advertising specifically for women, is merchandising its fall line “by attitude,” said Grant.

It will offer “three groups for three attitudes of women,” said Grant. The first group is aimed at a woman whose “workout is an important part of her life. She’s worked really hard at aerobics and wants to show off her hard work.” The second group is for women who belong to gyms but are not as diligent in their workouts. The third group is for those who don’t work out but buy activewear to wear on weekends. “She likes to look comfortable and casual,” said Grant.

Nike will offer bright colors, such as hot fuchsia combined with an aquamarine or a bright blue combined with a bright green, said Grant. “And we’ll relate the whole indigo story to stretchable fabrics in our aerobics line with an indigo stretch material.”

As for fabrics, Grant said French terry is becoming “a real key fabrication in separates and in suits and the popularity of fleece in both prints and solids is continuing.”

Overall, she said, Nike activewear, which wholesales for $8 to $50, has been “growing phenomenally each season since we have focused specifically on it as a target business.”

The base of Nike’s distribution is in sporting goods stores “like Paragon Sports (in New York), which is not where women would normally go to shop,” said Grant. While she pointed out that the company was “still primarily a footwear company,” women’s activewear is a growing part of its business.

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