In the movie Friends With Benefits, snowboarding legend Shaun White makes several cameos in which the audience at a recent showing displayed an immediate and positive recognition of the carrot-topped athlete.
That response is an illustration of how Americans currently feel about celebrities, especially the right face matched with the right product. Thanks to Facebook and Twitter, consumers feel closer to famous faces than ever and believe they are part of a celebrity's inner circle, with famous names spanning the gamut from movie stars to reality stars.
Wearing apparel or products with recognizable images or personalities furthers the consumer's connection to the celebrity, says Wendy Liebmann, founder of WSL Strategic Retail. A case in point: reality star Bethenny Frankel. Liebmann cites that consumers flock to buy Frankel's products, which include margaritas, lingerie, a cleanse tea drink and skin care, based on the connection they feel to her.
In apparel, America's fascination with the famous is translating into resurgence in sales of licensed stars, cartoons or other icons. There hasn't been such strong acceptance since the 1980s, says Howard Loevner, co-president of Trau & Loevner, a t-shirt supplier with numerous licenses.
"Many retailers have actually converted some of their generic or novelty t-shirt dollars to licensed tees," says Loevner. "There appears to be a very eclectic mix of licensed tees that are performing well at retail, from beverage and corporate logos to character graphics, apps and online related licenses."
In turn, retailers including Old Navy, Walmart, Target, Macy's, Kohl's and Sears are revving up licensed apparel efforts. Walmart is making a big statement with Nickelodeon's Victorious program for back to school; Macy's is expanding Madonna and daughter Lourdes' Material Girl line to include intimates and sleepwear while also offering more in denim, dresses and outerwear; and Target is launching a Gwen Stefani helmed collection in baby and boys' apparel. Target also has ramped up its Shaun White program and promotes graphic tees and drapey tanks with retro logos frequently.
According to Loevner, chains are using additional tables to accommodate the extra inventory and stock, keeping units devoted to licenses, especially screen tees. Wall programs are a big part of Walmart and Target's plans.
"This makes it clear and effortless for the consumer to see what is available," he says.
Shoppers, it seems, have hit the back of their closets and are ready to freshen up. For many, a cute shirt with Hello Kitty's feline face or Harry Potter's scar-countenance is an inexpensive update. With prices rising because of higher costs of goods, manufacturers and retailers are banking on the value of licensed merchandise.
As far as the silhouette trends, Melissa Moylan, trend director for Fashion Snoops, identifies vintage prep, rugby stripes, contrast time, sun-faded plaids, Navajo looks, bright colors and an "urban nomad" look as the style setting trends for boys.
"In girls, look for warm brights, retro patterns, Woodstock-inspired designs, jumpsuits, crochet and color blocking to be popular," adds Moylan.
For men, Moylan calls the hot styles influenced by looks such as Naval Academy, rockabilly, suburbia and snake charmers.
Finally for women, her looks to watch are what she calls "Boogie Nights," "Boho Spirit," cropped tops, slouchy peg pants, maxi dresses, jumpsuits, fringe and color blocking.
Retail sales of apparel are up 1.4 percent for the year ending April 2011, reported The NPD Group, with the factory outlet (+17.9 percent) and warehouse club channels (+24.7 percent) driving growth with double digit gains. Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group states that the primary reason that these trades pulled in big numbers: "value." As the back to school season approaches, Cohen predicts this consumer attitude will remain.
Data from the National Retail Federation reveals a more cautious back to school shopper who will seek out bargains. According to NRF's 2011 Back to School survey conducted by BIGresearch, families with children in grades K-12 will spend an average of $603.63 on apparel, school supplies and electronics, within a few dollars of last year's $606.40 average. Total spending on grades K-12 is expected to reach $22.8 billion. Combined K-12 and college spending will reach $68.8 billion, serving as the second biggest consumer spending event for retailers behind the winter holidays.
"Families aren't opposed to spending on what they need, but parents want their children to take a good look around at what they already have before deciding what to buy for back to school this year," says Matthew Shay, NRF president and chief executive officer. "Retailers understand consumers are extremely focused on value and are taking this opportunity to offer substantial savings on merchandise."
As far as apparel segments are concerned, women's denim is making a comeback and the jeggings category is growing. Skirts and tights also saw double-digit growth in the past year.
Healthy categories for men are core segments like underwear and socks, and also some "dress up" pieces such as tailored items and neckwear. Outerwear and fleecewear also did very well during the winter months.
The Licenses To Watch
There are a wide variety of new or revived licensed apparel products appealing to a large swatch of consumers. Icons that will adorn everything from shirts to shoes run the gamut from movie licenses to social networking games. Retailers are using display tables to stack tees high while also creating more concept shops to merge various products with one license.
Heroes of all sorts are setting the pace. Warner Bros. has forged a partnership with Undergirl for a collection of underwear and sleepwear bearing DC Comics heroines Wonder Woman, Batgirl and Supergirl. The juniors line will include tanks, bikinis, panties, bras, tutus and pajamas. The offering will be available at specialty retailers like Hot Topic, Spencer's and Journeys through 2013.
Harry Potter, another type of hero, will be popping up in more places following the record-breaking box office sales of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Internationally, there is an exclusive deal with Japanese retailer Uniqlo for a collection of t-shirts outside of the U.S. In the U.S., Harry Potter apparel includes numerous items at Hot Topic such as the Slytherin Crest varsity girls cardigan, priced $46.50-$48.50, and a button-up hoodie with a large H (for Hogwarts) on the front and a coat of arms on the back for $49.50-$53.50.
Marvel Entertainment is building on its strong foundation with major support behind Marvel's The Avengers, due in theaters May 2012. The company says it has major retail initiatives with Gap, Old Navy and co-branded programs with Reebok and the NBA secured.
Hello Kitty has been a hero to fans and to retailers who sell Sanrio merchandise. Capcom Entertainment and Sanrio have partnered to create co-branded Street Fighter-themed merchandise featuring Hello Kitty dressed in the distinct costumes from the Street Fighter series of video games. The line will launch next fall. This should bring in a whole new group of fans, says Joshua Izzo, director of licensing for Capcom Entertainment. In another twist, Hydrogen is reinterpreting its famous skull by adding the graphic and funkiness of Hello Kitty and other Sanrio characters. Watch for Sanrio to add to its litter in the next year.
"We want to diversify our character portfolio instead of spending time to boost recognition of our existing characters in overseas markets," says Susumu Emori, managing director for Sanrio.
Although not a traditional super hero, Victoria Justice (who plays Tori Vega on Nickelodeon's "Victorious") is the new "it" girl for tweens. Walmart saw the power of the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus property and now hopes for the same with the more than 250 "Victorious"-themed products that hit stores in July.
"We're introducing a line of 'Victorious' products that match the fun, energy and humor that fans have come to expect from the show," says Ron Johnson, senior vice president, retail development, Nickelodeon Kids and Family Group. "By working with Walmart on this exclusive launch, we're ensuring this dynamic 'Victorious'-themed product line that includes apparel will be available to millions of kids, tweens and teens across the country."
"iCarly's" Jennette McCurdy is the official brand spokesperson for Rebecca Bonbon products, available exclusively at Kmart and Sears. The teen star will be featured in marketing and in-store signage. She'll be wearing clothing from master licensee, Kids Headquarters.
Hasbro is expected to make a big push with apparel behind Battleship in sync with 2012 film release, while its Nerf label also expands into apparel. Other major studios are also making a big initiative to take names abroad and make use of the international fame of names such as Warner Bros. with its Looney Tunes property.
Social Networking Emerges As A New Trend
Emerging from the web is "Annoying Orange," a symbol of things to come as social media becomes ever more influential. The life-like animated video series has gained more than 650 million views since its inception in 2009. It is developing into a television series for 2012.
Debra Joester, president of The Joester Loria Group, is handling a merchandise deal with Hybrid that is turning "Annoying Orange" and its character into t-shirts this year.
"More and more people are spending time online and with viral entertainment," says Joester. "We had been assuming something was going to be coming out of this space that will be the next big thing. This is a property that is very much building, and proved not to be a flash in the pan."
Starting off will be a t-shirt line for specialty stores in the $12.99-$14.99 range, followed by shirts for JCPenney for around $9.99 later in the year.
"We are also working on using QR codes on hangtags to feature exclusive 'Annoying Orange' videos that can only be seen in-store," notes Joester. "We've talked about 'retailtainment' for a long time. This gives retailers a way to differentiate their stores."
The apparel will expand into children's offerings next spring.
"I suspect we will see a lot more of these. It really is a multimedia product. If you look at shows like 'Saturday Night Live,' content flows both ways now," says Joester. "It is not surprising that something like 'Annoying Orange' was virally created."
New TV Options
Joester also has a guiding hand in merchandise for Animal Planet's "Shark Week." In celebration of the annual event's 25th anniversary next July, special events are being planned including a new t-shirt collection. First out are styles for men and boys at Kohl's, JC Penney and Belks, priced from $7.99-$9.99, and followed by a lineup for specialty and department stores. Next year there will be some women's and girls' tops, board shorts, headwear, towels and outdoor beach related products. There will also be a Halloween costume in 2012, and while that is post the actual anniversary, Joester believes the momentum will carry through. Restaurants and bars have embraced "Shark Week" with specialty drinks and promotions. Retailers are expected to feature window displays and in-store TV monitors. Some of the proceeds will go to benefit Oceania, the world's largest ocean conservation group.
Footwear maker Skechers is continuing its march into licensed apparel with a deal with LF USA for a line of activewear, being readied for a 2012 launch in a multi-year agreement. Items will include Shape-ups, Tone-ups, activewear, outerwear and performance-related accessories. The Skechers Fitness Apparel collection will build on the success of Skechers Fitness Footwear, the company says.
"Skechers Fitness has grown from a single style into a performance running line, training line and an everyday toning line," says Michael Greenberg, president of Skechers.
The line is being targeted to department stores, sporting goods stores and other independent retailers in the U.S. Prices have not been set yet, but will be in sync with Skechers Fitness footwear, the company says.
Also in that vein, Bethenny Frankel has launched a shapewear and lingerie collection called Smoothers n' Shapers which banks on her reputation with health and fitness products fueled by her Skinnygirl margarita and now sangria.
"There's no reason these products can't be attractive," says Frankel, while discussing her projects. "I see holes in markets and fill them, and there was one in this category."
Frankel likes to be the director of the project, but finds the experts to actually produce and manufacture–a concept that makes licenses so perfect for her vision, she says.
Retailers expect celebrity driven apparel collections to keep on coming. Lourdes "Lola" Leon's Material Girl is expanding into 100 more Macy's locations, bringing the total to 300 doors. Macy's executives say it is one of the top five brands in juniors and is getting a big push in stores. Iconix and Macy's will again use Kelly Osbourne as a face for the brand.
Shaun White is moving forward as a design partner with Target. The collaboration, which started 10 years ago and added apparel in 2008, is introducing an accessories collection. The range of hats, belts and wallets are priced $9.99 and below. Nothing in the Target collection from the Olympic snowboarder and his business partner/brother Jesse costs more than $29.99, says a Target spokeswoman.
"Their entry into apparel started as a 90-day special collection," says Target. "They had so much fun doing it, it turned into a year-round business."
And Kohl's says it is not backing off its new exclusive lifestyle brands from Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony despite the announcement of their marital split. Coming this fall are separate men's and women's collections beginning with apparel and accessories, designed simultaneously. Kohl's and Music Entertainment Sports Holdings (MESH), a division of LF USA whose partners include designer Tommy Hilfiger, first announced this partnership last year. The Jennifer Lopez collection will include sportswear, dresses, handbags, jewelry, shoes and sleepwear, while Marc Anthony will launch in sportswear, dress shirts, neckwear, accessories, suit separates, sport coats and shoes, the company says.
And it seems this is just a taste of what's to come from MESH. It recently announced a working relationship with Bravado, a music merchandising company, for future apparel collections with Bravado signed artists. The first collections are expected to hit specialty and department stores by year-end.
Recording artists Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Katy Perry, The Rolling Stones, Guns 'N Roses and Green Day are a sampling of the chart topping names that could be putting a new mark on apparel. Hilfiger called this marriage of music and fashion "historic."
"This is a new approach that takes the current notion of artist merchandise and propels it into those places, which up until now, been reserved for major designers and major brands," says Lucian Grange, chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group, parent of Bravado.
Other artist buyers of mention include Jessica Simpson, who has especially made a mark in shoes, and apparel coming from Janet Jackson. DJ Tiesto is also getting good response for his apparel line as he tours colleges and adds to his exposure.
Avril Lavigne has a new look, new songs and is expanding her Abbey Dawn apparel line, previously a Kohl's exclusive. Her new collections include men's, shoes, swimsuits and accessories that add to the shirts, tanks and hoodies Lavigne has already made popular. Lavigne is combining her fashion with charities and making donations through her Avril Lavigne Foundation. One shirt benefits victims of Japan's disasters.
Celebrities continue to branch out, too. H&M recently announced new bodywear with David Beckham that will hit stores in February (wife Victoria just expanded her Victoria by Victoria Beckham, too). And, Pamela Anderson is getting back into the intimate apparel business with a new license from Secrets To Lace.
Away from the world of celebs, some venerable names continue to bank on licenses. Stride Rite has expanded its stable of character licenses and is making its first move into the apparel category under its Robeez label. Among the new licenses is the preschool powerhouse Sesame Street. Sharon John, president of Stride Rite Children's Group, says the company was attracted to the license because of its broad, multi-generational appeal.
"Sesame Street has a strong connection and heritage with parents and grandparents," says John. "And the educational aspect of the brand also has special appeal to our specific demographic of consumers."
"Licenses and celebrities are hot now," adds Liebmann at WSL. "They drive shoppers to the aisle, get them out of the house and buying. But you have to be realistic about the life cycle and be ready to move onto the next thing coming."
Leibmann's comments reflect the entire state of apparel licensing. Retailers need to jump on strong now, but be fluid with new licenses, especially since the American public is more fickle than ever. But they always want to jump onto the next new name.