As retailers and exhibitors head to MAGIC, the bi-annual Advanstar-produced event that brings together the international community of apparel, accessories and footwear buyers, brands and decision makers Feb. 14-16 in Las Vegas, Nev., they are optimistic. The Christmas 2011 season showed some renewed interest in apparel, and spring should keep the momentum going as people look to refresh wardrobes.
"The apparel market is starting to look good again," says Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group.
In its most recent apparel sales report, NPD, albeit modestly, found that revenue increased overall primarily driven by the men's segment.
Howard Loevner, co-president of Trau & Loevner, a t-shirt supplier with numerous licenses, agrees business is healthy and forecasts a trend towards nostalgic (Gumby or Lucky Charms, for example) and animal licensed themes or properties.
"The mood going into the show is good and cotton prices have come down some," says Loevner.
A Retail Numbers Break Down
From January to June 2011, the total apparel market dollar volume grew just under 1 percent, with men's up 4.6 percent. In particular, men's tailored clothing jumped 11 percent, and dress shirts climbed 3 percent. Women's apparel slid 0.8 percent. NPD's second half results are still being calculated.
While the women's segment declined, there were bright spots including dresses, suits and sheer hosiery.
"Women may continue to 'shop their closets' and make concessions in favor of their family members' needs," says Cohen.
But as indicated by the areas showing positive results, "they are picking and choosing from categories that might have a benefit in their professional lives," notes Cohen.
Across the total apparel market, average retail prices rose 6 percent during the first half of 2011 versus the first half of 2010. Prices in the men's apparel market rose almost 8 percent, while prices in the women's apparel market rose 3 percent.
"Rising prices along with their impact on the consumer has gotten a lot of attention," says Cohen, "The price pressures have come from throughout the supply chain and ultimately are passed on to consumers. But I think these results show that consumers have been accepting of those price increases."
The National Retail Federation indicates a positive lift through the second half of 2011. Apparel sales during the key November and December holiday selling period rose too.
Citing Department of Commerce statistics, the NRF reported that sales at clothing and clothing accessories stores increased 0.7 percent seasonally adjusted over November, and a strong 7.9 percent unadjusted year-over-year.
While numbers are starting to seep into the black, Cohen cautions the industry still has a way to go. One of the biggest challenges for the apparel industry is keeping the dwindling core of true followers of fashion engaged.
"The consumer is not looking at fashion as a high priority purchase. Today they are saying, 'I'm going to make do with what I have until I have to replace it,'" says Cohen. "There are still some of those passionate consumers left, but the number has gotten smaller and smaller."
The industry, advises Cohen, "has to find a way to tell the consumer 'you need to look good for these specific reasons.'"
For instance, poses Cohen: "Why isn't the industry working on educating the consumer on how to dress for success? They did it three decades ago and they've never done it again."
Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, agrees and says shoppers have learned how to get the best deals. They want to buy, but on their own terms. They are looking for more deals, carrying around receipts to get money back when mark downs occur and using reward programs more frequently.
David Wolfe, creative director and trend forecaster for The Doneger Group, says the most important undercurrent in fashion now is simplification.
"There is a new minimalism, a simplicity but with color, softness and shape," says Wolfe. "The trend of overdressing is closing."
As color makes a comeback–both in bold shades and delicate pastel tones–black is expected to lose some of its dominance. Wolfe also anticipates white will play a bigger role in fashion and also be paired with black for a bolder statement.
"Zebra is the new leopard," he says.
And as color comes back in greens, oranges, yellows and blues, Wolfe predicts women who are used to all black "and trying color for the first time" will probably buy blue first. Metallic materials are now worn year-round instead of just during the holiday season.
While technology has been driving newness in every other industry, Wolfe finds fashion falling behind. Even so, in the future designers will embrace more fabrics with benefits taking its cue from active wear, which has led in this segment. Still, says Wolfe, pointing to the advances in sneakers and watches, "accessories will beat apparel in the race to the future."
Architecture is also having an influence on fashion as exampled by this upcoming fall's crop of coats and jackets.
"You will see dramatic, strong shapes," says Wolfe.
Style details this year will include a focus on graceful draping necklines, dresses and tops with cut outs, along with sheer materials and modular pieces that can be mixed and matched.
In addition to functional synthetics, fabric and textiles to look for include wool and boiled wool, fur (both real and fake), snakeskin and geometric patterns, notes Wolfe.
There are categories providing rays of hope for spring, buyers say.
Legwear, a category that has been drawing consumer interest, will be enlivened into the next season.
"Bright colors and textures will represent a lot of the business for spring," says Alison Hessert, spokesperson for Kayser-Roth, maker of HUE and No Nonsense brands. "On the flip side, there will be pastels and lovely, girly things–but not cloyingly saccharine. Lacy trims and delicate weaves are other elements of the coming season."
Hessert is also seeing a trend in patterned hosiery and "lots of anklets" worn with shoes and sandals.
"Leggings and footless tights have exploded in the past two years," says Maureen Stabnau, senior vice president, merchandising for BareNecessities.com. "Since 2005, we have seen consistent double-digit growth each year in the category. One of the key factors driving the growth has been the economy. Legwear is a great way to update your wardrobe, without breaking the bank."
"We're starting to see more interest in Gumby, Where's Waldo?, Popeye and now we have Pink Panther," says Loevner.
He also predicts shoppers will be interested in other nostalgic looks such as those from old movies.
"And animals are coming back," he adds.
Animal Planet departments did well in juniors, he says. Also delivering this year, he adds, are United States Postal Service licenses.
"We also have plans for the Olympics and have earmarked countries such as Jamaica for track and field," he says.
Loevner believes the youth market is underserved in t-shirts and he's bolstering his toddler business with novelty themes such as Wheaties and Peeps.
Fashion and Entertainment Licenses
Licenses will continue to grow, especially those that drive shoppers and have a solid track record.
Debra Joester, president of The Joester Loria Group, says that retailers remain eager to bring new and exciting licensed product into their stores but are rarely willing to commit to significant programs until they have test results.
"For Annoying Orange, retailers immediately understood the power of the property and its extraordinary reach," she says. "The program is moving into children's sizes in 2012 and will be in thousands of stores."
Hybrid Apparel will debut a line of Annoying Orange boys' t-shirts at MAGIC. The line will launch in spring at specialty, mid-tier and mass retailers including JCPenney, Walmart, Target, Kohl's, Trans World, Rue 21, Shopko and Belk. Juniors and men's t-shirts, which launched this past fall, will also be on display MAGIC. The line is currently available at JCPenney and other retailers across the country.
Discovery and Animal Planet are also seeing retail support for new product. Hybrid launched Shark Week t-shirts in 2011 and a bigger program will roll out in this year as Shark Week celebrates 25 years. Two Animal Planet series will be in-stores as well. Merlet is distributing Hillbilly Handfishing and River Monsters t-shirts in specialty and outdoor retailers. Dorfman Pacific will display a line of Discovery Expedition performance headwear.
SpongeBob SquarePants is still afloat as well. Nickelodeon has partnered with IMKING (Imaginary Kingdom Clothing) for a SpongeBob SquarePants co-brand, where IMKING for adult apparel, accessories and headwear product. There will be four releases of product throughout the year. Product will be released in boutiques, online stores and in IMKING's flagship store in Santa Ana, Calif. The first collection launches in spring.