Originally created 03/27/04

Department stores get an infusion of affordable fashions

NEW YORK -- There'll be plenty of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren clothes in department stores this spring, but the famed designer labels will have a few new twists.

Calvin Klein has a less expensive collection that reflects his minimalist style. Polo Ralph Lauren has retooled its label for women, Lauren by Ralph Lauren, with clothes in keeping with the designer's classic preppy roots.

Meanwhile, Tommy Hilfiger, who has long catered to a young consumer, has come out with a more sophisticated line, H Hilfiger, which features clothes such as stretch cotton pantsuits and black leather bomber jackets.

The new clothes are expected to help department stores - squeezed at the bottom by discounters and at the top by high-end stores - lure back some of the shoppers they've lost in recent years.

"Designer specialty stores stole from the top and mass merchants stole from the bottom, and left the middle bland area to the department stores," said David Wolfe, creative director at The Doneger Group, a merchandise buying office in New York, "Now, they are pumping excitement into that middle."

Aimed at women ages 25 to 45 and sold in department stores' career wear sections, the new clothes are about a quarter of the price of designer fashions.

In Calvin Klein's less expensive line, which is being produced by Kellwood Co. under a licensing agreement, jackets retail for $250, while pants and skirts are priced at $125. In Klein's designer collection, jackets range in price from $950 to $1,150, while skirts are priced from $400 to $800. Pants retail from $300 to $1,200.

The Lauren by Ralph Lauren line will retain its pricing structure. Jackets retail from $230 to $250, while pants are priced from $119 to $139.

The new fashions have prompted two major apparel giants to expand their merchandise lines. This spring, Liz Claiborne Inc. unveiled Realities, a dressier version of its namesake line. Jones Apparel Group Inc. has launched Jones New York Signature, which offers a mix of casual and dressy fashions.

Department store officials, including those from Macy's, Bloomingdale's and Lord & Taylor, report strong sales so far.

"We feel very bullish," said Robert Jezowski, executive vice president of ready-to-wear women's clothes at Macy's, predicting double-digit sales increases from a year ago in what the industry calls its better wear zone. "There is a lot of momentum. The jacket is back. The skirt is back."

Kristine Jeka, a Chicago resident, who bought a skirt from the H Hilfiger line, said of the new fashions, "the colors are brighter and more 'now' than his typical red, white and navy clothes."

"I think it is a smart marketing move on his part because ... he is now catering to women who pay attention to trends and are willing to spend more on quality," she said.

Two recent shoppers at Bloomingdale's in Manhattan were interested but not overly impressed with the new fashions.

Meridith Berger, of Manhattan, liked some of the bright colors and said she'd be open to buying some of the new clothes. But, she also said of the career wear department, "I don't trust this area because it is too conservative."

Suzanne Vilardi, of Phoenix, was concerned that the Calvin Klein linen garments would wrinkle, and she complained that there was too much pink on the sales floor.

"I need clothes that are functional," she said.

Such hesitation makes analysts question whether the new lines will give department stores the big sales boost they need.

Marshal Cohen, senior industry analyst at NPD Inc., a market research firm in Port Washington, N.Y., cautioned: "The good news is that the customer is going to be back, but are they going to come back with gusto or are they going to dabble?"

The department store industry has seen some sales improvement over the past couple of months after several sluggish years. Upscale apparel stores like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom were among the first to recover amid an improving economy, although many mid-price department stores, particularly regional chains like Marshall Field's and Dillard's, still face challenges.

Designers like Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein helped revitalize the department store business back in the late 1980s and early 1990s with their casual sportswear. In the late 1990s, they became victims of their own success when their lines became too widely distributed. Their troubles helped drag the department store sector down.

Not wanting to repeat past mistakes, the designers are limiting distribution to preserve the new lines' cachet.

For now, Hilfiger's H line of women's and men's clothing is exclusive to Federated Department Stores Inc., company officials said. The line was shipped to slightly more than 100 stores, including Bloomingdale's and Macy's.

The Calvin Klein women's line was launched in only 140 stores, including certain units from Federated's Macy's and Bloomingdale's and May Department Stores Co.'s Lord & Taylor and Famous-Barr. The men's line is planned to be shipped in the spring of 2005.

And, in a change from the past, no more than two stores at a mall will have the clothes, said Steve Ruzow, president of women's wear at Kellwood.

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