Even though the “anything goes” approach to fashion will continue into next summer, retailers can still zero in on a few key items.
Summer is the time to stock up on cute little dresses, swimsuits and the ubiquitous T-shirt. Rather than looking to a few styles to guide this market’s trends, buyers can invest in items. Nothing better reflects the strategy than the fitted T-shirt. Although specialty and department stores have picked up on it, there’s no sign the trend is letting up, especially with more start-up companies coming on board. The success of the pioneer companies has been so great, the T-shirt zoomed right through the trend stage and into lifestyle or cultural phenomenon.
“The way women wear T-shirts isn’t the same as 10 years ago. How they wear them, say with a suit, might be a trend. But the T-shirt itself isn’t a trend, it’s secured a place in fashion now,” said Mitzi Prochnow, owner of Mitzi & Romano, a specialty store here. The new T-shirt look stems from Nineties lifestyle changes and the evolution from boxy and loose to sleek and sexy.
Many lifestyle elements originated in California, home to T-shirt companies like Juicy Couture, Michael Stars and Three Dots. Owners describe their products as very “California.”
The idea of California goes beyond healthy, body-conscious and active; it also means the ironic combination of luxurious and casual influences — a strong influence on Nineties fashions. Silicon Valley’s computer industry gave the nation another trend — casual workwear. No longer restricted by dress codes of suits and blouses, women have options of twinsets or a jacket paired with a fitted T-shirt.
Another lifestyle plus: T-shirts need no dry cleaning, ironing or excessive care.
“Today’s woman doesn’t have time to press a blouse in the morning. She’d rather put on a T-shirt and go,” said Pauline Sokol, owner of Lilla*p Inc., a T-shirt company based here.
Suzanne Lerner, principal of Lerner et Cie, a multiline showroom that represents Michael Stars at AmericasMart, agrees.
“Women with a `running around’ lifestyle aren’t going to give up the easiness [of T-shirts],” she said.
Beyond California’s influence, the impact of streetwear on mainstream fashion is strong. Although many T-shirt makers don’t like comparing the fitted T-shirt with the baby T-shirt, its influence is apparent, although the fitted T-shirt is less severe. Nineties’ minimalism provided the ideal setup for the T-shirt to take over.
“People get too confused about what to wear. That’s why we’ve created basics,” said Pamela Skist-Levy, an owner of Juicy.
Lilla*p’s Sokol focused on basics, too. After analyzing her closet and finding mostly T-shirts, she figured other women were the same. The T-shirt market didn’t escape retro-mania, either. Aside from iron-on decals, the sexy Seventies T-shirt made a comeback (think Suzanne Somers and Farrah Fawcett).
For Juicy’s owners, nostalgia played a very big part.
“We grew up in California in the Seventies and Eighties wearing Diddo’s and Tea, a very happening line then. They made a perfect French fitted T-shirt that we always wanted to bring back,” said Skist-Levy.
Juicy isn’t the only company out to make the perfect T-shirt; there’s stiff competition to make cotton stronger, softer and more resistant to shrinkage; to make colors more varied, fade-resistant and unique, and to make bodies trendier and more flattering.
“Competition forces us all to be better, and the consumer benefits,” said Michael Cohen, who in 1986 founded Michael Stars, which now offers 100 bodies and 20 to 35 colors each season. John Ward, president and designer at Three Dots, concurs.
“All the competition has made the category more important in fashion,” he said.
Whether the quality of any single company’s shirts is superior to that of another remains subjective. Most are cut from ring-spun, combed cotton, garment dyed and put through a series of finishing processes, so what the customer buys is what she gets, with no surprises. Sales are based more on consumer loyalty to a certain brand; the store’s level of commitment, especially in building full, colorful displays; quick response to reorders, and signature characteristics like a certain body, length or sizing options. Although some consumers look for novelty above all, most find a brand they like and stick with it.
Ward of Three Dots compares T-shirts to jeans.
“It’s like if a woman buys Levi’s or Diesel, it’s usually a lifelong choice,” he said. Loyalty is so great there’s little crossover among brands. Each company fills a niche, whether it be hip, misses’, designer or girlie. “The challenge lies in turning a customer on to a new line. But it’s fun to see them get hooked, when they keep coming back,” said Judy Rossignol, president of Yes Yes Yes showroom, which carries Leopold and A. Gold E., sportswear lines that specialize in T-shirts.
Many retailers describe consumers as addicted to T-shirt lines. Michael Stars calls them fanatics — women who have over 100 T-shirts. Three Dots reports the same phenomenon. Ward said his account, Peoples boutique, here, has a cult-like following; women get on waiting lists for certain colors or bodies and make multiple purchases.
Rexer-Parkes, a local specialty store, also keeps waiting lists, especially if a company can’t keep up with constant shipping demands.
But no matter how great the loyalty, retailers still want newness. Bill Hallman, who owns three specialty stores here, said customers always look for the new; he carries Juicy, but just picked up two other Los Angeles-based lines, Velvet and Skimpies.
“Our customer is fast. She sees the item in a magazine and comes in to buy it,” he said.
Ginny Feltus-Brewer, owner of Rexer-Parkes, finds the market so demanding and fast-paced that she’s hired a T-shirt buyer to comb the markets for the latest lines and stock inventory. Realizing the demand, Feltus-Brewer offers several lines — Juicy, Lilla*p., Michael Stars and Three Dots, which are stacked; as well as Leopold, Calvin Klein, Anna Sui and Tocca, which are hung near sportswear.
“These T-shirts sell themselves. It’s hard to keep them neat, though. We stack by vendor and color, but they sell down so quickly,” she said.
The front section of Mitzi & Romano is devoted to 15 bodies by Michael Stars and six by Three Dots. At customers’ requests, owner Prochnow will order Juicy at this market.
Mitzi & Romano is one of the top accounts at Michael Stars. The store began carrying the line four years ago and now sells an average of 100 shirts a week. She follows a merchandising method recommended by vendors. According to Lerner at Michael Stars, the more product you put out, the more it retails. Juicy bases higher sales on full, substantial color displays.
“A woman won’t buy a fuchsia suit, but she’ll buy a fuchsia T-shirt to put under a gray suit,” said Skist-Levy.
Lilla*p’s Sokol also believes a T-shirt gets lost in the shuffle if not displayed correctly. Much of the advantage comes down to reorders; the demand is so high, companies lose out if orders can’t be filled, especially if retailers find a quicker resource. But even if a company can respond quickly to reorders, such as Michael Stars, one line is not enough to satisfy all customers, retailers said.
Reorders average every two weeks, with Three Dots and Leopold a bit slower to respond, said retailers. One advantage of a smaller line with fewer accounts, like Lilla*p, is that reorders can be shipped same-day service.
“We have no order minimums yet. All inventory is right here in my home. I can ship it the moment someone places the order,” said Sokol. Hers is a small-scale version of Michael Stars, which Lerner said is run like “a Swiss watch.”
Wholesale prices average about the same. Juicy’s cotton line ranges from $11 to $32; Leopold from $20 to $29; Michael Stars from $10 to $20, and Three Dots from $15 to $32. Lilla*p’s are lower, at $9 to $13, which Sokol thinks gives the company an edge by allowing the customer to buy one of each color.
Most of the companies are happy with their current pricing structures because they lead to multiple sales and allow greater variety.
Best-selling bodies in all lines include V-necks, three-quarter sleeves, boatneck collars and twinsets.
Mitzi & Romano orders its top seller, a white crewneck with capped sleeves by Michael Stars, 24 at a time.
“That one sells all day long,” said Prochnow.
Bill Hallman consistently sells out of Juicy’s V-neck, and boatneck with a sleeve pocket, which has been dubbed the “Helmut Lang” shirt. Lilla*p will expand its line, which now offers crewnecks with capped sleeves, to include two tanks and a V-neck in March.
Although the favorite bodies should do well again this summer, some new styles are expected to make their mark. Juicy’s Skist-Levy recommends staying away from long sleeves, instead buying baseball sleeves, the cuffed cardigan and the shrug. A new baby rib fabric will also be introduced this summer. Ward of Three Dots has seen a huge response to sleeveless bodies; they offer six bodies of camisoles/tanks.
“Every single one of my customers bought the sleeveless British T-shirt, with straps between a spaghetti and a cap-sleeve width.
Color is really where women have fun. Although white consistently sells best, colors will be brighter than ever this summer. Pink promises to be this summer’s hot color, replacing lavender. Hallman thinks it is a response to all the gray, and plans to buy all shades of pink. Ward also expects color blocking and “offbeat” brights to do well, with names like grass, cerise and dark iris.
Juicy’s Skist-Levy thinks women are sick of gray too. She’s banking on bright pink, yellow and turquoise. Michael Stars will release eight brights for summer, with midtones in the interim.
“Customers won’t buy brights until they see it them in magazines for at least two to three seasons. So they’ll be ready by summer,” said Lerner.
The one color to stay away from is black, which retailers say is not as strong now.
Even with variety and hugely successful sales, retailers don’t consider T-shirts anywhere near the bulk of their business, still accounting for only some 5 percent of total sales.