Top Fashion Brands Grab Partners

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Alliances build labels, position them for long-term growth

The importance of close professional relationships was stitched into the fashion world's psyche in the past year. Players learned, some firsthand, that a lack of communication is expensive and detrimental to a company's viability. This could be one of the reasons that fashion-based licensing showed little growth in 2000.

Legal battles grabbed headlines. The struggles between licensor Calvin Klein and its licensee Warnaco - settled out of court with CK's licensing department finally eliminated this summer - and between licensee Van Mar and its licensor Joe Boxer underscored the importance of good partner relations. Joe Boxer was forced to liquidate; the brand was sold to manufacturer Alliance/Windsong.

Kmart picked up the Joe Boxer label recently and with any luck will have significant sales with the hearty attitude brand. Expect more well-liked but "financially fatigued" department store and specialty store brands to show up at Target, Kmart or Wal-Mart, joining direct-to-retailer licenses like Mossimo and Cherokee (both selling exclusively at Target), and Bugle Boy, now licensed out by new owner Official Bugle Boy, LLC (New York) and headed to the mass market.

Tough year or not, plenty of companies dove into licensing with great aplomb. Juniors' brand Paul Frank braved licensing waters for the first time; ditto for young men's denim resource Plugg, which signed several merchandising partners this year via agent Ingroup Licensing (New City, N.Y.).

Teens and tweens continued to be the center of fashion makers' attention. Dozens of manufacturers and newcomer brand licensors (She's Charmed and Dangerous, Pesky Meddling Girls, Atomic Babes) joined the battle for four-way space with their own versions of girly fashions.

Taking a step up the age ladder, a few sportswear labels are aggressively targeting the 18- to 25-year-old customer. Global brand Esprit Int'l (New York) has enlisted a handful of licensees, and seeks more, to build an Esprit U.S. program customized to this consumer. Meanwhile juniors' sportswear department store label Necessary Objects (New York), nearly 20 years in the business, has just turned to licensing for the first time to better reach this target customer.

Impressively, some labels persevered in their licensing efforts toward the often-overlooked mature woman, the 35- to 50-year-old shopper. Liz Claiborne (New York) in 2000 signed R.G. Barry for slippers, and prior, Jockey Int'l (New York) for daywear. Sleepwear designer Karen Neuburger signed its first apparel licensee,Van Mar, for innerwear/daywear, joining slippers (made by Ben Berger), bedding and fragrance partners. Sportswear label Sag Harbor (New York), a $1 billion (retail) brand, expanded from one to at least nine licensees in 2001.

In mens' fashion licensing, a few of the hippest hiphop fashion brands continue to dominate the young men's targeted streetwear category, namely: FUBU (New York), Ecko Unltd. (South River, N.J.), Sean Jean (New York), and Phat Farm (New York). Expect more childrenswear growth from the streetwear crowd.

In the baby boomer segment, island-spirited Tommy Bahama (New York) is one of the highest profile licensors, with extensions in footwear, accessories and home furnishings. TB's latest internally made fashion statement is men's denim, wholesaling at $36-$39 a pair.

Outdoor-spirited brands continue to flock to the segment. Non-profit brand Sierra Club (San Francisco) hired Ingroup to find apparel partners; footwear brand Sperry Top-Sider (Lexington, Mass.) hired IMG to do the same in sportswear, outerwear, and performance activewear, among other categories. Field & Stream Licenses Co. (Plymouth, Minn.) debuted its new line of womenswear by Balance Licensing (Montreal).

Underwear brand Jockey entered the licensing realm with zest, launching babywear with Bentex (New York) and hotly pursuing swimwear. Soon, men's activewear will complement the women's segment, supplied by Jacques Moret (New York).

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