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Trendwatch: Makers Push Performance Fabric, Timeless Cuts

2013 and 2014 will go down in history as years of slow growth. Firms are focusing on core competencies and emphasizing customer retention over customer attraction. In the current macroeconomic climate, growth is anemic in Europe, less than 3% annually in the United States. Consumers simply don’t have the money to dramatically increase spending on the scale seen between 2000 and 2008.

Trendwise, this is forcing makers to be more conservative. Fast fashion growth is slowing. Despite recent positive results at H&M, overall trends are on the decline. Much of the innovation in retail and sourcing is happening on the back end.

Haggar Clothing wholesales the best selling slim fit pant at J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, and Macy’s, according to a recent conversation. They’re innovating, but cautiously.

“We’re bringing in a lot of sublimation printing on knits, and a lot of women’s wear product. We’re also using a lot more stretch fabric. But there’s a real emphasis on maintaining the core customer,” says Tony Avonizano, VP Sourcing for Haggar.

Coming into spring 2014, the major retailers will continuing pushing global styles – clothing that can be sold around the world.

Haggar sells in Canada and Mexico as well as the United States, and finds that the trick is not necessarily creating different product lines in each country, but determining how to market the lines that you’ve got. For Haggar, this means slim fitting pants and the steady introduction of stretch fabric.

“It’s about seeing who is out there, seeing what product people are buying,” Avonizano said. Each market has its core customer, but there is often a lot of overlap.

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Gap is pushing the same trend, bringing in slim fitting pants, traditional tailoring, and an emphasis on clothing that will last. Next year, they’ll be rolling out more classic cuts, particularly in pants and denim.

Makers are also emphasizing quality.

“I think this whole idea of disposable fashion has become a sustainable faux pas,” says Edwin Keh, former Chief Operating Officer and SVP Global Procurement for Wal-Mart, and currently a lecturer at the Wharton School.

“It’s no longer cool to wear something for one season and then throw it away, or to have a wardrobe that’s twice as big as it would’ve been a generation ago,” says Keh.

This is pushing fast fashion retailers like Zara and H&M to seek out styles with more longevity, and to change their balance of quality and price. Earlier this year, Mango announced that they were offering more workwear. Inditex, parent company of Zara, opened its first Massimo Dutti store in the United States, which sells higher quality clothing for young professionals.

At the same time, consumers in core markets are aging substantially. In Europe, demographics and the economic crisis mean that younger customers are scarce, and often poorer. “At this point,” says Keh, “you need more black suits to go to work in, as opposed to pastels and prints for college parties.”

Keh also pointed out that makers are steadily moving away from more traditional fabrics in favor of synthetics, a trend which favors Chinese manufacturers.

“Cotton is starting to be a controversial material. It uses a lot of water, pesticides, and land. There’s lots of supply and flat to diminishing demand,” said Keh.

Additionally, cost supports mean using cotton in China is more expensive than in other countries. Makers want to reduce that price premium.

Many of the manmade fibers have superior characteristics, particularly in the fast-growing category of performance apparel. Activewear is a growing category in all markets, particularly in China and the United States.

Macy’s and Express have both rolled out activewear lines in the past year. Express is focusing on yoga wear and related apparel, hoping to fill the demand for those goods among women and men who may not necessarily want to pay Lululemon prices. Macy’s is adding more SKUs from Nike, North Face, Under Armour, and CK Performance, targeting the 13 to 30 age group.

Capitalizing on the activewear trend means tapping into high-value production and high-margin sales, as consumers expect to pay more for quality activewear, unlike in fast fashion. It should deliver higher profits and greater brand loyalty – two must-haves- in a slow growth world.