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Weekend Exercise Surges to Front in Women's 'Active Wear' : Apparel: Frequent fashion changes and sharp pricing have made the San Diego firm a leader in its highly competitive specialty clothing field.

November 16, 1989|CHRIS KRAUL | SAN DIEGO COUNTY BUSINESS EDITOR

Boosted by a licensing arrangement with ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov, a San Diego apparel concern called Weekend Exercise Co. has quietly become the nation's leading specialty manufacturer of women's dance, aerobic and exercise clothing.

The company is growing at a 20% annual rate despite a recent leveling off in the market after a decade-long boom corresponding to the emergence of aerobics and fitness as a national preoccupation. The aerobics and exercise fad gave rise to a whole new genre of comfortable, form-fitting and stylish apparel that, for lack of a better term, has come to be known in the trade as "active wear."

Sales of the Weekend's Marika, Baryshnikov and Jazzercise lines should exceed $50 million this year, or about 38% of the estimated $130-million women's active wear market as a whole, president Arthur Levinson said.

Levinson, 63, is a long-time San Diegan who co-founded Weekend in 1982 with retailer Ed Berner and Norm Zwail, who formerly was Danskin's sales representative for Southern California. Weekend Exercise now has 150 employees.

Weekend Exercise made its initial splash in 1983 with the introduction of the Marika line at prices 20% to 30% under competing lines. Weekend accomplished the price reductions by becoming the first active-wear company to move its manufacturing offshore, specifically to low-cost plants in Taiwan.

The success of the line caught the notice of international star Mikhail Baryshnikov, who in 1986 went to the company and proposed a cooperative agreement to introduce a higher priced Baryshnikov signature line of dance and exercise wear. Baryshnikov chose Weekend after querying retailers and dancers as to who the quality clothing makers were.

Subsequently, Baryshnikov and Weekend signed a licensing deal calling for Weekend to manufacture clothes bearing Baryshnikov's name. Three years later, the Baryshnikov line is doing $15 million in sales and accounting for 30% of Weekend's revenue. Sales of the Baryshnikov line have grown at a 30% to 40% clip per year since introduction.

Baryshnikov has final say over design of the line and visits Weekend's Spruce Street office two to four times a year to review new products, Levinson said. Baryshnikov was performing in Belgium this week and unavailable for comment, but Debra Joester of Hamilton Projects, Baryshnikov's New York-based licensing agent, said the "timing and chemistry of the agreement have been perfect."

Baryshnikov is "delighted with the product and very pleased with the sales," Joester said, noting that the line has expanded from the classic ballet styles originally envisioned by Baryshnikov to include more casual dancing apparel. Capitalizing on the clothes' crossover appeal as casual attire, Weekend and Baryshnikov are in the process of introducing a new line of street wear.

The Weekend-Baryshnikov team's "timing was right for their type of product because body wear and leg wear have expanded beyond the old notions of dance wear," said Karen Monget, a news editor at Women's Wear Daily. "There are so many crossover trends. A lot more people are wearing body-wear pieces as outer wear these days."

Weekend's Marika has steadily grown in popularity to the point that is the largest-selling mid- to upper-priced trademark in women's exercise wear in the nation. It is sold in specialty dance and exercise clothing shops as well as in department store chains including the Broadway, Emporium-Capwell, Bloomingdale's, Macy's and sporting goods chains including Oshman's and Sportmart.

"They forced a lot of other body-wear manufactures that had long enjoyed dominant positions to scramble and drop their prices as well," said Sally Goll, executive editor of Sportswear International, a New York-based fashion trade publication that focuses on the casual sportswear market.

"Unlike a lot of moderately priced lines that are moderately designed as well, they combine fashion with a very sharp price point," Goll said, a reference to Weekend's "very close to the bone" prices.

Levinson was wrapping up a 30-year career as an apparel and sundry importer in 1982 and considering retirement when old friend Ed Berner, founder of Fashion Conspiracy retail chain, approached him about forming a "low-key business" together. One possible venture, above several other ideas, struck them as particularly promising. "We became aware of the growth in the aerobics wear industry, that the goods were primarily being made in Southern California and that the people involved did not have real heavy business backgrounds," Levinson said.

All three factors combined to spell a business opportunity for Levinson, who had spent much of his career learning the ins and outs of offshore manufacturing in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea. If aerobics wear was being made stateside, Levinson knew he could produce similar clothing at substantially lower cost offshore.

Thus, Weekend Exercise was born with the prime objectives being to have fun and not work too hard, Levinson said.

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