What started as a trickle of designers' spinoff lines for fall, 1990, has become a full-fledged deluge for the coming season.
Anne Klein, Ellen Tracy, Emanuel Ungaro, Escada and many others have turned out eye-catching new collections intended to fill the years-long void in inspired sportswear and bring stratospheric prices closer to Earth.
"It's an enormous bandwagon," said Joe Long, an analyst with Davi and Leaman, a Carmel marketing and consulting firm. "Companies are reacting to the softened market in apparel, especially designer, and are trying to recapture customers."
Some of the new lines--many of them far bolder and sportier than these design houses have tried before--made splashy debuts in June and July at Neiman Marcus, I. Magnin, Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom and other stores. Others, including the relaunch of Perry Ellis Portfolio, defunct since 1988, are out this month at prices 30% to 50% below signature collections.
It's as if designers discovered all at once that working women have different style needs for after-hours and don't want to pay an arm and a leg for casual clothes.
"There has been a tremendous need for it," said Mara Urshel, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of sportswear for Saks in New York.
Don't expect to see watered-down versions of ready-to-wear lines. Many of these collections venture into brave new worlds. Would you believe leather motorcycle jackets from A Line Anne Klein and stretch pants and T-shirts from Company by Ellen Tracy, that master of the tailored career look? Retailers say these are among the most promising of the secondary, or diffusion, lines.
"The philosophy is basically clothes that are comfortable and easy to wear for a more casual lifestyle," Linda Allard, Ellen Tracy's design director, said of Company. The firm sees the line, its first sportswear collection in 42 years, for weekends outdoors.
Although far from low end, the clothes still run well below the $3,000-an-outfit (and higher) signature collections. Anne Klein A Line jackets weigh in at $400 or less, with T-shirts at $30, sweaters starting at $125 and denim pants and jackets from $75 to $150. Stretch activewear goes for $40 and up. The line also includes such accessories as hosiery, jewelry and belts.
Company by Ellen Tracy features wool jackets at $345, about the same price as those in the main Ellen Tracy line, but they're "oversized and slouchier, with zippers and pockets," Allard said. Velour stretch pants run $125, with crushed-neck, long-sleeved T-shirts at $60. Many of the clothes are "inherently less expensive" because of the fabrics, Allard says. She will introduce the line at Neiman Marcus, Beverly Hills, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Saturday.
Emanuel Ungaro began developing his lower-priced Emanuel line 18 months ago and has had enormously successful launches in New York and California. About 250 stores will feature Emanuel, which emphasizes the short, tight shape for which the Ungaro signature collection is famous. For fall, zip-front jackets will sell at $385, with high-waisted skirts at $75 and knit turtlenecks for $80.
Retailers are ecstatic about the line, which has set a hefty goal of $100 million in wholesale sales within five years.
"We have a wonderful Ungaro business," said Rose Marie Bravo, chief executive of I. Magnin in San Francisco. "Emanuel allows us to get the input of the designer but with more affordable clothing. It broadens the appeal."
Escada's dressy and ladylike Apriori collection, made largely with Italian fabrics, will complement the existing Escada signature collection, along with its Laurel and Crisca designer lines. Apriori features bright fuchsia and red plaid suits, plaid walking shorts, sequined blouses and chartreuse trench coats, with prices from $80 to $600.
Marc Jacobs, designer for Perry Ellis women's wear, revived the Portfolio name with a collection launched Aug. 1 at I. Magnin, Beverly Hills. The new collection features animal prints on hand-knit sweaters and shawls, novelty sweaters, and bright-colored basics, such as wool flannel trousers, blazers and skirts. Prices generally run from $50 to $400.
"The fabrics and yarns aren't quite as expensive, but you're getting a lot for the money," Jacobs said.
Fashion watchers say these secondary lines were spurred by the fabulous success of DKNY, the leisure-wear collection introduced by Donna Karan in 1989. Other role models have been The Gap and mail-order operations such as Tweeds and J. Crew.
The move into lower-priced lines also reflects the sour state of the economy. Busy working women are spending far less time shopping and far less money on clothes than in the go-go 1980s.
DKNY, which has surpassed $100 million at the wholesale level, "generated greed and envy on the part of designers who missed the boat," said Alan Millstein, publisher of the Fashion Network Report, a New York trade newsletter.