Living in the Lap of Luxury
TIME HAS COME to answer the question, which, truthfully, has long been decided by some of the leading fashion houses: What’s in for spring? This year’s answer is not color, nor is it cut. Don’t be surprised that length is not it, either. This spring, fabrics are where it’s at.
“The newest thing in business casual apparel is a gradual swing toward upscale fabrics,” noted Lee Strom, senior marketing manager at Seattle, Wash.-based SanMar. But, it’s not just any kind of fabric that’s in. “Luxury fabrics, like silk, are becoming more obtainable and are available at approachable price points,” explained Strom.
Strom couldn’t be any closer to the truth. Everywhere, it appears that women are more feminine and sophisticated in their dress, while men are more tailored, with a hint of playfulness. A flip through the pages of any major consumer fashion magazine will confirm this. Female models, celebrities, socialites and the like are often covered in flowing, ruffled, romantic blouses, and their male counterparts look dapper in a variety of textured fabrics.
In the promotional products industry, the fabric obsession has gone so far that exotic names, such as Egyptian Diamond Knit, are popping up all over. Outer Banks, Winston-Salem, N.C., offers a collection of garments fashioned from the fabric. “The Egyptian Diamond Knit collection is made from luxuriously soft Egyptian cotton, and is offered in an assortment of 16 beautiful colors,” noted Matthew Waterman, marketing manager.
In addition to the Egyptian Diamond Knit, Waterman said Outer Banks offers the Ultimate Outer Banks collection. Both collections “offer outstanding benefit and style for the business casual customer.” This year, the Ultimate Outer Banks collection will feature both polos and wovens. “The polos have been designed to virtually eliminate shrinkage and fading,” he said. “The 100 percent cotton wovens are wrinkle-resistant, while the ladies cotton-spandex blouse offers stretch.”
Speaking of stretch, it’s not stretching the truth to say that spandex, Lycra or anything like them have managed to impact modern apparel. According to Lori Anderson, marketing manager at Hopkins, Minnesota-based River’s End Trading, stretch fabrics will continue to expand their reach this spring. “So many women’s styles now have stretch, including polos and dress shirts,” she said. “It adds comfort, is easier to move [around] in and gives women a better fit.”
While fabrics appear to be generating hype for the wearables category these days, patterns and colors are also doing their part. “Adding stripes and checks to a garment doesn’t mean it can’t be decorated anymore,” explained Anderson. “Women look for more style in their apparel and decorating is becoming more subliminal. You can easily apply a corporate logo on a sleeve, cuff or pocket.”
Strom agreed, men are also showing more interest “in styles that go beyond solid colors and traditional finishing.” He said there is a trend “toward pinstripes and other patterns, open collars and zip plackets.” However, Strom advised that caution should not be thrown to the wind when it comes to business casual apparel. “You want to be noticed for tasteful embellishments, not noisy motifs, and it’s not always in your best interest to outfit 20 employees in loud, patterned shirts,” he said. “New detailing and coloring is more distinctive, but still 100 percent wearable.”
Each year, there are several well-known retail brands that enter the industry. Most recently, Nike joined the bandwagon, offering a line of performance activewear through River’s End Trading. Waterman said this “brand and style proliferation in the industry is a good thing for distributors, in the sense that there are so many options available at a wide array of price points.”
The promotional products industry is indeed responding to fashion trends at a faster pace than ever before, noted Strom. “Brands originally designed for the industry are incorporating more retail styling, and at the same time, the corporate apparel market acts as a major catalyst for crossover brands, like PING Collection and Nike Golf apparel.”
Anderson said women look to retail for fashion more than men. “They want to wear to work or receive as a gift something they can find in a retail store,” she pointed out. “Retail brands are an added bonus to business casual [promotions] because they open new doors and can help bring in new clients.”
Like fashion gurus inspecting and dissecting the stick-like figures that strut their stuff down runways around the globe, Strom and Anderson offered a few of their top-picks for spring. For men, Strom said, SanMar’s Port Authority Fine-Pattern Sleeve Easy-Care Shirt is a must-have, and women professionals shouldn’t do without the 3/4-Sleeve Open Neck Blouse. “With its front and back darts, this shirt is an excellent example of a trend that’s sweeping the women’s imprintable apparel market—more tailoring and overall contouring of women’s garments,” he explained.
Anderson said sweaters should always be a part of a woman’s wardrobe. “Our fine-gauge cotton sweaters, including vests and cardigans, are wonderfully lightweight and comfortable, and can be worn dressed up or dressed down,” she said.
Outer Banks is best known for its polo offering in the business casual category, and, according to Waterman, the company is said to be one of the first brands in the industry to offer both men’s and women’s coordinating styles. “It’s now an inherent part of our product development cycle,” he explained. “As new styles are added to the line, we evaluate and market the combined selling power of his/her coordinate sets.”
As for the sales of business casual apparel, the suppliers agreed it’s been on the upswing. Said Anderson, “Business casual apparel has so many applications and there are so many markets to penetrate. We’ve added three new retail brands this year, so this has also helped open new doors and increase sales.” In addition to the Nike brand, River’s End Trading also offers Tommy Hilfiger, Lacoste and Nyne.
Like Anderson, Waterman agreed that sales of business casual apparel are increasing, “thanks to the consumer trend of trading up to more luxury fabrics.” He added: “More corporate buyers are looking to pair their logos with the best.”
While T-shirts continue to top the charts of promotional wearables, there are countless promotional applications for business casual apparel. Anderson said the garments can be used for corporate and employee events, golf tournaments, uniforms and sponsor gifts. “Business casual apparel is a different sell than T-shirts,” stated Waterman. “T-shirts tend to be used as giveaways, and [are therefore] very cost-driven. Business casual apparel tends to be used either as a uniform or a gift.”
Strom advised distributors to choose the business casual option because higher margins can be attained. “Catering to this market requires novel tactics,” he said. “One idea is wrapping your samples in gift boxes for maximum-impact presentation.”
Waterman agreed, stating the category also “lends itself well to upselling higer-priced product or the ability to branch out into areas like event wear and uniforms.”
Suppliers say that while there is a noticeable move toward a more corporate, professional look sweeping offices across the country, the need for corporate casual attire will nonetheless remain strong. “Even though you see less business casual wear at work, people are still not dressing up for church or a dinner out,” noted Anderson. “Golf is still the corporate event of choice and the uniform industry continues to grow stronger, buying sports shirts and other casual business apparel.”
So, while it lasts, enjoy the look and feel of living in the lap of luxury.