The late Elizabeth Taylor once said, "I don't pretend to be an ordinary housewife." Probably no one ever accused the eight-times-married actress of being a normal housewife, but her statement relates to more than her inability to settle down. She was a career woman, a mother, an activist and a fashion icon. In her time, her many roles may have seemed outlandish, but now many women fill the same or similar roles. Women have careers, families, friends and fashion sense. The promotional products industry is not only becoming aware of these overachieving ladies, but also learning to market to a niche of women who demand excellence, comfort and aesthetics in their apparel, even in their promotional apparel.
2011 in particular marks a strong growth in feminine and fashion-forward apparel in the promotional products industry. Suppliers are tailoring their garments for a woman's bodily and fashionable needs. An array of garments geared for working women have embraced current trends and capitalized on classic styles. Part of the shift in women's wear comes directly from the retail world. "The retail market has a tremendous influence on what's being offered in our industry today," said Lea Behar Robinson, vice president of sales and marketing for Dallas-based Staton Corporate & Casual. Robinson suggested that using retail as inspiration gives the industry an edge in uncertain financial times. "Because of the economy, our industry had to present something new and creative to businesses with tight budgets," she said. "Let's face it, if they are going to spend the money, they want it to be worth it. Bringing retail options into an industry that has relied on basics gives the promotional market a new edge."
Jennifer Tsai, lead women's designer and vice president of operations for Tri-Mountain, Irwindale, Calif., explained that selling retail-like styles that fill the need for professional, stylish and versatile clothing for women is important. "Women comprise about half of the workforce, and when it comes to purchasing decisions more often than not [end-buyers] have a woman in charge of selecting what items will be used for uniforms or corporate apparel," she said.
To fulfill the need for more feminine and fashionable garments, suppliers are updating cuts on their ladies' styles. Robinson noted, "Women are tired of the 'unisex' boxy tee and want apparel that fits their bodies. With junior and misses cuts now available, we can celebrate all the curves." Tsai also noted the value of focus on fabrics that fit womanly bodies. "On our wovens we're doing a lot of our styles in a polyester/spandex blend—either 96 percent poly/4 percent spandex or 88 percent poly/12 percent spandex—because of the nice balance of comfort and upscale look," she said. "I think these kinds of materials, which are easy to care for and also are extremely comfortable, will continue to take the lead this year," she explained. One such material or fabrication is burnout. "The burnout tees will continue to stand out," she said. "It's an item that looks great with print or blank. You can layer it to make it appropriate for the corporate casual environment or wear it after hours with friends."
Tsai predicted that embellishments and colors are in order for future seasons. "We're playing with feminine embellishments like ruching and ruffles," she said. "Color is huge in the retail world, and we feel it's our duty as a fashion-forward brand to bring that liveliness and variety into our market," Tsai continued. Such lively colors include strawberry, eggplant, soft orchid and lilac.
Catering to Cotton
Due to bad crops in China and Pakistan and restrictions on imports from India, the amount of raw cotton in the U.S. has dropped rapidly. The decrease has led to a spike in the cost of cotton, thus impacting the budgets of apparel suppliers in the retail and promotional world. The price increase has caused a demand for cotton farms in the U.S., but American farmers are hesitant to commit to a crop that might not supply them with as much revenue as their current harvest. Recent press has predicted a decrease in the price due to cotton factories appearing in Kansas and other states that usually produce different crops, but for now, suppliers still need to absorb the extra cost.
According to Tsai, cotton prices are a difficulty, but also an inspiration to increase the value of products. "Cotton prices are not helping anyone, not suppliers, not distributors and not [end-buyers]," she said. "That being said I think the overall rise in all fabric prices just makes it more important than ever that distributors are putting brands and styles in front of their [end-buyers] that are a good value."
Robinson agreed on the value of fair pricing. She suggested finding the best value for your customers is the way to handle rising cotton prices. "This challenge has made the relationships with our customers even better. They recognize that we sincerely want to be their partner and help grow their business," she said.
Marketing to Moms and Alma Maters
The important thing to remember when selling women's apparel is that these are not styles for young girls. "We as a society tend to idolize youth—and in our industry a lot of the brands you see do a great job of selling that teenage girl look to everyone. But what about a working mom?" Tsai inquired. "There's a lot of untapped demand for stylish, age-appropriate clothing for women in our market." The look is not about being matronly. It is about catering to professional women who need to juggle family, friends and a career. "We're targeting more of a life stage or mindset than an age—we're targeting working women and working mothers," Tsai said. Women in the life stage of developing their personal and professional lives have a variety of responsibilities and need fashion that is functional and attractive. "The best way to sell women's apparel is to treat it as fashion," she said. "When it comes to women in the workplace, you are talking about their whole sense of style. And for most women, that's pretty important."
In addition to working women, distributors should target college and graduate students. "A great market for ladies' apparel is the college market. Whether you're a student or take pride in representing your alma mater, women want to show their school spirit in apparel that is designed for them," explained Robinson. With garments for all women from students to CEOs, distributors should have no trouble finding items for all women. "No woman wants to feel self-conscious in an item that doesn't fit her body," said Robinson. "That's why it's important to ask appropriate questions so you understand what they want."