What Women Want
WOMEN’S APPAREL IN the promotional products industry is a single creature with two contrasting personalities. The Dr. Jekyll of promotional apparel is the side of the industry focused on office workers and business-casual attire. After hours, Ms. Hyde likes to come out wearing tank-tops and scoop-neck T-shirts in flashy colors.
Both sides of the promotional business are trailing behind the younger, crazy sister known as the retail market. Dean Vuong, vice president of Kavio, Commerce, Calif., said it is a “good thing” that promotional apparel is “one step behind” retail. “We know that if you can modify from [retail] to the promotional, then you will become successful,” he said.
Gabrielle Rohde, vice president of Gabrielle Rohde Royce, Minneapolis, agreed with this statement. She said, “When there is a trend that’s hit the mass market, we can be comfortable that we can run with it for a while.” Of course, one can’t simply copy a retail style and then reintroduce it at a promotional products trade show half a year later. “We cannot just take exactly from the retail end and apply to the promotional,” said Vuong. “We have to modify to our customers.” The style curve must be extended to meet the demands of the promotional industry. Voung said promotional styles have fashionable lifespans double, triple or quadruple that of retail. To ensure a garment meets the criteria for a long promotional life, the styles and colors are subdued. “Hot pink is hot, right,” said Vuong, “but, for our customers in promotional [marketing], we had to tone that down a little bit” to make it more versatile and thus give it a longer run as a fashionable item.
Choosing styles and colors suitable for a wide range of different body types is one problem promotional apparel manufacturers and distributors face. Since most promotional items are gifts, end-users rarely have the option to find a better color or fit. A successful promotional garment must be color- and style-suited to the majority of women. “Women are very, very conscious
about colors that they can and can’t wear,” said Brian Thigpen, national sales manager at Jensen Apparel, Portsmouth, Va. According to Thigpen, a woman’s eye color, hair color and skin tone comprise her pallet, and sharp, bright colors do not mix well with certain pallets. The need for softer colors and styles is
especially prevalent when dealing with women’s apparel for corporate programs. “Mainly, if [a garment is] for an office worker, it needs to be more of a polo shirt or a woven button-up shirt,” said Thigpen, “and if you’re doing a program for a company, you have to be mindful of [color pallet], you just keep it basic.” Thigpen suggested white, black, chocolate brown and some shades of blue as colors that will match a broad spectrum. Vuong agreed colors for corporate women’s wear must be “very subtle,” but he also pointed out a recent acceptance of new colors.
Style is an equally important facet of a promotional garment. Not all retail styles translate well. “In the promotional market, you have to have room to put a logo on [a garment],” said Thigpen. Styles with very low scoop- or V-necks and off-the-shoulder cuts may not succeed. “You have to have a really good area to embroider or screen print, so your fashion is limited a little bit because of that,” he added.
Distributors must understand their clients and know which styles are best fitted to them. Promotions for youthful audiences and a fashion-conscious demographic will probably rely on apparel for juniors. Vuong said the juniors market is very tied to recent fashion trends, forcing suppliers and distributors to remain “very sensitive to catching the wave.” Right now, Vuong said, vintage colors are very strong.
One underrepresented market segment is missy-sized garments. These clothes, larger than junior sizes but smaller than plus sizes, are more representative of the average American woman. Thigpen said Jensen Apparel has shifted its focus to meet the demand for these garments made for larger women. “Over and over again we kept hearing [the question], ‘When is a company going to come out with a comprehensive missy line,’” said Thigpen. “So that’s what we’ve done.” The fashion industry relies on models to showcase and sell items, but the average female model is about 5' 8" and weighs 108 to 125 pounds. Even by the most conservative estimate, these women thinly escape being labeled “underweight.” Meanwhile, in the general populous, “Currently, 64.5 percent of U.S. adults, age 20 years and older, are overweight and 30.5 percent are obese.”* This enormous rift has left many American women without fashionable apparel fitted for their bodies. “Missy, that’s the market that has the money,” said Thigpen. Taking a jocular tone, he continued, “Juniors are begging for their parents’ MasterCards and American Express cards to go buy [apparel] at retail, whereas missies, they’re the ones that want it and can’t find it.”
On the more conservative side of the industry are lines such as Gabrielle Rohde Royce’s, designed to be “ageless,” said Rohde. “We want our blouses to be comfortable on a 22-year-old and have a 52-year-old love them too.” At the expense of high-fashion comes universality. “My blouse might not be as snug or stretchy as a 22-year-old might prefer from Express, but it’s still going to be cute,” said Rohde. “It’s just going to be a little bit more mainstream than the far left or right. I think that we can have fashionable influences, we can stick with the trends and we can just not be extreme.”
One general fashion trend widely noted is the tendency for people to wear their pants lower on the waist. Rohde said her company added two inches in length to “all of our shirts, across the line,” to meet the lowered pants, a trend Rohde said includes “adult women.” Thigpen said Jensen Apparel has made a similar adaptation, adding four inches to the length of the company’s garments “so that the bottom of their T-shirts kind of grazes the top of the jeans.”
Distributors may be shocked by the current styles and fashions they see on the street or on television, but this shouldn’t be a point of concern. Keeping up with the latest and greatest in retail isn’t the name of this game. In promotional women’s wear, it’s all about balance. Rohde summarized a suitable promotional fashion as “something that you would still wear, but not the most high-fashion thing you would wear.” Just remember to keep this in mind: aiming for the lowest costs at the expense of style and quality won’t be right either. “It shouldn’t go directly from the distributor to your good-will bag,” Rohde said. “That won’t be trend-right.”
Quoted from the American Obesity Association Web site as per the 1988-1994 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.