How Women's Apparel, Unisex and the Corporate Market Has Changed (and How to Sell It Now)
Many years ago, when my company entered the promotional products marketplace, we were told that every style of apparel we introduced must have a women's companion piece. This women's apparel companion style should be manufactured with the exact same fabric as the men's styling—but be distinctly “women's” in make and silhouette.
The theory and logic behind this concept was simple: In order to supply product in the corporate promotional channel, it is necessary to offer both men's and women's styling in each product offered.
The tricky part of the women's companion style concept was and is that not all fabrics represented in men's styling are easily translated into a women's garment. When we think of women's shirt styles, we may often think fabrics such as poplins, broadcloth, stretch yarns and soft-hand finishes, and make details that include silhouetted body patterns, pleats, darting and modified spread collars.
But let’s take the example of a men's rip stop cotton shirt in a heavier yarn construction—how do we manufacture a women's companion piece around such a fabric ? It is difficult to do, at best, and the reality is that not all men's styles will lend themselves easily to a women's companion piece.
Women now make up 47 percent of the American workforce, so any corporate workplace application for wearable apparel must include women's styling. In addition, women make more than 85 percent of the buying decisions in the corporate promotional apparel market. So, the theory would go, why would a woman purchase or specify apparel for the corporate application that did not feature a women's companion style?
Changing Times for Women's Apparel
Thus, as the corporate promotional apparel channel developed, a distinct women's size spec was born. Defined by silhouetted body patterns, these items featured darting, pleats and make details devoid of men's characteristics, such as chest pockets, button-down collars and baggy oversized size specs. The retail-branded and private-label women's offerings led the way for us in the development of true women's styling in the promotional channel.
Women's apparel in the corporate promotional products channel began to grow women-specific brands and styles, such as Sport Haley and others. In addition to the companion styles, we are finally seeing more pattern work and color palettes that solely address the women's wear category—yarn-dyed flannel plaids in lavender and lilac accents, solid stretch poplins in rose, pinks and soft jewel tones, and cotton/polyester/spandex blended tunic tops with stretch in bright primary colors.
In the uniform industry, the unisex size category became more prevalent, and we started seeing in both knit and woven styles a unisex category that covered a smaller size range, dipping into the XXS and XS size add-ons. This unisex category attempted to offer more product for women without increasing the SKU count and number of styles necessary to stock and hold. The unisex style designation has since become more popular in the promotional channel, addressing the women's component by offering smaller sizes, while also appealing to smaller men's size needs.
Focus on Fabric
The art of selling both women-specific and unisex styles in today's promotional products world mainly comes down to focusing on the fabric. The core fabric in men's and women's companion styles is what ties them together. It is important to call out the benefits and features of these core fabrics before addressing the women's and unisex make details.
Does the fabric have performance features? Is there a wrinkle-free component or stain and soil feature? Does the fabric lend itself to comfort and wearability? Once you’ve determined the fabric story, if you will, you can call out the specific women's apparel style details and features—what makes this style distinctly women's.
- Is the body pattern silhouetted?
- Does the item have chest pockets?
- Is there darting and pleating on the chest, back and shoulders of the garment?
Remember, men's and women's companion styles always begin with the fabric.
Wholesale suppliers have helped us all tremendously by placing product in their big book catalogs and in their warehouses that support women's companion style availability. House brands such as Devon & Jones, Port Authority and Red House have made available women's product that makes sense and fits customer needs in this arena.
The addition of more women-specific products in the promotional marketplace should help distributors sell men's styling, too, as businesses look to distributors who can offer companion-style solutions. Offering more women's apparel will only increase your overall volume and market share, while demanding that you focus on fabric, features and benefits to achieve your goal.
David J. Bebon is CEO of DBEBZ Apparel, a manufacturer of woven and knit sport shirts. Before that, he was executive vice president of Capital Mercury Apparel for 18 years. He lives in Connecticut with his wife Zoe and four children. Bebon is a frequent speaker and presenter at industry trade shows and is contributing writer for several trade publications.