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Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus

by Sonya Castex

The differences between men and women are sometimes out of this world, but that doesn't mean there aren't times when we can't all come together. And one of the easiest places to do this might just be in our wardrobes. Coordinating men's and women's apparel in the workplace is one of the industry's hottest new trends. These days, it seems that companies—such as Jonathan Corey/Inner Harbor, ID Wear, King Louie®, Outer Banks®, Pine Island Sportswear, Ltd., PremiumWear, Russell™ Artwear, Tri-Mountain® and Vantage—offering complimentary clothing to accent the differences in sizing and silhouettes between the two very-different frames is more of the norm than the exception.

Time For A Change
Women's designs—although usually made out of the same fabric—tend to come in smaller sizes and more colors, can feature narrow reverse plackets and are often shorter with more fitted (or sleeveless) silhouettes. For example, a pullover polo designed specially for ladies may have features such as scalloped trim and even hem bottoms with side vents instead of a three-button V-box placket and a dropped tail. And the differences in a Oxford shirt created with the woman's figure in mind might include something as simple as a different collar design. "Women like a variety," says Vantage Director of Marketing Gina Barreca, "so you'll find everything from no-button plackets and Johnny collars, to basic placket polos. Princess seams and darts add shaping to women's silhouettes, and you'll find more spread collars instead of traditional button-down ones."

No matter what the differences are, however, the key to creating a successful coordinating apparel program seems to be making subtle changes while staying consistent. "Our customers like to outfit their employees in the same theme but with a variety of looks," says Pine Island Sportwear, Ltd. CEO Daphne Koensingberg, whose company began carrying companion styles in 2001.

But how did this movement begin? According to Barreca, the decision to offer coordinating apparel for her company didn't happen overnight. "In the beginning, our customers were asking for women's garments, and we realized that there definitely appeared to be a need for better-fitting women's options." Company research indicated that women's garments with a men's match sold better so it developed Vantage's Compliments Collection—a collection that grew from four-matching styles in 1998 to include today's nearly 20 matching or coordinating men's and women's garments. "Our Compliments strategy allowed us to design garments for women while still addressing the overall uniformity needs of a company buying identity apparel," she says.

ID Wear has been carrying complimentary styles since 1996, but Marketing Director John Graham says "our customers were asking for women-specific styles as early as 1992. Apparently, fitness—and the fit—were becoming issues. "People were getting in shape," says Graham. "The female and male form and fit were so different that a man's shirt just wasn't meeting women's needs anymore." And he stresses the differences between the two designs. "A woman's style is not just a smaller man's size as many believe, though. It should be designed to make the most flattering silhouette for whomever wears it."

Was it as simple as women getting tired of wearing men's shirts? Rich Cesere, senior vice president, sales and marketing for Tri-Mountain believes it was. "[Women] wanted options that were more feminine with more appropriate size and fit," he says. "The decision was obvious: if we wanted to be a full-service supplier of apparel, we had to start stocking what we refer to as ‘Ladies' Choices.'" The company then moved forward rather quickly, carrying the first complimentary style in 1999. "[In the beginning] we [tried to] offer a wider range of many styles in ladies' sizes than anyone else," he says. And, Cesere says, the move to stay aligned with coordinating men's and women's styles has continued—in phases.

"First, it was just ‘Get some ladies' styles in,' and most were just men's garments with reverse plackets," he says. Next, customers started saying they wanted "more than just reverse plackets—they wanted differences like non-button down collars and no pockets." Now, however, he says the company hears the request for "more true ladies' styling, which may include garments that aren't so boxy, have some fitted features and also square or oval tails that can be worn in or out." And the strategy is succeeding—in 2004, Tri-Mountain will have more than 30 complimentary ladies' styles.

Len A. Van Popering, Marketing Manager for Cross Creek® and JERZEES Activewear™ says that even though Russell Activewear has been providing women's apparel for many years, it wasn't until "two or three years ago" that the company saw "a dramatic increase in interest for ladies' apparel." And where did the need come from? "We repeatedly heard comments from men and women that a market existed for garments specifically tailored for women looking for more comfortable, more flattering options," he says, and demand has continually been on the rise. "We're definitely seeing more interest in companion styles now than ever before in the promotional products industry."

"Adding ladies' coordinates seemed like a natural progression," says PremiumWear Design Director Jeff Wright, whose company began carrying complimentary styles in 1998. "There was a need for coordinating garments that really fit women the way they should. The market was becoming more sophisticated, and ladies' apparel was the next step." And the company has no intentions of backing down. "We see this movement not so much as a trend anymore but as an essential element to corporate apparel," says Wright.

John McMillan, national sales manager for King Louie, says his company has been carrying coordinating apparel for three years. He believes the fashion development stems from women being "more than 50 percent of the workforce but still being forced into unisex garments." He's not sure, however, if it's safe to call the move towards coordinating apparel a trend just yet. "I think it's currently on the rise, but the complicated order process…and the fact that it is not requested by a significant amount of sales for most apparel suppliers makes it a trend that's in limbo. Most have jumped on the bandwagon—but to what extent remains to be seen."

It appears, however, that the "bandwagon" is playing the right song because the chances that programs featuring complimentary garments will completely become a thing of the past are slim. "Now that ladies' styles are availible, I think they will be here to stay," says Koensingberg. "It would be hard to go back to the old ways and not give the woman an opportunity to be outfitted with her in mind and insist that she wear or be given a man's shirt."

Graham agrees. "Maybe it was a trend three years ago, but now it's a necessity for doing business; a pre-requisite." But perhaps it's pre-requisite that requires some fine-tuning.

The industry "needs to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into a more fashionable vien," believes Jonathan Corey/Inner Harbor Executive Vice President Rock Neelly, whose company began carrying coordinates in 1998. "Women aren't like guys, and the industry is still struggling to find the right mix of promotion and fashion. Women notice the logo placement more and are more style conscious then men—which is a good thing."

Cesere also believes things haven't always been easy and says getting on the positive side of the ladies' trend has been a learning experience. "A department store offers a lot of choice for ladies' garments. Promotional products suppliers, however, can't offer this range of cuts of styles," he says. "We have to find the styles that will fit most body types and offer them in an array of colors and styles that will create a demand for our products and styles." Cesere says that even though ladies' garments are now selling at a more competitive ratio to men's and there is still a significant gap between unit sales, the company sees this as a continuing trend and plans "to be on top of it."

What To Wear—And When To Wear It
Companies tend to go for this kind of coordinating look in "situations that the men and women need to look alike, but not exactly alike," says McMillan. "Events such as trade shows and golf outings are popular as well as clothing deemed for the restaurant or service industry. Even high-end corporate gift giving is an opportunity to see the two styles working together as one."

"Uniforms and soft-uniform programs are places where coordinates are very popular," says Wright. "They convey a professional, unified look while allowing women to wear apparel they can feel good in that fits correctly."

But although "uniforms are the obvious answer," says Neelly, he believes this answer is too simplistic. "Really, Corporate America is where the action is. And what is happening is actually a historical progression." And, according to Neelly, that progression began in the '50s when men wore suits and women wore dresses. After the Korean War, however, he says casual wear began to make a name for itself. American men, while wearing suits to work, started to dress more casually after work. "Then we saw Casual Friday, Casual Wear between Memorial Day and Labor Day, and then Casual Day everyday," he says. But with the rising popularity of men's casual wear; the woman's industry was left behind. "And we are just now catching up in the promotional products industry with women's wear. Our real problem, however, is the marriage of fashion and logoed apparel."

It's a difficult situation to reconcile, but Cesere has some ideas. "Women don't really want to wear garments with a logo on it, but if they must, they prefer the garments to be fitted for a lady and they want to look like a lady," he says. "Perhaps making a garment a little more dressy and as feminine as possible without 10 extra inches of shirt tail to tuck in should be a start."

And today, looking good really is part of the workday agenda. "Managers—from Corporate America to trade association—want to ensure a consistent look for their employees and members, regardless of gender," believes Van Popering. "Companion styles can achieve both objectives."

What's Next
So what's on the horizon for coordinating apparel? Neelly says "good, new fabrics are making a difference. Our 2004 line will contain many new blends and performance fabrics." He also says that even though the company gets most of its ideas from retail and the golf market, the customer is often right. "Many times, they come to us with a specific request that ends up in the line. We love suggestions!"

Tri-Mountain also knows where to find its great ideas. "We generally keep a close eye on retail trends as well as other trends in the industry," says Cesere. "We also listen to feedback from our customers and sales force."

And new programs devoted strictly to this dual market are popping up all over the industry. In 2003, Outer Banks launched its "Build Your Own Coordinates" program. Companies go online, choose the colors and styles they want and the program assembles a coordinating group of products. And next year, Vantage is planning to expand its complimenting knit-shirt offerings with several new piqué styles, and it's looking at silk and polynosic rayon fabrics, too.

Graham says Polynosic tees are already ID Wear's best-selling coordinating items. He also says that the company has plans for introducing complimentary ultra-suede jackets, moisture management shirts and one-by-one-knit rib polynosic casuals. And new ideas are always around the corner because the company "manufactures for the retail industry as well and sees trends before the stores by about nine months before garments hit the shelves," he says."We have a special creative design department at Vantage that works on our styling year round," says Barreca. "We like to have at least a year on our competition, but our most requested design element is to offer something different.""Color is also a great way for us to keep styles current," says Wright. "You can freshen up a best-selling classic style by offering it in fresh new colors.

Not A Guy Thing
Few in the industry can imagine returning to the previous one-man's-shirt-fits-all standard. "Complementing styles have become a design standard," says Barreca. "When Vantage looks at new fabrics or silhouettes, we consider both the men's and women's category before making an item decision.""More than 50 percent of the population that makes business decisions today are women," says Koensingberg. And it's a sentiment felt—and understood—by many of the suppliers focusing on complimentary men's and women's apparel. Cesere says that the word "complimentary" is really a much broader term then it ever was in the past—and he's right.But what does this mean for the staunch conservative apparel supplier who still refuses to break with tradition and move into the 21st century? A lot, because like Graham says, "If a guy isn't into women's clothing these days, he's just not with it!"

Sonya Castex is an associate editor for PPB

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