The industry realized the tide was changing at the end of the 1990s when even steep price reductions were no longer effective at drawing shoppers into stores. Inventories mushroomed while profit margins eroded.

Take jeans: Calvin Klein, using his signature designer denim as a locomotive, created a powerful fashion icon. Today, jeans brands featured in magazines are limited-run, expensive and unadvertised labels such as Seven or Rogan. They carry with them the luster of uniqueness but wonít likely become major businesses.

Feeling the Shift

Big apparel manufacturers are feeling the shift as much as anyone. Liz Claiborne Inc., New York, became a multibillion-dollar powerhouse producing large volumes of office wear in the 1980s and 1990s. But Liz Claiborne, once the companyís only brand, now accounts for only 40% of its $4.2 billion in sales. The rest comes mostly from 35 other brands including DKNY Jeans, Enyce, which sells urban-style sportswear, and Juicy Couture, known for its velour tracksuits. "We donít believe that you can build a mega brand again," says Trudy Sullivan, as Liz Claiborne executive vice president.

 

Because manufacturing giants arenít nimble enough to produce only chic, boutique fare, some are trying to devise clever ways to give the impression of uniqueness. Jones Apparel Group Inc., Bristol, Pa., which generates $4.4 billion in annual sales from lines such as Jones New York and Anne Klein, is attaching brooches, fancy buttons and embroidered ribbon trim to the tens of thousands of jackets, pants and skirts itís producing this fall.

"We are trying to make them in many versions, full of novelties to make them as impulsive [a purchase] as possible to accommodate individual style," says Mark Mendelson, the Jones group president in charge of the companyís career wear.

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