Breaking into the Collegiate Scene

As women’s wear creates a wrinkle of its own within the industry—intersecting projects in workwear with feminine complements, sportswear with fairer details and even T-shirts with womanly sizing—the styles find their way into mainstream as well as create opportunities all their own. One of which is in the collegiate scene, where coeds are looking for expressive style that doubles as a show of support for the clubs, sororities and events happening around campus.

And while the division one companies are first in line when it comes to sourcing for the self-renewing spring of profits that is the almighty Campus Bookstore, there is still much business up for grabs among the student body.

Style 101

Even more so than traditional women’s wear, styles in the collegiate arena are heavily retail-inspired and are generally less conservative, leaning toward the missy or teen style concessions. “Raw edges, contrast stitching, even fur,” Byron Reed, MV Sport/Weatherproof says, are what the kids are going for. “A lot of this stuff is styled after Hollister and Abercrombie, but we add the details in a basic item for industry styles.”

Along with trendy color updates, fashion details and young, hip styling, says Boxercraft’s John Carroll, “Comfort is king! Collegiate women live in a very different lifestyle than kids or adults. Their life is centered on dorm life, walking to class, et cetera.”

One of the idiosyncrasies of this demographic is the variance within it. Carroll expresses that what’s hot on for the East coast ivy-leaguers may not be what Florida Gator-ettes want. “This segment differs from other women’s wear markets because each college campus sets their own trend,” agrees Nicole Wilder, Boxercraft. “The top selling item might be limited to one school because a few recognizable students started a trend. If everyone on campus is sporting a particular hat or T-shirt, then that is what will sell.” So in a big way, it is each campus that sets the trends.

According to Wilder the latest trends in collegiate women’s wear are Bermuda shorts, fine jersey Ts in longer lengths and fitted tank tops all in fashion colors. “Right now they want loose fitting, comfy clothes that can be worn in variety of settings,” she says.

And that right now is the operative phrase of the sentence. Because the styles in this arena are so retail-driven, it can be difficult to stay on top of. “Two years ago,” U-Trau’s Greg Davis explains, “the rage was shorter tops that showed the tummy. Within months that trend was over and longer tops that extended well below the waist was what the market was demanding.”

Minimizing the risk of the roller-coaster retail trends, industry manufacturers safely incorporate some of the latest details and colors in basic styles. For example, Davis reports that U-Trau designs two lines a year, but they also build in flexibility to add hot products and colors between seasons. On one hand, these tactics limit your offerings and appeal to trendy undergrads, but it also leaves enough variety to accommodate their style without getting stuck with inventory that is so last season.

Finally, all of our sources agree that color is huge in this sector. While the basic grays and school colors are always a safe bet, college-aged women want a rainbow of color options. Especially considering many Greek events are theme related, students will respond to colors that can relate. Who could resist a royal purple spaghetti strap tank with a gold screen print commemorating that year’s epic toga party?

Inside track

While it may be many a screen printer’s dream to land the contract with the bookstore, there’s much more profit hidden among the campus clubs and organizations. Merchandising ties for the bookstore can run deep so, instead, compete on the level of end-users with some tricks from our sources.

“There are a million clubs on any given campus, and most with scores of members. Take band for example, with as many as 450 members,” Reed advises. “Band is a forgotten market. And sororities are another great avenue for garment-decorating services.” From highly-populated clubs such as intramural sports leagues, Greek society functions and band, to the less obvious affiliations including religious- and academic-based groups—even study groups are potential customers for decorated apparel.

Reed goes on to suggest that decorators make themselves known to these groups. Often times, he says, decorators get grandfathered into doing business with certain clubs—and not necessarily because of skill. It often happens this way for lack of time and options. “Sororities will simply order from the company they did the year before because it’s easy and fits in their schedules,” Reed says. “But if you go in and actually present some options and show off your talent, you’ll be the one who gets the business.”

As far as what to present, the aforementioned styles will do, along with some concepts in foils and special-effects and distressed prints that are all the rage in women’s retail fashion. Plus, graphic placement does not necessarily need to be left-chest or center-chest. As U-Trau’s Davis points out, multiple-location printing is popular as are specialty-ink processes.

No matter what, the point is to introduce an exciting new concept. “Trying to break into the market with traditional fleece, rib or jersey products is virtually impossible,” Davis says. “Instead, give them something fresh. A recent example is Croc’s—a fresh product that took the market by storm.”

And finally, always keep in mind the end-buyers of the product. Remember that this is a consumer who splurges on Lucky Jeans but dines on Ramen Noodles. Price is important. Though Wilder makes the good point that quality and fashion do come first, the price tag definitely has to cater to the fact that many college students are on a limited budget. “A $100 suede jacket is just not practical,” says Davis, “but a pink hooded sweatshirt that retails for $29.95 may be.”

Final exams

While approaching any new avenue of business may be threatening, adding women’s collegiate styles can be rewarding. Considering that at least half the studying that needs to be spent on the styles is already applied from other sectors of women’s wear, acing this business just got a whole lot easier. And who knows what can come of it … that sorority president will eventually graduate, and when it comes time to order women’s polos for her first big corporate event, will it be her old college decorator she phones? We can only hope.