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Fashion-forward styles on the wholesale scene.

What Women Want

Twice a year, a magical occurrence takes place. Its arrival is eminent but it still feels like the circus quietly rolled into town, erecting its tent overnight only for the town's people to wake to elephants, tigers, fire eaters and showgirls walking down Main Street. This happening, that often showcases similar theatrics, is Fashion Week. Like clockwork every spring and fall, major cities are converged upon by throngs of fashion followers making their pilgrimage to the catwalks.

During the month-long event, the latest collections are previewed giving insight to what women will be wearing six months from now. It used to be that these styles would trickle down from the elite to the well-to-do and then, in some recognizable form, down to the rest of us mere mortals. But at today’s pace, we see the same looks shot on the runways translated into “low fashion” knock offs; near-identical replicas are seen on the streets in conjunction with their high-fashion inspirations.

This all contributes to the reality that now, more than ever, women’s wholesale styles resemble those at retail. Taking inspiration from the elite runways and favorite shopping spots we all scour, women’s wholesale styles are hipper, trendier and more stylish than the variations that preceded them. In order to stay on top of this current women’s wear market, Printwear speaks to the taste makers who help to form the stylish scene in wholesale blanks and presents their perspective here.

Wholesale vs. retail

“We’ve seen the lines between wholesale and retail blur more recently,” asserts Michelle Tillman, Alternative Apparel. For brands with a presence in both worlds, not every retail style is seen in wholesale and vice-versa. But the word on the street is that the two are no longer mutually-exclusive.

Mark Smalley, American Apparel, echoes this notion, noting that the most innovative designs in the company’s wholesale channel have spawned from the company’s retail stores. “Retail is a huge test market for our wholesale,” he says. In fact, after observing top performers in store, the company weighs which styles can be translated to the wholesale market, makes necessary adjustments and fashion-forward wholesale designs are born.

Even beyond the brand names, we’re told that the styles are also translatable. “The female wholesale customer is demanding more of the retail looks and trends,” states John Rusk, Eternal Apparel. Women’s wear has evolved from the standard selections to a highly differentiated market segment with designs that mirror the most fashion-forward casual wear bought off the racks.

Among the designs making popular entry to the imprintables market are dolman sleeves, off the shoulder styles and boyfriend cuts, describes Steffenie Zorner, Bella + Canvas. The days of boxy shapeless cuts are gone. Even today’s men’s-inspired styles are graded to fit a women’s body and give a bit of shape, she explains.

Whether designed to be fitted, flowy, cropped or oversized, fit in this market is king. Women in particular are more aware and concerned with fit, so cuts and sizing to flatter a variety of body types is important. Tillman tells us that construction and attention to details are key components in this regard, where a generous amount of time is spent sizing and shaping armholes, body length, chest width and stitching details until the design is in perfect proportion.

Along with construction, a garment’s fabric composition also plays a role in its drape. The standard 50/50 cotton/poly and 100 percent cotton styles are still popular but the type of cotton additionally comprises drape and hand.

According to Zorner, carded, open-end fabric is unique to the wholesale market. While retail-friendly, combed ring spun cotton is starting to become more prevalent in wholesale, it is nearly a requirement for the fairer sex.

The female wholesale customer wants clothes that aren’t just about looking good, but feel good as well, explains Tillman. This is surely a factor in the increasing popularity of tri-blends. Typically made up of a cotton/polyester/rayon combination, the fabric offers a soft, light hand and a trendy vintage color. Sheer fabric is another major fabric trend as of late, whether it is burnout, gauze or lightweight jerseys. The bottom line is the softer the hand and the lighter the weight, the better.

A world of color

Cuts and fabrications aren’t the only cue wholesale has taken from retail. “I think the use of fashion colors in the licensed apparel market really showed that the use of non-traditional colors was no longer taboo,” explains Rusk.

While black, white and heather gray still dominate the market, it’s not uncommon to see a flash of blue, green, purple or even neon. Yes, the color of the 80s had a major moment last year and was welcomed back to the market with (mostly) open arms. This success, Smalley says, means that day glow will continue to shine on for the near future… and not necessarily just for spring collections.

Beyond this bold statement of the fashionable fluorescents, Zorner notes the introduction of lighter pop colors like corals and greens as a trend. And, within retail fashion, the big story has been head-to-toe color blocking. A bold jewel toned shirt, pant and shoe, all in the same color family or in complementary colors can be seen on the pages of high-end fashion magazines.

Translated to wholesale, the effect is milder, often done in the details or in various parts of the same garment. Regardless of how it is done, Tillman says this trend is still holding strong. Whether in bold accents or soft touches added to neutral shades of gray, adding contrast gives enough pop to freshen up even the most basic styles, she adds.

Another story from the runways is prints. Floral pants are the item to own right now and mixing nautical stripes with animal ones is très chic. So how does this translate to apparel that relies on promoting something other than fashion, for fashion’s sake? “I would call it a non-pattern pattern,” muses Rusk. While the need to be trend-right is high, the main focus continues to stay on the decoration being applied.

Among the best options for the market are burnouts, tie dyes and acid washes, but bolder designs are still an option. Alternative Apparel’s Tillman sees all-over prints in geometric Aztec, polka dots and camouflage trending right now. To decorate such designs, Rusk suggests placing decorations in non-traditional locations like the shoulder or hip; places where there may be a break in pattern or that have enough interest to still make an impact.

Staying power

Although fashion is an important story for today’s market, the classics will never go out of style. Basic Ts and tanks in jerseys and ribs will always have a place at the core of wholesale. Even among the trendier wholesale styles, tradition lingers. Tillman reports that wholesale trends tend to be seasonless with more of a year-round focus as opposed to retail’s revolving door. Still, fashion-forward basics can be a bit of risk if they are not marketed to the correct audience, nor if the decorator doesn’t feel confident in working with them.

Not a huge surprise, Smalley says the trendier and more innovative styles are in line with a more youthful crowd, finding footing in dance, cheer and collegiate markets. Tillman also sees that the trendier styles are used for entertainment and hospitality, seen in concert gear or in hotels, restaurants, bars and spas.

The most important point to remember, however, is that, though fashion-forward, these styles are still designed to be decorated. Smalley stresses the importance of education when working with non-traditional garments and maintaining an open mind to their decoration capabilities.

Today’s women’s market does require more navigating than in the past. With a wide selection of basic and fashion goods, it can sometimes be difficult to find the right balance. “You’ve always got to be thinking ahead and be on top of the game,” admits Smalley.

However, with an eye on retail and a mind toward wholesale, the balance seems to equalize. Never too far-fetched and always mindful of the end user, the modern wholesale women’s market adds the right amount of sass to staying power.