BRIDGING THE GAP By: Mary Gottschalk


The word "bridge" may conjure up visions of the Golden Gate or the San Francisco Bay span, but many consumers recognize the term as department-store jargon for the area they shop in.

Bridge is the department Hillary Rodham Clinton has shopped for years, the place favored by almost a quarter of women shoppers, according to a recent survey, and the area that far outsells the higher-priced designer collection lines.

"It's certainly the fastest-growing segment of our business," says Pat Huntington, manager of Saks Fifth Avenue in the Stanford Shopping Center, Palo Alto, Calif.

"It's a general trend happening worldwide," says Elie Tahari, designer of the Tahari line sold in bridge departments. "Bridge is designer clothes, but the price is less than designer. Women want clothes that are of the moment and of quality, but they don't want them to cost as much as a car does."

In the '90s "bridge is going to be even more important," says Linda Allard, designer of the Ellen Tracy collection, which is the backbone of most bridge departments. "Women are becoming more real about their clothes; they want real clothes that work for them and that's what the bridge market offers.

"Even women who have money don't want to spend all their money on clothes," Ms. Allard says. "So many other issues are more important. Clothes don't have the priority they did in the '80s. You want clothes to look good and be functional, but clothes are not a be-all and end-all anymore."

The term bridge was coined a decade ago to describe the area of clothing "bridging" the gap between high-end collection lines such as Calvin Klein and Anne Klein and what stores call "better price points" such as Liz Claiborne and Evan Picone. Today, bridge is home to labels such as Ellen Tracy, Tahari, Adrienne Vittadini and Dana Buchman, as well as secondary designer lines such as Anne Klein II, DKNY and CK Calvin Klein.

Prices in the bridge market are wide-ranging.

"It's whatever costs less than a regular designer line," says Lisa Anderson, director of public relations for Cotton Inc., the trade group representing U.S. cotton growers, which commissioned a recent nationwide survey on women's buying habits and their attitudes toward dressing.

Ms. Anderson says she has been unable to pin retailers or manufacturers down to an exact range, but after researching the market, she considers a $500 price tag on one item to be the bridge price ceiling.

The $500 figure is the one that Vogue magazine set as the top for its much-publicized issue last April promising "Fashion's New Deal." To keep under $500, the magazine sidestepped designer collection lines in favor of secondary and bridge lines.

While Vogue returned to spotlighting four-figure price tag items in the next issue, a look around any department or specialty store quickly makes it clear that bridge is much more plentiful than collection.

"There is very little or no designer clothes in stores in cities with under a half-million people," says Alan Millstein, the retail analyst who edits and publishes Fashion Network Report in New York. "Designer labels are carried to keep the myth alive, but 70 percent of designer clothes end up on markdown. It never sells at full price."

Bridge developed, Mr. Millstein says, because "designer price points became so outrageously expensive that career women wanted an alternative. Bridge is the future as far as department stores such as Macy's and Nordstrom are concerned. It's been happening since the early '80s when Anne Klein II was launched and that made the first big break into a whole new department. I see it as the growth area."

Ms. Anderson says she has seen a change in attitude toward bridge on the part of retailers. "Five years ago, stores like Saks and Bloomingdale's wouldn't have mentioned they sold bridge, but now they're doing windows and featuring them in shows," she says.

That bridge and secondary collections are increasing in importance was obvious at the spring designer shows in New York. Two of the hottest invitations of the week were to shows of the secondary lines of Donna Karan and Calvin Klein -- DKNY and CK Calvin Klein -- who also held shows of their designer collections.

Equally packed were presentations of bridge-price lines by Ellen Tracy, Adrienne Vittadini, Byron Lars, Nicole Miller and Joan Vass.

While bridge is dominating sales, manufacturers and retailers don't expect it to ever kill the higher-priced designer collections.

"Bridge is an entry point for those people wanting to buy designer, but who are not able to take that final step and make a decision on a very expensive piece of merchandise," says Wilmer Weiss, senior vice president of sales and fashion for the I. Magnin chain.

"I think bridge opens up opportunities to women who are in the mainstream to move up to bridge and those in bridge to move up to designers when they can afford it," Mr. Weiss says.

Ms. Huntington of Saks agrees with Mr. Weiss.

"There will always be a designer market," she says. "There is a successful, discriminating woman who wants designer clothes. It's the superlative and there are always women who want the superlative. As more women become CEOs and company presidents, that discriminating taste level is going to grow. It's a small segment of the consumer population, but it's an important one. An extremely important one."

At Working Woman magazine, fashion editor Ann Armbruster says: "We look to both markets. When we write about trends we use designers because they set the trends. Most people don't buy designer stuff, otherwise there would be a lot more of those clothes around. It's an exclusive audience, but people like to look at them, they're quite beautiful and fun to shoot.

"When we do fashion at a price, it means doing bridge clothes or moderately priced clothes, especially if it's a service story," Ms. Armbruster says. "Obviously, we're all working women and that's what we buy."

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