As the golf industry looks forward to the next spring, the story in apparel each year usually revolves around a central theme, but 2009 is shaping up as a series of short stories.
If there is one central theme looking ahead to 2009, it is that buyers should book a little more time than usual with their suppliers, given the fractured nature of the golf apparel industry. “I would be in agreement with that, with what I’m seeing out of the marketplace,” said Sharon Krieger of Tournament Sports, which distributes the Antigua, Nancy Lopez and Slazenger lines in Canada.
“The brands seem to be each having their own directional focus and it seems like each one of them have something interesting to talk about, which I think, being a buyer, makes it an interesting time. Along with choice comes confusion about how to merchandise your shop, so absolutely, it can be a confusing time,” said Krieger.
Mark Fletcher of the Fletcher Leisure Group – which distributes the Ashworth, AUR, Aureus, Aurea, Callaway and Sunice brands, among others–agrees. “I think what’s happening, in general, is that we’re in a phase where the category is segmented and you’ve got different looks,” said Fletcher. “There’s not one over-riding look that is pervasive in golf fashion now.”
The story of the last few years has been performance fabrics with their moisture-wicking and cooling properties. That won’t change for 2009. “I still see a lot of technical out there,” said Ray Bessette of G&G Golf Company, which distributes the Straight Down brand in Canada. “I’ve talked with several companies that are working in the U.S. or start-ups in the U.S. that aren’t in Canada yet and they’re still doing a lot of technical. They’re doing a little bit of cotton, as well.”
Performance wear has been rising in popularity in golf, continuing a trend that has been going on in other sports and activities, according to Nancy Haley, chief executive officer for Tehama, who adds that fabrics continue to evolve, keeping the trend alive. “It’s interesting because this particular look is a carry-forward of what’s happening in other sports – biking, hiking or whatever,” said Haley.
“These are all really active sports that usually happen when there are more extreme changes in temperature, so it could be like 90 to 100 degrees (Farenheit), or it could be 30 to 40 degrees out. What’s happened with the companies that have been producing products for these other more extreme, active sports is they’ve come up with just the most awesome fabrics that help you cool when it’s hot out, that let your body breathe, or they keep you warm, so the fabrics are what’s driving the interest. When we use some of these fabrics that come out of the other industries, the golfers are going crazy over them. They just say, ‘Wow, these are so comfortable,’” said Haley.
Krieger agrees. “One big trend that we’re seeing from other sports that has come to golf is, in the cooler weather, wearing a long-sleeved, tighter-fitting underlayer and wearing a short-sleeved golf shirt over top and then, perhaps, another layering piece like a vest or another outwear piece over top of that.”
Performance wear has hit golf hard and even that is becoming segmented with various hybrid blends and price points. “You’ve got one faction of brands that has really commoditized those fabrics and taken it to really low price points where you’re not getting really all that great function, but you’re able to buy it at low pricing,” said Fletcher. “With Sunice, we’ve gone in another direction, to be able to have a high performance fabrication using Silver technology, where it’s really premium technical performance in a synthetic construction,” he added.
The segmenting of performance wear goes beyond price point. Many companies are picking up on eco-friendly, materials such as bamboo, cocona and organic cotton, among others. AUR has its Aware category, Tehama has its Green and Ashworth has its Organics, among others.
Of course, cotton is a natural product that once ruled golf, but it too can be combined with technical properties to produce a hybrid shirt. “You’ve also got 100 per cent cotton constructions that are coming back in a variety of different hybrid technologies,” said Fletcher. “It could be 100 per cent cotton that has a different finish on it, which is offering different hand feels. Ashworth, for example, has returned to an all-natural fabric assortment, using a lot of cottons and cotton mixtures to create performance cottons, but it’s done with a completely different look and feel than the traditional mercerized cotton. It’s got more of that California cool John Ashworth inspiration, so that is a look unto itself which makes it very unique,” said Fletcher.
Hybrids offer yet another option, according to Bessette. “I don’t mind wearing a technical piece on the golf course because it does moisture wick and dry. Just to wear it on a day-to-day basis, I still prefer to go to a hybrid because it’s got the high quality cotton with a little bit of Aerocool, but it’s still very much a double mercerized cotton shirt. We do a hybrid which is a 70 (per cent) cotton and 30 Aerocool. That’s our premium shirt and that’s doing exceptionally well because of the blend, because it has that cotton content ith a little bit of technical for moisture wicking and drying,” he said, pointing out yet another trend.
“We’ve got some new technical fabric too,” said Bessette. “It’s interesting because what we’re doing this year is we’re adding some texture to our shirts, be it both technical and hybrid.”
Straight Down isn’t the only company going with that concept. “One of the terms (Antigua) is using is surface interest and that might not be such bold, bright prints, but lots of great, interesting texture and that can have some performance function by keeping moisture away from the body,” said Krieger.
With all the emphasis on technical fabrics the past few years, the risk of overexposure exists. In other words, there’s the possibility of golfers and buyers being tech-ed out. “I still enjoy a nice cotton,” said Bessette. “A friend of mine commented to me – he’s a little older than me, maybe three or four years, so he’s in his early 50s – and his comment when we walked through one of the shops was that he’s had enough of the younger, technical look with the wild blocking and that kind of thing. Some of the comments that I heard from some of the pros is they’re tired of hearing performance and they’re tired of hearing technical. They’d like to go back, but I don’t think you’re going to see a swing back to cotton like you saw a swing to performance. I think it might take a little longer to work its way back to a pure cotton story.”
While cotton may not knock performance wear out, the barrage of technical fabrics the past few years may cause a change of thinking among consumers and apparel companies that, for years, offered their products as lifestyle pieces that are good for wear on and off the golf course.
With technical products being presented as ideal for on-course wear with their moisture wicking and other properties, cotton presents itself as après golf apparel, so a separation of on-course and off-course products now appears imminent in a complete reversal from the past.
“You still have a certain segment of the market that wants to wear mercerized cotton,” said Fletcher. “It might be the more mature demographic that likes that look that you can wear under a sports jacket for dinner, for example. You’ve got fabrications and looks that are segmenting. If you take a 40-year-old golfer that may have, for example, one of each of those looks within his wardrobe, so it’s not a pervasive thing. You may have some that only choose to wear poly, but it’s conceivable that you can have a guy who wants to wear all of those different looks.”
According to Haley, a longtime proponent of golf wear as lifestyle apparel, the arrival of performance wear has caused a dramatic change of thinking about what’s worn on the golf course and what is worn off the course. “Here’s what we’re saying,” she said. “Our brand has always been known as lifestyle sportswear. I think that’s one of the things that, over the 20 years I’ve been in the business, I’ve been a proponent of that. We also noticed in golf that the consumer is interested in more of a performance product that they really just want to wear to play golf or do something active. You can even ride your bike. What Tehama has done is we’ve answered the call for both because there still is that golfer who loves the double mercerized shirts and just likes something they can wear to work. The second offering we’ve got is a continuation of our Hang ‘Em Dry, which is a product you wear to play golf in, but you could wear a Hang ‘Em Dry shirt to work. This is just like a transition going from the mercerized. Then, we do our more technical fabrics and we combine them in our Green category, so we’ve got recycled polyester that’s more of a tech fabric that’s really sporty looking, so it’s more of a lifestyle look. We’ve kind of got the whole gamut covered.”
That gamut is even more extensive when you consider other trends, such as one going on with the Nancy Lopez women’s line, according to Krieger. “What we’re seeing as a key trend is a focus on glitz and glamour so we have lots of shiny, metallic fabrics and jewel tones which are strong and bright,” she said. “We’re still seeing the long short as being popular for 2009 and skorts being a key bottom as well.”
With all of the options available to buyers this fall and consumers next spring, Fletcher points out that the time spent exploring the possibilities at the shows this fall is well worth it. “
The consumers have a lot more, better product to select from,” he said. “When you’re talking about brands that specialize truly in golf, you’re seeing companies that really understand the needs of golfers and we’ve been working with fabric mills and manufacturers to be able to give performance to golfers. I think that’s really an important theme, that you’re seeing committed companies developing things that are making golfers happy.”