By  on February 17, 2009

In an otherwise harsh retail climate, accessories are faring better than most other categories.

“Clothing has come to a screeching halt, but jewelry is doing well,” said Drew Tessier, who codesigns jewelry line Andrew Hamilton Crawford and owns a Manhattan boutique called Monarch.

He and designer Chad Crawford will launch their “recession buster” collection at WW DMA GIC. Designed to offer a similar look to the brand’s signature resin and silver overlay items, the “recession busters” are priced 50 percent less, with everything in the lower-priced line wholesaling for less than $80. By contrast, some articles in the full-priced signature collection wholesale for as much as $238.

The duo reengineered the price point by using round bangles instead of a hinged-clasp oval and by swapping the metal overlay with a lining of brushed sterling silver or gold.

As they have in past economic downturns, accessories are expected to outperform apparel because they are, foremost, a relatively inexpensive way to update a wardrobe. Because they lack fit and wear issues, accessories have a perceived longevity that sportswear doesn’t.

“We have been raising our average selling price because the conventional wisdom [about accessories] is correct,” said David Dermer, chief executive officer of Funky Junque in Northbrook, Ill. “Retailers have been looking for relatively inexpensive accessories that have a higher perceived value at retail. Customers are staying away from the high end and, to a large degree, the lowest end. They are looking at what we call ‘fashion value.’”

Vendors said First Lady Michelle Obama is helping propel accessory sales, in particular brooches and, to a lesser extent, skinny belts, which she likes to wear  over cardigans. Given that 40 million people watched her husband being sworn in as president, it’s possible that novelty leather hues reminiscent of the green gloves and shoes she wore will gain momentum.

Funky Junque’s sales have grown more than 10 percent over the past year, said Dermer. Best performers include a $16-at-wholesale jeweled wire bangle set and a crinkle scarf with peace signs, which he said outsells the next best scarf two to one.

“It has been our bestseller for an amazing nine straight months,” he added.

Other vendors said their numbers are robust. Sales rose 10 percent year-over-year at Potluck Paris, a Seattle-based jewelry and stationery company that imports from  European designers. Ceo Patti McKillop said the surge in demand caught her by surprise — she was unable to fill $100,000 worth of orders.

Customers are making smaller initial orders, McKillop said, and reordering often. That’s a challenge for someone juggling overseas lead times. In order to service her retail accounts, she holds inventory on what she believes will be top performers.

“We buy goods outright,” she said. “My accountant has a cow because we have way too much inventory, but I have to respond [to customers] quickly.”

She’s planning to buy more pieces of fewer styles this year, and to weight her assortment toward items going for less than $150 at wholesale.

In contrast, New York-based jewelry line By Boe will hold fewer designs in stock and instead produce more on demand this year, said ceo Philippe Salame. He said items less than $26 at wholesale, such as gold-filled wire earrings, are the most soughtafter right now. His U.S. business is down “at least 20 percent,” with more customers requesting extended payment terms. The U.S. decline has been offset
by a 30 percent gain in international orders. The brand has taken booths in more trade shows overseas, he said.

La Vie Parisienne, which focuses on Swarovski crystal-accented jewelry, also has loaded trade show appearances onto its schedule.

“We started doing more shows when we realized our customers are not flying and paying for hotels, so we’d need to visit them more locally,” said company office manager Carla Diaz.

Showing for the first time at WWDMAGIC, La Vie Parisienne hopes to do well with long necklaces that can be worn several ways, including converted into bracelets.

In terms of service, the Santa Monica, Calif., company has accommodated longtime customers by extending payments an extra 15 days and, in special cases, allowing merchants to take goods on consignment. “We had people trying to cancel back orders for Christmas and we told them, ‘Take it on consignment, you’re going to sell it,’ and many did,” she said.

Earrings range from $10 to $75 at wholesale; necklaces go from $17 to $175.

At Rioni Inc., a midpriced handbag and luggage firm in Alhambra, Calif., sales manager Kent Hsieh said items wholesaling in the $40 to $50 range have been the most productive. He has noticed that accounts are increasing their quantities of lower-priced items.

“The economy has affected our projected growth, but luckily we are still are selling more than we expected for this tough economy,” he said, characterizing Rioni as eking out “slight gains” year-over-year.

Echo Design, the New York company that has extended its well-known scarf business into a variety of outerwear accessories, also is being judicious on price.

“We are very sensitive to retail price points and are making sure we have key items from $38 to $58 at retail,” said Lynn Roberts, the brand’s vice president of advertising and public relations.

“We have held our own in this economy and are slightly ahead of last year,” she said. “We are cautious with our buys and inventory, but bullish on new product introductions and are working more closely with customers to understand even better what their needs are.”

The firm, which ran its first national ad campaign this fall, will launch E-Soft, a range of gloves lined with aloe and vitamin E, at WWDMAGIC.

“We know from retailers that accessories have held up stronger than a lot of categories,” said Roberts. “That said, we are taking nothing for granted and are working hard to innovate.”

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