By  on February 9, 2009

PARIS — Feeling the bite of the global economic crisis, foreign retailer attendance for the recent Premiere Classe and concurrent Who’s Next trade shows here fell 29 percent, with the total number of visitors down 5 percent.

A citywide transport strike on the opening day contributed to the downturn, said a spokeswoman for the fairs, which ended a four-day run at the Porte de Versailles on Feb. 1. However, exhibitors were buoyed by a 10 percent increase in the turnout of French buyers.

At Premiere Classe, retailers cited a return to “reasonable-sized” functional handbag styles in natural skins and sober shades, such as black, gray and taupe. Ostentatious hardware is out, as is big jewelry.

“A lot of the clothing has so much embellishment, jewelry brands have a tough nut to crack right now,” said Darren Mason, president of Andrew’s in Canada.

Seeking accessories that match the desire for “affordable, sober luxury,” Mason was among the retailers underwhelmed by the salon’s selection, bemoaning a lack of novelty.

“The customer wants to be uplifted, but there has to be an element of practicality,” “For bags, it’s not so much the oversize, not so much the hobo…but clean designs, with less shine,” he said.

“It’s more about fabric, less about decoration,” said Alain Massip, a bag designer and owner of De Grimm, a 1,000-square-foot leather goods store based in Bordeaux, France.

Carole Lion, founder of the namesake Paris-based fashion store and Web site that operates on an invitation-only basis, noted a continued focus on the clutch, with a Bordeaux eel skin style by Jalda among items topping her shopping list.

Several buyers said although the salon didn’t lack choice, inflated prices made many lines too hot to touch. The euro-dollar divide still proved a sore point for U.S. retailers.

“It’s very disappointing — the prices are just ridiculous…it’s so depressing to come all this way and go away empty-handed,” said Nancy Schneider, owner of the New York-based multibrand boutique Nancy & Co.

Schneider was back after skipping the salon for three years because of the sky-high euro.

“The prices have leapt up, even by as much as 20 percent,” said Jacqueline Harrach, owner of an eponymous accessories store in Nice, France.

Nora Brennan, owner of Nora’s Shoe Shop, a 1,200-square-foot footwear and accessories store in Chicago, said she was avoiding items that looked too conservative, “especially in these times.”

“I’ve seen a lot of fresh things that I don’t see at home, but then there’s the conflict of the dollar,” she said, listing Barcelona’s Luna Llena among standout brands.

“Their [embroidered] bags are really colorful and fresh,” she added, disclosing that her budget was up by 10 percent.

Hats surfaced as one of the salon’s strongest elements, regarded as a key accessory for expressing individual style.

“Fashion is moving more and more toward independent styles, we can see it on the street,” said Francis Berquin, owner of Derby Spot, a hat distributor based in Ghent, Belgium, whose budget was up 10 percent.

Muhlbauer’s range was particularly good, he said, with humorous touches. Ozaki Yuuhi, a men’s wear buyer for Marui M’s Mode who was also on the hunt for hats, lauded Bronte’s range of wool caps.

Citing “protective” women’s caps in Scottish tweeds and felts as bestsellers, French hat designer Anthony Peto noted an absence of key Asian retailers, notably from Japan and South Korea. With travel budgets being slashed, retailers will prioritize the event’s March edition, he said.

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