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Luxe Luck

Vendors are finding success at the higher end of the accessories market.

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Vendors are finding success at the higher end of the accessories market.

This story first appeared in the February 12, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

An ongoing interest in anything “green,” combined with the fact that the higher end of the market seems to be holding firm, is providing accessories vendors with what they need to remain optimistic going into the 2008 season.

While numerous vendors agree that the economy is softer and demand in certain categories has flattened, they believe they can get a jump on the season by offering competitive prices, ensuring quick deliveries and, whenever possible, tapping into the trend for all things organic and eco-friendly.

“We introduced a bamboo scarf last fall that has been one of our premier products for the season,” said Wesley Knitter, sales manager of Berkeley, Calif.-based Zazou, a maker of shawls, scarves and gloves.

“We’ve been one of the first to put bamboo scarves on the market, and we’ve seen demand get bigger and bigger.”

Knitter attributes much of that to the going-green initiative that is taking hold in the arena of accessories. That view is certainly borne out by the fact that a new line of fingerless gloves, also in bamboo, sold out immediately.

“We’re still fielding phone calls for it,” he said of the $10-at-wholesale product. “We can’t bring in enough.”

He said the company would expand on the bamboo scarves, which go for around $28 at wholesale, in addition to its silk and rayon offerings. The chiffon scarves wholesale at around $7.50, which Knitter said allowed him to captivate both ends of the market.

Knitter said the fact that the company ships within 24 to 48 hours also makes a difference to the bottom line.

“In some pockets, people are being conservative. But when going through a period of economic concern like this, the key thing is to continually move forward to bring in new products and not be scared to introduce new things because you want to stick to the tried-and-true.”

Vendors also believe that if consumers are forced to watch their dollars, they’d rather spend on fewer, higher-quality things.

“You need to give the consumer reason to buy something,” said Carolina Amato, owner of her namesake New York-based label. “They’ll be buying less junk and will look for value and quality. So instead of buying a $29.99 glove at a discounter, they’ll buy the $89 one made of beautiful lambskin with cashmere lining that they will wear for three years.”

Her offerings retail from $24 to $350, and include gloves, wraps, hats and neckwear in silk, cashmere, lambswool, angora and suede.

Amato said that business has been on the rise — last year’s sales were higher than ever in the 30 years she has been in business — because she said she’s learned how to navigate the inevitable pitfalls.

But she is concerned about the strengthening euro, given that she sources many of her raw materials in Europe.

“We just hope that the luxury of the product will speak for itself,” she said, adding that she has adjusted her margin to avoid passing on the higher costs to the consumer.

“I think the luxury consumer in 2008 will be the most privileged consumers because they’ll have to pay the highest they’ve ever had to pay for luxury goods. That end of the market will be bombarded with product, but only the companies that can produce the most beautiful and high-end designs will be purchased.”

While there is some perceived demand for eco-friendly accessory offerings, some vendors also feel that very much depends on what it is.

“It comes at a premium, and I don’t know if many people are ready to pay that premium,” said Jeanne Simmons, owner of the Hat Shack in Vista, Calif. Her strategy is to keep fabrications simple — cotton, jersey knits, straw — and trend the styles toward a younger

customer who can easily manage the $5 to $20 wholesale prices.

New offerings include youthful styles such as the Poppy and the Cappy, which come in new shapes featuring brims that tilt down slightly.

While sales last year were up between 5 and 10 percent, Simmons said some retailers “are running a little scared.”

“Prebookings are not as big as we would like. But because we can deliver immediately, we’re confident we’ll make it up later,” she said.

Like Knitter of Zazou, Cynthia Rodriguez, owner of Roxstar in Los Angeles, said price points are the key to a successful season.

Her company represents numerous jewelry and accessories lines, but Rodriguez said it was more important than ever to get the mix right — offering products that would be sought after at prices that were accessible.

“Accessories are taking a hit right now because nobody seems sure what people want to spend their money on,” she said. “But if you have some proven hot items at good prices, it could be a really good year.”

She will be showing jewelry lines from Be/je, Sisi Amber, Sorrelli and Irish Designs, collectively covering a range of market trends, including cubic zirconia; inspirational themes; natural woods, and resin-based, hand-painted enameled pieces. Wholesale prices are in the $20 to $110 range.

“People are buying less and it’s hard to get minimums. But they want quick pick-up items, quick shipping and things that are at around $50 at wholesale ideally,” Rodriguez said.

For other vendors, it’s all about finding things that nobody else has. Maria Ellefson, owner of The Mysterium Collection in Las Vegas, brings in jewelry lines from top-tier Polish designers. As a result, trends are influenced mostly by European designs rather than driven by what might be happening in the U.S. market, and she is therefore “competition-free as far as the design element is concerned,” she said.

Ranging at wholesale from $100 to $450, the offerings have dedicated fans at high-end boutiques and gallery-type stores.

“It seems that the higher we go in price, the better we do,” said Ellefson. “Our end customer is a lady in her 40s and up, who has had a chance to accumulate all her precious stones, and is looking for something different.” The sterling silver pieces offer texturing, vermeil and oxidation treatments.

Ellefson said that so far, the company has been having a good run.

Given the strength of the euro, plus the skyrocketing prices of gold and silver, she sacrificed part of her profit margin but still had to raise prices by between 20 and 25 percent — and her buyers didn’t flinch.

“We sold more this past January than in January of last year,” she said. “I wasn’t very confident last year, but now I am.”

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