DUSSELDORF — While the German apparel market remains under pressure, participants at the CPD trade show here this month said they saw signs the market was improving.

Jürgen Dax, managing director of the German Retailers Association, said German store owners are “in a relatively good mood. Many are happy to have survived a bad 2003, and the cost-cutting measures of the last years are beginning to bear fruit. We know that in spite of soft sales, the profit picture is improving.”

Building nondomestic sales and honing a sharper, niche-oriented profile are the two tools German manufacturers are using to get ahead. The increase in non-German buyers — who represented 30.5 percent of the 53,000 visitors to the fair — was welcomed, especially as insolvencies and store closures continue to shrink the German retail market.

Jim Buckley, divisional manager of Escada Sport, said sales were up 18 percent in units and 3 percent in revenue, but “we haven’t acquired extra business. Rather, we’ve lost customers via bankruptcy, which is the biggest problem at the moment. But we’ve cleaned our customer basis well, and it’s a good time to build, too.”

In terms of growth, Buckley said “China and Eastern Europe are going very well, and we’ve just reintroduced Escada Sport to the U.S. and not just in our own stores.”

In addition, he said there’s “huge potential growth in specialty store business [in the U.S.] and we’re working on a strategy for that. Plus we’re also going after the ski business in the U.S. It’s a niche business, but a great one to have in the winter.”

Escada Sport itself might be considered a niche business, “but niche doesn’t mean small,” Buckley asserted. Escada Sport is carried in 1,200 doors worldwide, and Buckley said the company believes it could triple to quadruple that business.

“We’re very competitive and priced aggressively and we have a clear lifestyle message with a free-time mentality that’s open to any [consumer] willing to move in that lifestyle,” he said. Noting that the market is becoming more “buy now, wear now,” Escada Sport has now moved to five delivery groups per season versus two. “Those who are surviving well in this economy are the ones who have changed,” he said.Matthias Schledhaider, sales manager of Apriori, one of the larger German women’s fashion brands, noted that buyers at the show appeared to be somewhat less price-focused than they had been in recent seasons, though cost remained a concern for luxury goods.

“Stores definitely did better business in January with new merchandise,” he said. “But [retailers] are still being careful, and more expensive items like fur and leather are more difficult to move. The market has become price-sensitive.”

Apriori’s strongest sellers for fall, he said, were in feminine bouclé tweed and satin in black, white and hot pink, and more pop, Sixties looks in graphic black- and-white patterns plus a shot of red and royal blue.

Apriori, which does two-thirds of its sales abroad in key markets including Spain, France, Russia and Scandinavia, has also just ventured into the American market. “The first deliveries are just coming in and the reaction has been super. We’re going over again in February, but it’s a brave new land.”

North Americans are becoming a somewhat less rarified breed in Düsseldorf these days. Linda Mitchell, a member of the family that owns Richards and Mitchells in Westport and Greenwich, Conn., was spotted at Bogner, between buying trips to Hamburg for Jil Sander and Paris for Hermès. She reported Mitchells had recently received its first shipments of Bogner and Sônia Bogner, “and it’s doing nicely.”

“The casual lifestyle pieces work for us, especially outerwear and some special pieces,” she said. “I’ve just started looking at the fall collection, but the coats look very, very strong.”

Daniela Poerner, vice president of design and development at Bogner, said the more fashion-conscious Sônia Bogner collection is starting to move in the U.S.

“Everything that’s a bit over-the-top and then available in sizes 10, 12 or 14 is selling, though [retailers] also buy a lot of size 4 and 6. The Germans still buy safe, safe, safe. The market is so heavy in terms of service, salespeople and buyers, so it’s particularly inspiring to have visits from the U.S.”

Retailer Susan J. Sharpe, president of Susan J. in London, Ontario, said she does a lot of business with German collections, including Lucia, Gerry Weber, Cavita and Steilmann.“I’m looking for newness and better coats,” she said, adding that she’d found enough in Düsseldorf “to give the consumer a new reason to buy. It has to be fabulous but wearable, like the Spanish knit line Diktons, or Gerry Weber, where the line has become a bit younger but without losing its base customer.”

Noting the prominence of bright colors in many collections, she said, “I don’t see anyone wearing a fuchsia suit, but you can wear a fuchsia jacket with black pants…I think consumers are ready for a shot of color.”

Producers of more classic women’s wear, like Windsor, are also experiencing an upswing.

“The fashion trend is moving in our direction,” said Monique Enrich, key account manager for Windsor Women’s in Europe. “It’s back to chic, with more tailoring and a more complete wardrobe look. And wool, one of our strengths, is absolutely the rage with Brit Chic. The last two to three seasons in Germany were difficult, but not just for us. Fashion was very items-oriented, which was counterproductive for a house like Windsor that excels with pantsuits and the like.”

Several key fall trends stood out at the show: Chenille and bouclé tweed jackets and skirt suits; Swinging Sixties styling, with lots of red, white and black; pink, pink, pink from the palest little girl tints to shrieking fuchsia; Brit Chic and all manners of tweeds and glen checks, and the steady proliferation of what’s dubbed “experimental” fashion in Germany — generally long, geometric- shaped apparel in natural and predominantly neutral fabrics.

Annette Görtz, one of the best-known proponents of the no-age, all-size look, has been prospering in a soft market.

“Business is very good, and while we’ve continued to expand internationally, I’m also happy about every German customer,” said Hans-Jörg Welsch, the designer’s husband and director of the company. He described the brand’s customers as “individualists” size 4 to 14.

“Of course it’s not the Gucci customer,” he said, “but there’s increasing demand for this type of sleeker fashion.”The Annette Görtz collection is carried by about 50 doors in the U.S. and Canada, including Takashiyama in New York.

“The order volume is relatively modest, but the prices there are twice as high [as in Europe] because of duties and importer fees,” he said. “But we can definitely grow there, in spite of the strong euro.”

Attendance at the show was off 15 percent from last February’s record numbers. A total of 2,050 vendors showed at the Düsseldorf fairgrounds and two fashion houses, and 45 percent of exhibitors were from outside Germany. Many buyers also popped in at the additional 800 showrooms scattered throughout the city.

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