By and  on November 16, 2005

"Change has become a way of life, and the speed of change will keep increasing, so you better buckle up," quipped Valentino Inc. chief executive officer Graziano de Boni, clustered in a tight group with fellow Italians Matteo Marzotto of Valentino and Claudio Del Vecchio of Brooks Brothers at the opening-night cocktail party for the WWD/DNR CEO Summit.

De Boni's words resonated with many other executives who were in attendance, who took the opportunity before dinner to voice their takes on this year's theme, "The Challenge of Change."

"The speed at which things are moving is even more rapid," Matt Rubel, ceo of Payless ShoeSource, noted. "We have to make sure that we can continue to offer the best as possible."

The evening began with a more intimate gathering for the summit's sponsors on the candlelit 14th floor of The Ritz-Carlton New York in Battery Park with full views of New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty. It was followed by a cocktail party at the Harbor Vista area of the hotel before guests settled into the ballroom for a dinner sponsored by Americana Manhasset.

Ari Hoffman, ceo of Gant USA, pondered the growing popularity of building retail stores for apparel companies. "Most people have realized by now the importance of opening flagships, and everybody wants space on the same streets in the same cities. We're all chasing the same areas, and that's affecting the price of real estate," he noted. "There's plenty of space in below-average malls, but you can't open a flagship there."

Michael Boroian, managing partner at French recruitment firm Sterling International, said retail faces a different challenge. "The change is in fast retail," he said. "The Zaras of the world are changing the face of how retailers do business. Time is a strategic tool. The challenge is how to keep the originality of the brand, its positioning and price point."

The way in which China impacts U.S. business, meanwhile, was on other executives' minds.

"To me, change is in the way U.S. retailers source their product," said New Zealand designer Trelise Cooper. "So many goods are held up in China."Alex Bolen, Oscar de la Renta's president and ceo, who attended with his wife, Eliza Reed Bolen, struck a similar note. "I would like to find out more about the impact of Chinese manufacturing on our business, and how important it will be in the future," he said.

Consolidation of retailers also became a key subject of conversation that night.

"I'd like to see the small retailers stay in business and not have the big guys swallow everybody up," said Patty Nast Canton, ceo of Nat Nast Luxury Originals. "There's a sameness that happens when everybody is owned by the same people. And the fashion world should be about individuality and diversity."

Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon Associates, said, "With consolidation comes the challenge of how big organizations cultivate creativity, innovation and differentiation. By nature, large companies breed bureaucracy and more layers of management, and it can be tougher to get new things done."

Gina Zangrillo of Darien Sport Shop had her own advice for vendors. "I'd like to see them get back to basics and customer service — stock more product on their end so customers can reorder in-season. There's no opportunity now to exchange goods and no opportunity to get an item for a customer, and that's the foundation of the business. The businesses that are successful today are the ones that are specializing in good, old-fashioned customer service," she said.

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