By  on October 29, 2009

After a rough year in the contemporary retail sector which saw many store closings, the fall shopping season is proving consumers are still shopping, but they’ve become much more selective in their purchases.

From the East to the West Coast, retailers said contemporary shoppers have been on the prowl for high-quality pieces that also provide great value. While they are pickier than ever about what they choose to spend their money on, they aren’t exactly price-sensitive: If they have to have it, they will buy it.

At Saks Fifth Avenue, fashion market director Colleen Sherin said overall she is pleased with fall sales so far, with some of the highest-priced items on the floor selling out quickly. Sherin said this season at Saks, buyers were choosier than ever about their buys, which has been good for sales. Sometimes, she said, they only purchased one or two items from a particular brand. It’s those items she is seeing sell out fast.

“The key categories have really become clear, and it’s those multiuse items which can be dressed up or down that are really doing well,” she said. “Leggings are selling quickly and vests are selling really well, whether they are embellished, are made of fur, leather.…They are seen as a layering piece, almost like an accessory.”

Leather items, Sherin said, are performing well across the board, which she said has a lot to do with the value and longevity factor.

“Leather is seen as an investment; it only gets better with age,” she said. “And at $295 to $1,900 retail for these items, we haven’t seen much price resistance.”

Sherin said Saks is also noticing a great deal of cross shopping, with more traditional designer customers heading to the contemporary floor to buy some of the higher-end lines there.She noted brands like Elizabeth and James, Helmut Lang and Rag & Bone are top performers, while casual items from Joie have been selling as well.

“Casual shirts, cargo pants…it’s those effortless, easy pieces which have also been amazing,” she said.

Sari Sloane, fashion merchandiser and director at Intermix, said shoppers have begun gravitating toward easy-to-layer separates — denim, knits and leather in particular.

“The shopper wants value for her dollar, but she also wants to update her wardrobe,” she said. “So [we] offer high-low price points so they will spend more for an investment piece that can carry through seasons, as well as with some pieces that are more trend-oriented.”

Like Saks, Sloane said Intermix is doing well with Helmut Lang leggings and Rag & Bone jackets.

“Leggings and leather pants and leather jackets are doing well because they can be dressed up or down and fall into trend categories but are also transitional pieces,” she said. “Almost every collection has offered variations on them. Also, we really edit the collections we buy to ensure that we get a very special assortment and create exclusive collaborations with our designers. This way, the consumer can find items with Intermix that are not available anywhere else.”

At Canadian retailer Holt Renfrew, fashion director Barbara Atkin said the store is seeing strong demand in the advanced contemporary area, with customers buying heavily into brands like Elizabeth and James, Helmut Lang, Alexander Wang and Kimberly Ovitz.

“We can’t keep jackets from Elizabeth and James and Smythe in stock,” Atkin said. “Leather leggings from Helmut Lang are also really popular, and at $995 in Canadian dollars, they aren’t exactly inexpensive, which has been good to see.”

Atkin also noted novelty cardigans are performing well, as are plaid and crisp white shirts. Also, a $2,000 leather biker jacket that was on the Alexander Wang fall runway has been a bestseller.

“This is a savvy customer — she is always online and she’s seeing what’s on the runways, so we have to make sure we keep on top of that,” she said. “We are also noticing a lot of our designer customers trading down and buying a lot of what we have in contemporary. It’s really a busy area in the store for us.”

Atkin said the key for Holt Renfrew has been to consistently switch up the environment on the contemporary floor. Since the floors were renovated earlier in the year, the loftlike space provides an easy-to-change canvas.

“We are all about mixing it up, changing the look and mixing price points,” she said. “It’s all about identifying what they need now, giving them options that they can buy and wear out that night.”

At the Chicago-based She Boutique, owner Nicolette Prpa said she is so surprised with how business has been (sales are up 52 percent over last year), she has decided to bring in some young designer brands for spring, including Doo.Ri, Erin Fetherston and Chris Benz. For fall, she has been selling out of Naco Paris canvas totes, which retail for $125, and has been doing well with S.W.O.R.D. jackets, which retail at about $900.

“I’m really not seeing much price sensitivity from customers, and I thought that there would be at least some,” Prpa said. “What we see is that they are spending on special items, which is why I’m going more high-end for spring.”

On the West Coast, retailers are experiencing similar bestsellers to the East Coast.

“Leather is very strong right now, particularly jackets,” said Heather Martin, general manager and head buyer for Belle Gray boutiques in Sherman Oaks and Calabasas, Calif. “Sweaters and cardigans, little jackets and dresses are consistent sellers these days. I have seen more people coming in and looking specifically for tops. It’s a common way to update the wardrobe.”

Denim, she said, is also selling well after it wasn’t moving quickly earlier in the year.

“It’s because people are dressing in a little more relaxed way these days, based on what’s selling,” she said. “It’s still a downturn, so people tend to stay in and dress more casually.”

Karen Meena, head buyer for Ron Robinson boutiques at Fred Segal in Los Angeles, said unique items and exclusive pieces are garnering the most interest from shoppers, along with casual, easy basics in apparel. Lulu Frost jewelry in particular is moving fast.

“They are very original pieces, things that are not available everywhere,” she said. “Plus, it’s not $5,000 per piece — it’s around $500 for bracelets, but each is special.”

Leather or suede legging-style pants, like a pair with zipper adornments from L’Agence, are also popular, Meena said.

“Educated shoppers want value relative to the spend and very good quality,” she said.

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