By  on August 26, 2008

Chicago’s StyleMax, the largest women’s apparel market in the Midwest, countered the questionable economy with higher-than-expected attendance this month and, at the same time, unveiled a new facet, National Prom Market Chicago.

Susan McCullough, senior vice president for apparel for Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., said she was pleased with the amount and consistency of activity at the market, noting there were still handfuls of buyers looking to do business when StyleMax, which ran from Aug. 9 to 12 at the Merchandise Mart, ended.

“There were still a lot of stores on the floor,” McCullough said, noting the show’s August edition enjoyed a single-digit percentage increase in attendance over last year. “In this economy, I was pleased. I was worried because everyone is saying retail is so terrible now.”

McCullough, who would not release figures, said the slight jump may be attributed to more area retailers questioning the expense of traveling to New York to do their buying.

The market’s newest addition, a 20,000-square-foot section devoted to prom and special occasion resources, likely attracted new buyers as well, she said.

“Prom has been a major success for us,” said McCullough about the area, which featured some 40 vendors including Alyce Designs, Tony Bowls for Mon Cheri, Faviana and LaFemme. “The manufacturers opened new accounts and were very happy.”

McCullough launched the section responding to many retailers who said it was difficult to buy both bridal and prom fashions at Chicago’s expansive National Bridal Market in October. “It’s so hard to do it all at once,” McCullough said. “The [bridal] show is so huge. It’s easier to shop separately. The stores like it.”

Retailers, meanwhile, continued to weather the economic downtown, with some faring better than others.

Carrie Arrouet, co-owner of Lela in Milwaukee, said her 1,400-square-foot store, which houses a mixture of new, vintage and consignment clothing, is seeing sales about 10 percent higher than last year.

Business has been buoyed by increased foot traffic due to Anthropologie moving in next door. “It’s increased the visibility of the neighborhood and brought credibility to the district as a shopping destination,” she said of her store’s location along North Broadway. “People see value to our product.”

Anthropologie opened in January in the area, which is known as an arts district and is populated with many warehouses, located just south of downtown Milwaukee, she said.

Arrouet, who was shopping StyleMax mostly for accessories, picked up patent envelope clutches from Big Buddha in purple, green, yellow and black, and also opted for oversize handbags in the same colors, as well as in pewter, silver and gold metallic shades. She also ordered leather and pounded metal jewelry from Bauxo, specifically buying hammered gold hoops and distressed leather cuffs for women and men for holiday gift-giving.

Penny Meisel, owner of Necessities in Glenview, a north suburb of Chicago, said she has become more conservative in her buy, purchasing less on first orders with plans to reorder merchandise that sells. At StyleMax, she liked fashion jackets with bell sleeves from Luii in gray, red, black and plaids, as well as lightweight scarves from VSA in gray, black, purple and plaid.

Meisel also bought 100 percent cotton sweaters from Willow, one of her best-selling lines, in purple and deep caramel and printed chiffon V-neck tops with lace trim from Sienna Rose.

Lastly, the retailer picked up lacy tanks and layering T-shirts from G. Wheels in black, beige and white.

Business, she said, has been “OK. I was already feeling it last year,” she said. “And I’m not finding it too much different this year.”

In turn, Meisel said she widened her assortment, buying new lines of accessories and adding more clothing. “Now I can do multiple sales,” she said. “When they buy an outfit, I can suggest a purse.”

Overall, the economic climate may be tougher for newer stores, McCullough said. “For stores that have been around a while, they’ve been through this before,” she said. “I don’t think people are going to stop buying clothes, period. But business is tough for everyone. We all have to work smarter.”

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