By  on September 23, 2008

Despite last week’s financial scares and consumers’ ongoing concerns about the economy, attendees at two New York trade shows were surprisingly upbeat about business.

Exhibitors at Nouveau Collective at The New Yorker hotel and Designers at the Jumeirah Essex House said stores that were seeing increases seemed to be motoring ahead. Jeffrey Moss, sales director for Kevan Hall, an Essex House resource, said, “Yes, the Lehman Brothers debacle is bad for the whole economy, but everyone was working on a positive note. They were not holding back and were ordering as usual. They do have to have something to sell their customers no matter what. The customer we deal with is always looking and buying.”

A few stores at Nouveau Collective said they were trying to entice shoppers with sharper-priced merchandise, bright-colored clothing and more in-season offerings.

Veronica Sirpilla, owner of Laura of Pembroke, a Canton, Ohio, women’s apparel and furniture store, said, “People want to buy. They don’t want to feel deprived. Even though people with money are pulling back, they are still going to buy — if not from you from somebody else. But they don’t think twice about buying less expensive things.

Last year she introduced items that retail from $50 to $150, which has boosted sales and attracted new customers. The store continues to carry pieces that retail up to $695. Sirpilla said, “My business is phenomenal. A year ago I saw what was coming — anyone could who had half a brain. Even though I have a high-end store, I started buying some less expensive special items. Those pieces are flying.”

The fact that Laura of Pembroke also sells furniture has helped to maintain a steady stream of foot traffic in the store, said Sirpilla, who was shopping the show with her daughter Laura, who handles that side of the business.

Patricia Arbour, owner of the Artisan gallery in Northampton, Mass., was looking for blouses, pants and skirts but she had something specific in mind. “I’m looking for clothes for women 35 and up and that actually fit women’s bodies, as they age and that still have style and interesting fabrics,” she said. “Designers still don’t get it or want to get it regarding what shapes actually work.”

Marcella’s Sales, Color Me Cotton and BKg & Co. were a few of the show resources that appealed to her. Keeping retail prices at $200 or under has also helped business. She occasionally carries higher-priced items provided the fit is tip-top. “Women will go for that if it truly fits,” she said.

Kathleen Gerold, owner of BKg & Co., , an Islip, N.Y.-based company, said better store retailers were telling her they were experiencing year-to-date gains of 10 to 15 percent, adding that sales that were even with a year ago were the worst she had heard about. She noted that she met with 53 buyers on Monday alone, and picked up eight new accounts at the show.

“We’re American-made so we can turn around really quickly based on what’s happening in the stores,” she said. “We’re a happy line. We have a lot of bright colors and everything we sell retails for $100 or under. What’s happening is brights — autumn gold, persimmon and fuchsia, which a lot of people are pairing with charcoal bottoms.”

Anita Hughes, production manager for Iridium Apparel,said buyers weren’t airing their concerns about the economy, but they were buying more cautiously. Several were writing smaller orders and spread them out through the course of the year, as opposed to placing one large order in the beginning of a season.

Nylon items, especially a vest wholesaling for $49, were popular for their durability and easy-care characteristics, she said. Shoppers didn’t blink at the price, which was about 40 percent higher than most of Iridium’s tops, Hughes said. All in all, keeping attainable prices should help the brand.

Hughes and the company’s owner, Daphne O’Donnell, noticed that a lot of independent stores had closed in the past year.

Camille LaFargue, consultant for IC Collection, said retailers are buying closer to delivery and are “very pensive” about their buys. “They want to be sure, if that’s possible,” she said. “In the good days, we would have orders for next spring already. But they are still buying fall,” she said, gesturing toward a few buyers looking at fall jackets.

Three-piece outfits that wholesale for $89 were in demand at the show, LaFargue said. Having a strong reorder business due largely to the fact that everything is made in-house has been a plus, she added.

At the Essex House, Mark Heister executives met with 44 stores, the most the firm had seen at one show in more than three years, and many wrote orders on the spot, according to vice president of sales Linda Heister. Novelty-driven pieces were in demand, especially colorful taffeta opera shirts, organza blouses and mother-of-the-bride outfits. “Basic things didn’t sell,” she said. “But price didn’t seem to matter if the items were special,” noting that blouses in the $700 to $750 wholesale range were bestsellers.

Even though some stores indicated that last month’s sales were off, they were enthusiastic about the coming months. “I don’t have an explanation for it. They said fall business was OK. Maybe they were in a position where their stocks were low,” Heister said. “But they’re selling clothes so they feel comfortable. People who can afford to buy expensive clothes are affected far less [by the economy] than people who don’t have a lot of money.”

Kevan Hall clients were buying more short dresses than gowns, Moss said. Dressy day dresses such as iridescent taffeta ones and prints embellished with sequins were popular. “Our business is special event-driven,” Moss said. “These stores always have to have something new.”

That said, he acknowledged the economic shift underfoot. “We all were concerned. This is not something to take lightly. But at the same time, we have to keep going and we have to make it,” he said.

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