By and
with contributions from Tyler Everhart, Ariel Sayre
 on August 19, 2013

Across more than a dozen trade fairs opening today in Las Vegas, hundreds of apparel and accessories vendors are vying to prove to retailers why they deserve their tightly managed dollars.

Stretching from WWDMAGIC and FN Platform held at the Las Vegas Convention Center to newcomer Liberty at the Sands Expo Center to Project, Pool, MAGIC Men’s and ENK Vegas at Mandalay Bay, exhibitors are jockeying to show how they integrate points of differentiation with value and style.

“In an age of information overload and of all things being homogenized, the sharper and more differentiated you can be with products that serve a purpose is a pretty successful formula,” said Ryan Hurley, creative director of Hurley, the $260 million action sports brand that’s owned by Nike, who said the brand strives for that high value-to-quality ratio.

Indeed, it appears that value has been the buzzword of the decade, perhaps to the chagrin of the apparel industry. In a recent survey conducted by market research firm WSL Strategic Retail, 69 percent of shoppers have not increased spending in categories that they cut back during the Great Recession of 2009. Many are also sticking to the money-saving tactics they adopted during the difficult economy, WSL said. As a result, makers and merchants must figure out how to grow sales in light of what has become the new normal.

“People are so stuck in the mind-set of being in a recession [that] it’s hard for them to get out of that,” said Judy Dermer, national sales manager at Miracle Body Jeans, which is showing at Stitch. “There are signs everywhere that things are definitely better. The [stock] market is up. The real estate market has improved drastically. There are signs that money is out there but people are hesitant to spend it.”

Some designers like the challenge of working in such an environment and as a result have thrived. Sam Ku, creative director at AG Adriano Goldschmied in South Gate, Calif., said sales in “2013 will end up being double digits over 2012.” Looking ahead, he expected that a revamped tops line spearheaded by new design director Mark Wiesmayr for next spring will fuel higher growth through 2014.

“You don’t want your population spending so recklessly; you want them to make considered purchases,” said Ku, who is one of the denim anchors at Project. “It makes brands and designers be on their game as well. If we know there’s less spending on clothing, we have to be sharper on our designs.”

Jeff Abrams designer and chief executive officer of Rails Clothing, an ENK Vegas vendor, said over the course of 2013, business has steadily increased, particularly entering the fall season.

“Consumers are buying more consistently than they were last year, even while keeping a value-conscious mentality. We are providing high-quality products, and there is always a strong market for premium goods, especially if they are priced competitively in the high-end market. The outlook for the next six months can be very strong. It is really on manufacturers to deliver good product. Consumers are there.”

Michael Scott, president of sales at Driftwood Jeans, said that at ENK Vegas, “We’ve developed a museum-type small capsule of embroideries. We are known for our treatments, and our prices are low — we are trying to bring down the market to a price that’s affordable for everybody. With the economy the way that it is, when a woman is out shopping for a pair of jeans, if jeans are $288, she has to think about it. If it’s $98 or $108, there’s no decision making, it’s an automatic purchase.”

Daniella Clarke, creator and founder of Frankie B., also at ENK Vegas, said the past year has been “focused on growing our global and domestic distribution. Strong relationships with major department stores like Bloomingdale’s and opening an in-store shop with Kitson has been and will continue to be key for us.”

Other growing fashion brands include Moods of Norway, which is wholesaling its men’s line at Project. It has more than doubled its U.S. business this year from last year. Field Scout, the Los Angeles men’s line that is exhibiting its American-made goods at Liberty, projected that sales for spring will be 30 percent higher than last year. Filson, the outdoor outfitter from Seattle that’s also showing at Liberty, has recorded sales growth of 25 percent every year for the past three years. For young contemporary brand BB Dakota, which has a knack for feminizing trends such as Nineties nostalgia and steampunk, reorders are showing at least a 20 percent surge from last year.

“Last year, reorders just weren’t happening,” said Gloria Brandes, ceo of Costa Mesa, Calif.-based BB Dakota, which is participating at WWDMAGIC. “It wasn’t our product — people liked our product. There wasn’t money. This year, things are selling. People are optimistic. Holiday bookings are way ahead. I can say, for the first time in a while, things are better.”

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Ted Baker, showing at Project, is experiencing double-digit growth, according to Patrick Heitkam, executive vice president of wholesale and licensing. “We have an amazing one-two punch with retail, and we are doing really well with e-commerce.

“Men are embracing new fit and silhouette and color and detail, people are really responding to the value and the authenticity of the brand and embracing wearing color and layering things in interesting ways.”

Stores, he said, are looking for “great cuts and attention to detail. We have a great mix of edgy and traditional pieces. It allows men to wear it in their own way and create great style.”

As for spring trends, Ted Baker is showing updated classics along with some edgier pieces. Style cues come from the Orient Express, like geometric patterns inspired by Turkish mosaic tiles and tropical motifs with flashes of vibrant colors such as cobalt and mustard.

Michael Ardelean, merchandiser for Alternative Apparel, showing at Project, said this season the company created six unique fabrics and 22 styles using one single proprietary organic yarn. “By increasing our commitment to quality and sustainability, we aim to enhance our relationships with our core fans, and make some new ones. Our growth will come from our new categories like woven tops and bottoms, but will always be anchored in our heroes: the hoodie and the T.”

Mitchell Lechner, president of the dress furnishings division at Phillips-Van Heusen, which is showing multiple brands and categories at MRKET, noted color was a driving force in several categories, with blues leading the way in dress furnishings, “from chambray and denim-inspired to lagoon blues, turqs and teals. Prints are gaining traction and provide added dimension in neckwear, shirtings and underwear.”

The top shape in neckwear is hovering around three inches, he said, while bow ties and pocket squares are still performing very well. “In dress shirts, collar stories are really gaining momentum with new collars like the tab, cut-away and tie bar all being offered in proportions for today’s silhouette.”

Sales are better, too. With the exception of juniors, annual sales of accessories, jeans and sportswear are either holding steady or ticking up through May 2013, according to The NPD Group in Port Washington, N.Y. The market research firm said sales of men’s and women’s jeans priced $50 and higher were consistent, with growth of 0.5 percent, at $2.05 billion, while women’s sportswear rose 2.6 percent to $102.06 billion and men’s sportswear climbed 1.8 percent to $49 billion. Accessories continued its growth with a 4 percent increase to $9.15 billion. On the other hand, juniors sportswear dropped 2.7 percent to $12.26 billion.

The U.S. Department of Commerce reported that sales in clothing and clothing accessories stores grew 3.6 percent to $114.7 billion in the six months ended in June.

Sometimes, the strategy for growth involves an initial contraction. After shrinking Moods of Norway’s wholesale base 18 months ago to focus on better specialty stores, George Santacroce, ceo of its international business, introduced footwear to Nordstrom last spring. Its collection for next spring is the first created with Keanan Duffty, who’s worked with Gwen Stefani’s L.A.M.B. and Ben Sherman, as a global design consultant. Now the brand aims to grow its presence in department stores and specialty retailers, as well as expand to Russia and Asia next year. Moods of Norway is showing at Project.

Footwear designer Calleen Cordero, showing at ENK Vegas, added, “The business is changing, [so] I’ve decided to make the change of not selling to high-end department stores, but instead sell to designer boutiques. People want something that is new but don’t want to spend their money on something frivolous. I also do custom shoes so my product looks different for every store.”

Innovation is key. At Agenda, Hurley, based in Costa Mesa, Calif., is highlighting new $150 men’s boardshorts in its Phantom Block Party Fuse series, which has a perforated Neoprene waistband that feels like a second skin on surfers. It’s also incorporating technology from parent company Nike into a women’s activewear line called Beach Active that launched for fall, as well as a $50 women’s thong sandal that mimics walking on bare feet.

Rozae Nichols, designer at Clover Canyon (ENK Vegas), is expanding the collection assortment with full-fashion knitted styles, innovations with printing techniques, and is expanding into swim for spring.

Adrienne Lofton Shaw, Dockers’ chief marketing officer, said male consumers are looking for trend-right apparel more than ever, and for the first time are really paying attention to the details.

“Innovation, newness and versatile style is a must in this ever-changing retail landscape,” she said. “Two key offerings at Project from the Dockers brand will be our FlyWeight and Alpha Collection, which launches this fall. It’s a head-to-toe assortment created for the Millennial consumer and inspired by our popular Alpha Khaki pants introduced in 2011. In addition to adding tops to complete the look, we’ll introduce two new fits — the Skinny Tapered and the Standard Tapered — to the already existing Slim Tapered fit in the Alpha Khakis line.

“FlyWeight is our seasonal offering intended to offer stylish choices for the warm-weather months and markets. These are lightweight, breathable cotton products offered in our core and popular styles.”

It’s also important for designers to provide exclusives, whether it’s a unique print or an item available only at a certain store.

Among the women’s trends are exotic looks, bright colors and tribal or ethnic themes.

Los Angeles’ Kenny Clothes is working lightweight fabrics and vibrant prints into a siesta theme. “Even though I cut and sew everything in my factory in downtown [Los Angeles], I design all my fabrics that are made in Mexico City or Guatemala. You don’t see my prints in the mass market,” said designer Lindsay Sternberg, who is taking Kenny Clothes to Capsule. Moreover, she acknowledged that creating an exclusive item benefits both the store and the consumer. “It’s special to know that if you’re buying something from a specific retailer you love, you know you’re not going to see it everywhere.”

Designer Trina Turk said, “We see a continuing move toward feminine casual, that is ‘wear now,’ and appropriately priced.” At ENK Vegas, she’s offering a strong print presentation that ranges from photographic to geometric to hand-drawn. The palette is sun-bleached, and among the offerings are a “washed Tencel chambray group, jumpsuits, rompers, matched total look sets, a fresh dress selection, discreet touches of skin through sheer fabrics, cutouts, cropped lengths in tops and sweater and bralette tops.”

Rachel Evans, owner and head designer for Mink Pink, and designer Chan Luu, both showing at ENK Vegas, are also going tribal/ethnic.

Evans said key spring trends include “Mayan and Aztec, techno-hippie, teen spirit Nineties grunge and Cali-cool — kimonos and playsuits, very lifestyle and festival dressing. Also mix-and-match denims, slashed denim pinafores and updated boyfriend shapes.”

Luu noted, “I travel extensively for inspirational ideas, and they are mostly related to culture and art history. My last trip was to Santa Fe, New Mexico, visiting Georgia O’ Keeffe’s world at Ghost Ranch, which really inspired me to design a new collection around Native American Indians. My latest collection will have a Native American flair.”

Also at ENK Vegas:

• Calvin Rucker’s theme for spring is “ballerina military,” said its founders and designers, Caroline Calvin and Joie Rucker. “The concept continues our casual couture look of “refined with the rough,” and inspires new designs in alternative bottoms, tops, dresses and denim innovations.

• Denim is a constant trend, and Black Orchid designer Julien Jarmoune looks to capitalize on it with traditional blue jeans as well as a variety of bold colors, shades of gray and a soft palette of pastels and neutral pieces. Prints include animal, tie-dye-inspired and marble, while silhouettes include the zipper skinny, high-waisted skinny, capri and cropped biker styles. Black Orchid will introduce denim button-down shirts in various washes and studded embellishment, outerwear options including denim jackets and leather quilted moto jackets.

• Laurel Berman, designer and founder of Black Halo, said, “For spring, we are expanding the Black Halo Eve evening wear collection to include pop colors, new textures and fabrics.” She’s bringing “interesting bottom weight fabrics with various textures offered in two-piece dressing, plus lots of new softer bodies — both categories are new to Black Halo.

• Gorjana Reidel, founder of Gorjana & Griffin accessories, is launching a Web site in conjunction with its fall collection launch today.

“The accessories market is thriving, [with] healthy growth across the entire industry, particularly in men’s accessories,” she said. The brand also introduced a men’s line, Griffin, last fall. “The consumer is looking for value, not in the traditional sense of pieces being inexpensive, but value in knowing and feeling that a brand is delivering more than just a product.”

Key trends for both collections are about “going West — for Gorjana, that translates into flowers, landscapes and muted tones while incorporating patterns and textures into the pieces. For Griffin, it’s into more grit and found objects. If you were traveling from Colorado to California, all the elements of inspiration from nature to color is what you will see incorporated in all categories across the collections.”

To stay in business, apparel brands must adapt to changing times and markets. Liberty vendor Filson, 116 years after its founding, introduced a new cut dubbed the Seattle fit that falls slightly closer to the body with a higher armhole. The Seattle fit complements the roomier Alaska fit that hunters and fishermen prefer for layering when outdoors. The response for products such as a $375 cotton scout jacket with waterproof soy wax coating in the Seattle fit has been positive.

“We believe that [Seattle fit] is going to increase our apparel business in specialty stores,” said Filson ceo Alan Kirk, noting that its specialty retailers include Union Made, Steven Alan and American Rag Cie.

In the end, designers face the task of whipping up a piece that will move a shopper to spend. Ryan Hartman, Field Scout’s creative director, believes it’ll be a $399 moto-inspired vest that mixes different fabrics such as lightweight shirting for the lining, twill on the shell and leather to trim the shoulder, back yokes and welt pockets.

“People are still bargain-hunting for basics for everyday wear,” said Hartman, who is also showing at Liberty. “People still want to be inspired with their purchases. They want something that will open their wallet.”

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