By  on March 26, 2009

Like their counterparts across the country, Midwest retailers and vendors will enter Saturday’s Stylemax, the region’s largest women’s apparel market, with tempered expectations.

“They tell me ‘even’ is the new ‘up,’” quipped Susan McCullough, senior vice president for apparel for Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. “Nobody’s going to write the same amount of orders they did last year. We’re all living in a new reality. We’re just trying to get through this year. Everyone’s just trying to hang on.”

Early predictors, including the number of booked hotel rooms and vendors registered, are tracking as expected, said McCullough about Stylemax, which runs March 28 to 31 on the 7th floor of the city’s Merchandise Mart.

“We’re on par with last year,” she said, noting there has been no reduction of vendors, “but it’s a little bit of a wild card this year.”

The March edition of Stylemax is traditionally the largest of the year and this market coincides with the National Bridal Market Chicago, held on the Mart’s 8th floor.

In turn, McCullough expects retailers will turn out to shop. “They have to buy something somewhere,” she said. “People are just looking twice at things, which, as good business people, I think they should. What we’re hoping is that by fall, there will be pent-up demand.”

Not surprisingly, Mindy Kobusch, owner of Koastal Konnection showroom at Chicago’s Apparel Center, said labels with the potential for higher markups are moving well, particularly a lower-priced line of scarves from VSA, selling at wholesale for $6 to $11 and at retail for $26 to $38.

“My prices are sharp and even though the market is down, we’re getting reorders,” she said.

Still, Kobusch has had to work hard to keep business steady, traveling more and offering event-planning ideas to retailers. But at least she’s able to move product, she said, citing success with the designer-inspired Luii jacket line, which wholesales for $36 to $46; XCVI, a collection of poplin and French terry separates that wholesales from $34 for cropped pants to $55 for poplin blazers, and novelty tops from Mystery, which wholesale for $12 to $22.

Kobusch, like many others, declared the current climate is the worst she’s seen in her 30-plus years in business. Midwest specialty stores in more rural areas were hurt by the entry of big-box retailers like Target, Wal-Mart and others. Some of those in Michigan, home of the country’s struggling auto industry, have been unable to survive and closed.

She’s also concerned about the number of retailers canceling orders.

“We’ve had great shows,” she said, “where it looks good on paper and then you start getting cancellations due to poor business.”

Kobusch recommends that stores consider discounting merchandise that doesn’t sell within the first month to 45 days. “A lot of retailers hold on to the bitter end,” she said. “If it hasn’t sold in six weeks, put it on sale. At least then you’ll get some money back.”

For fall, she believes novelty tops and jackets will be the strongest sellers because they pair with what shoppers already own. “Everyone has jeans and their favorite black pants,” Kobusch said.

In response to the economy, specialty store owner Jessa Brinkmeyer added a vintage section this February to her eco-fashion boutique, Pivot, on West Fulton Market in Chicago.

Selections include previously worn blazers, printed blouses and handbags selling for $15 to $100, averaging about $40.

“Customers like the variety it adds,” said Brinkmeyer, who opened Pivot in 2007. Today, the shop stocks bamboo sweater vests from local designer Lara Miller as well as light organic cotton dresses and tailored jackets from Eco-Ganic.

Overall, prices run from about $35 for basic tanks to $350 for jackets.

Brinkmeyer, who plans to investigate new eco-friendly lines at Stylemax, said while people have been shopping less, the fact that her store carries clothes that are kinder to the environment remains a key point of difference she hopes will resonate with Chicagoans this spring.

“People are looking for pieces that are unique and meaningful,” she said. “And people have been pent up this winter. The warmer weather and change in seasons will bring people out.”

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