By  on February 7, 2008

NEW YORK — Ann Watson, vice president and fashion director of Henri Bendel for the last two years, knows what she wants.

Watson has the Bendel girl down cold. "She loves color and looking sexy, but with class," she said.

Henri Bendel, in business since 1895, is known for taking fashion risks by highlighting new designers. Watson, who had worked as senior director of retail for Starwood Hotels and Resorts, fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue and in merchandising at Neiman Marcus, said customers expect to walk in the store to find things they will not see anywhere else.

"We've always been about those special pieces,'' she said. "So I'm pretty confident that we will be fine" during the economic slowdown.

To stay ahead of her customer, Watson always has to have her pulse on the market. WWD accompanied her on a trip into the market to preview fall collections with a small selection of the designers she sells at the store. During her travels, Watson highlighted what she liked, what she didn't like and guided the designers through some necessary changes.

Stop 1: Nili Lotan

Designer: Nili Lotan

"Last season we did amazingly well with Nili," Watson said. "So now, I need to make sure we have enough jackets from her for fall. Also, we've really been trying to add more separates for fall. We are finding that dresses still do very well, but since our customer already has so many dresses in her closet, we want to make sure we have enough separates. Nili will be great for that."

Lotan's collection has evolved, Watson said. Bendel's first picked up a few pieces from the collection about four years ago, and each season with her keeps getting better. The jackets, she said, are almost always bestsellers. Today, Lotan has tons of jackets (all sampled in black) for Watson to see — a shrunken tailored blazer and a looser boyfriend blazer, a pea coat with ribbon detail and gold buttons and a military-inspired short jacket with a touch of down in the lining and tons of pockets."Wow, last season we didn't have enough jackets. Now we almost have too many to choose from," Watson said.

She asked Lotan if she could choose her linings for the jackets, since, especially in a recession, customers will be looking for that "emotional response, which a great color lining does."

Lotan was open to letting Watson choose the linings, but to a degree. "I don't like the red stripe at all, I want to rip it off I hate it so much," Lotan said.

"No, no, no, keep it. I really love it," Watson stressed.

Lotan agreed to leave it. At least for now.

"What about color? We need more color," Watson said.

Lotan led her to a bench, where she had piles of sweaters. It was her new line of cashmere knits, launching for fall. Watson loved the long bright orange cardigan and the shorter orange color-blocked cardigan. She also liked the tan, tissue-thin sweater, perfect for layering.

"These are beautiful," Watson said, trying on the shorter cardigan. "And I am in love with the color."

Lotan liked the ivory and tan better than the bright orange.

Overall, Watson seemed pleased with Lotan's collection.

"I would love to see Nili do some more color, since we are really about color at Bendel's," Watson said. "She does a lot of black, which is good, but just a little bit of color would be nice, also."

Stop 2: Tibi

Designer: Amy Smilovic

"I have known Amy for years and can always count on Tibi to have some great colors and great prints," Watson said, walking into the brand's new showroom at 666 Broadway in SoHo.

Watson immediately headed to the racks, as Smilovic explained her ideas for her Seventies-inspired fall collection.

"The economy is so poor now, so I really believe that we have to have those must-haves in the collection," Smilovic said as she took out a brown-and-white printed dress. The sleeves are long, the neck is high and the length hits just below the knees.Watson didn't like it. "Our girl will not go for that. It's too covered — if the neck is high, then the length needs to be shorter," Watson explained. "Some skin has to be showing."

Smilovic placed the dress back on the rack and picked out a solid, short-sleeve silk dress in bright purple. Watson liked this dress better, but still wasn't convinced it would work. After sifting through the rack, Watson picked a few things she did like — a cape coat, a silk chiffon pink paisley-print dress with ruffles in the front, a long silk gray-and-purple printed dress and a black-and-white shift dress with embroidered flowers. Then she saw a long-sleeve bright pink V-neck dress. It's was hit.

"See this dress? Now this is a great dress," Watson said as Smilovic listened. "I think that this will be a hit and we need to get better at building on those strong pieces. We could sell this dress in a huge selection of colors. When there is a great body like this, we really need to run with it."

On a table was the new collection of legwear — tights and legwarmers — from the Tibi for Hue collection, launching for spring. Watson was psyched.

"There is such a void for great legwear, I'm really, really happy to see this," Watson said. "It looks amazing."

Stop 3: Gryphon

Designer: Aimee Cho

"Aimee's taste level is so great, so I'm sure we will see some great things from Gryphon," Watson said.

Only about a year old, Gryphon's detailed trenchcoats have become Cho's signature pieces. Now backed by Theory's Andrew Rosen, Cho seems ready to move beyond coats, and has added a huge selection of belts to her fall line, along with a few key ready-to-wear pieces.

"Oh, yes," Watson said looking through the belts for the first time. "I love these — they are so cool, but we need them to be at a reasonable price. How will they retail?"

Cho said that, while she hasn't worked out her prices yet, she would ideally like to have them retail at around $100. Watson was thrilled, as she hasn't been able to find many good ones. She praised the leather belts with the large gold gryphons as the buckles.From the belts, Cho moved to show Watson the fall line.

"We are starting to add more rtw, but people are still coming to us for the outerwear, so it's still the major part of the line," Cho explained.

Cho picked out a black velvet jacket with a fake sequin vest attached to the inside, a raw-edged tweed jacket, a riding jacket, a floral-print metallic coat with fake fur trims and an allover fake fur vest. Watson watched Cho as she showed off each piece, barely chiming in.

"All I have to say is that I cannot wait for you to have a full collection because you will make the perfect T-shirt and the greatest bottoms to go under your coats," Watson finally said. "I can't even tell you how much I'm loving this collection. I need to see if I can get more money to buy things. It's really just beautiful."

After leaving Cho's studio at 80 West 40th Street, Watson couldn't stop talking about how much she liked the Gryphon line.

"Her attention to detail is just phenomenal and it's those details — beading, buttons, etcetera — it's those things that will sell her coats," she said. "I'm really so happy. It just gets better and better."

Stop 4: Alice + Olivia

Designer: Stacey Bendet

"I'm seeing a huge void for sexy tops for fall," Watson said. "I'm really hoping we see some at Alice + Olivia."

Walking into the showroom, also at 80 West 40th Street, Watson quickly reviewed her summer delivery before heading to Bendet's design studio in the same building. She ordered a floral-print silk top, a coral silk chiffon dress, some shorts and a skirt. Watson was concerned they didn't have enough, so she started pulling some more things — a knitted floral dress, a seersucker skirt and a white dress with coral and teal stones on the neckline. Watson hoped to get it in a top, instead of a dress. Then, Bendet walked in.

"I love summer. My inspiration was 'trippy country club,'" she said. "I was so inspired because I was designing summer and opening my Greenwich store at the same time. It just really seemed to work."Then it was off to Bendet's design room, where she had racks of clothes waiting. She started pulling things off — knit dresses, silk tops, high-waisted pants, jackets, hoodies — the variety seemed endless.

"Isn't this cute? It looks great with the bright blue belt," Bendet said of a black knit dress with an asymmetrical hem. "Oh! And this is so cute, too, I love this," she said pulling out a black-and-white leather jacket.

"Wow, Stacey, these are the best knits I think we've seen all day," Watson said. Bendet was already onto the next "supercute" outfit.

"One thing about Alice + Olivia is they are so easy to work with," Watson said as Bendet appeared to bury herself in clothes, occasionally coming out to show another sweater or dress. "They will go all out to make it happen, whatever it is."

Henri Bendel's Top Five Vendors

- Alice + Olivia
- Milly
- Anna Sui
- Nili Lotan
- Tibi

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