By  on October 25, 2007

ATLANTA — Buyers in the Southeast, challenged by summer heat lingering into late October and concerned about the economic impact of the housing slowdown, shopped AmericasMart more for immediate deliveries than major spring commitments.

Buying cautiously, they focused on prices and new takes on current bestsellers, with Sixties-inspired shapes, bright colors, bold prints and dresses leading the way.

The event, which ran Oct. 13-16, had no shortage of product. The women's, children's and accessories markets combined with the Alpha men's wear show. Seventy percent of Alpha exhibitors showed urban and streetwear lines, and Alpha included a personal appearance by LL Cool J, the latest rapper to launch a clothing line, called Todd Smith, his given name.

The market also launched a new jewelry floor, Fire and Flash, a 20,000-square-foot temporary exhibit devoted to bridge jewelry and anchored by Scott Kay, a Teaneck, N.J.-based fine jewelry line that is expanding its Southeast specialty store base with more sterling silver and men's product.

Premiere, another temporary exhibition, expanded to record capacity, with 187 booths and about 300 lines. The New York-L.A. Co-op, a collective of contemporary showrooms on the ninth floor, also opened a new addition this market, growing to 10,000 square feet, with 30 showrooms and an estimated 90 lines.

Officials said total attendance, including buyers and exhibitors, was up significantly compared with last October and this year's previous markets, but did not provide figures.

Dresses and tunics continued to be a hot category with trapeze and A-line shapes in bright colors and bold abstract prints for spring. Jackets and lightweight coats were also key items in cropped silhouettes or new longer shapes. Many buyers searched for alternatives to denim, such as high-waist cotton and twill trousers. Fabrics were important to Southeast buyers, who always need lightweight, year-round choices. Retailers said bamboo and other eco-friendly fabrics are rising in importance among consumers.

Contemporary exhibitors in the New York-L.A. Co-op reported good traffic and sales. Carlos Marin, principal of the CX2 contemporary showroom, said he worked 30 accounts in two days, and has more than doubled business in the Southeast during the past two years.However, the weather and housing market influenced buying patterns. Even retailers who reported strong sales increases said they were buying with sharper pencils and were managing inventory more carefully than in previous seasons.

"The energy in the market is off," said D'Arcy Achziger, vice president of Elliott Lauren, a New York manufacturer of bridge sportswear. "We've become as dependent on the weather as farmers. Spring was cold, October is hot and retailers are coming in asking for off-price on merchandise that hasn't even sold full price yet. The industry needs to rethink seasons according to the weather and buyers' needs."

Retailers confirmed the weather's influence on business. With October temperatures in the 80s and customers demanding buy-now, wear-now goods, Terri Hill, owner of Dakota J's, a specialty store in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood of Atlanta, bought immediate deliveries of lightweight fabrics such as jersey knits for layering pieces to stretch into year-round wear.

For holiday, she purchased cropped jackets and cocktail dresses in trapeze and tunic shapes by Max and Cleo and To the Max. For her trendy, young customers, she searched for lines to retail at less than $100.

"We want to get in and out of trends, with reasonably priced items and lines that we can mark up, and not be stuck with big markdowns when the trend is over and showing up in Target," Hill said, citing BB Dakota's coats, priced at less than $50 wholesale.

She bought brightly patterned silk headbands by Head Dress and leather and fake leather handbags by Art Effect, which are examples of special items intended to attract her primary base — a destination weekend shopper.

Kim Doherty, the owner of Details, a specialty store in Alpharetta, an Atlanta suburb, shopped for a range of product, sampling key items from about 50 resources. Based on a sales boost of 15 percent in 2007 after a move to an affluent neighborhood, Doherty increased her budget 18 percent compared with last year. With a customer base of loyal repeat shoppers, she kept individual clients' preferences and sizes in mind while purchasing casual sportswear items for immediate deliveries into the cruise season.

"Customers...come in [for] buy-now, wear-now clothes, so we offer lots of novelty tops to throw over jeans or black pants and wear at night," Doherty said.For holiday, she bought embellished cocktail dresses and jackets from Max and Cleo, To the Max and Trapeze. For customers who have started to demand eco-friendly fabrics, Doherty picked up bamboo and other organic fabrics from Sworn Virgins and other resources.

Doherty always buys a handful of core lines, including Nally & Millie, Free People, Ivy Jane and Michael Simon, and also scoured the market for new lines, picking up Zuccaro. Although her overall business is strong, Doherty said the real estate market downturn, while not as severe in Atlanta as other regions, has begun to affect the disposable incomes of customers who work in real estate-related professions. The slump has hit Florida retailers especially hard.

"Realtors and all service industries, including local restaurants and other businesses" are feeling the impact of lagging home sales, said Lorry Eible, owner of Foxy Lady, a boutique in Sarasota, Fla.

After a slow second quarter, Eible's October business picked up, boosted by more direct customer contact, service and more cautious, sharper buying.

"I'm working harder, shopping for items, sharper price points and lines that aren't in [our competitors'] stores," she said. Eible added consumers have responded well to the "bubbly, colorful, edgy, Mod" offerings.

For spring, she bought bright tunics and day dresses from Joyous & Free, Marisa K and Norma Kamali, and evening looks from Nicole Miller, Tadashi and Dina Bar-El. To augment denim, which has slowed, she ordered cotton novelty pants with embellishment from Da-Nang and other lines.

Denim has also lagged for Bob Nemer, who with his wife, Martha, owns three Nashville stores: The Cotton Mill Collection, The Cotton Mill Lifestyle and a Nicole Miller boutique.

"Denim lines are evolving, offering more variety in washes and fabrics, such as linen blends and colors," Nemer said. "It's no longer a matter of just one trend."

David Gore and Seth Kloss, who are opening a 3,000-square-foot store called Drew Lewis in midtown Atlanta next month, shopped for the hippest contemporary lines for men and women. Gore bought Seventies-inspired abstract and floral prints, bright colors and jacquard textures, in dresses, tunics, tanks and high-waist trousers by Biba, Alexander Wang and C by Chloé.

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