By and  on March 4, 2005

NEW YORK — Go ahead and merge.

That was the reaction from vendors and retailers at the Designers & Agents trade show  here to the combining of retailing giants Federated Department Stores and May Department Stores.

The show, which has grown significantly and was teeming with buyers, ended its three-day run at the Starrett Lehigh Center on Monday, the same day that news of Federated’s $17 billion deal to buy May rippled through Seventh Avenue.

This time, D&A featured 163 booths, up from 116 a year ago, while attendance shot up 42 percent to 2,625.

Viveka Willner, national sales director of Alvin Valley, was at the show exhibiting the designer’s contemporary line and was pleased with the traffic, which included a mix of new and familiar stores. “The biggest chunk of our business is specialty stores,” she said. “They’re the most loyal and stay with us.”

The largely independent retailers who shop the show for fresh contemporary lines that aren’t widely distributed position themselves as the antithesis of the mall and realize they can’t compete with department stores on price.

“It’s a different world,” said Toni Lehr, owner of Henry Lehr on Prince Street here, of the department stores. Lehr was at D&A hunting for early fall looks for her store, which specializes in casual fashions like jeans and T-shirts.

The rise on jeans has begun to migrate back toward the belly button — “Thank God,” she said — while jeans have also developed straighter legs. Lehr was also looking for basics to work back to denim.

“We always find one or two new vendors,” she said of D&A.

Stores like Henry Lehr have an edge over department stores, said Lehr.

“We know our customers,” she said. “Something comes in, we call them. We do shortening with our jeans. Boutiques have much better service than the department stores. The customer, she loves to shop here. People are very attentive here.”

As for the merger, she noted, “It doesn’t really matter who’s who in the department stores.”Mon Petit Oiseau designer Tracy Wilkinson, who was selling her line at D&A, noted, “The bigger they get, the more diluted everything gets. It just seems more bland.”

The sportswear line includes casual tops with drawstrings at the neck, printed and striped tops, as well as corduroy miniskirts. There were also lots of softer fabrics, heathered jersey, fine alpaca and terry cloth — “Lots of texture and surface interest,” she said.

My Little Bird, as Oiseau’s name translates into English, has lots of little avian touches and wholesales from $24 to $90, but on occasion ventures higher.

When Wilkinson makes a look that’s more expensive, such as status jeans, she said she gets “no resistance whatsoever” from her roughly 200 accounts.

Overall, the show zeroed in on a few key looks, including cropped pants, T-shirts and embellishments such as embroidery.

Simple, classic pieces in soft fabrics like cottons and cashmeres were favorites. New designer Alexander Wang showed a 22-piece fall collection of sweaters and a few basic baby-doll dresses. Sweater styles ranged from plunging V-necks to retro-classic and cropped cardigans, henleys and hoodies, both in heavy and lightweight cashmere. 

The basic T-shirt was also popular, with small variations and embellishments. Love This Life designer David Culiner had cotton tanks and T-shirts with inspirational quotes as well as a few tracksuits mixed into his line.

Arts and Crafts elements, such as patchwork, quilting and hand appliqué, were another big trend at D&A. London-based line West Village featured great circle skirts with floral and leaf felt appliqués that had that homespun look.

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