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New York — From J.C. Penney’s fluffy spa collection to J. Crew’s Italian cashmeres and Bergdorf Goodman’s column gowns worn with fox shrugs, retailers at all price levels will be wrapping themselves in luxury this holiday.

It could be “affordable” or “accessible” luxury, while others unabashedly say that what they’ve got is over the top. But the common thread has been developing a sophisticated, sumptuous holiday assortment this year, inspired by reports since last fall that have shown monthly sales gains are strongest at the high end.

For holiday, it’s been a process of adapting the key spring and fall trends and refining the looks with embellishment, vivid colors and festiveness. Retailers, regardless of their target customer, say they are concentrating on fur, leather, cashmere, brooches, romantic dresses, ponchos and creative and less basic private label products to set a luxurious and fun tone beginning around late October or early November, when the holiday presentations ease onto the selling floors.

Retailers also said pet accessories; health and wellness products, including smoothie machines and air purifiers; linens with high weave counts, and other home goods that provide a feeling of comfort, pampering and security, will be important, as will technology with a touch of fashion or color, like pink iPods.

Stores are up against good sales gains from a year ago, so they’ve put in double time planning the assortments to try to match or beat last year’s advances, and are determined to differentiate their products from the pack. The 2003 November-December sales period accounted for nearly a quarter of the year’s volume, according to the National Retail Federation.

Last December, same-store sales at Neiman Marcus rose 14.8 percent and at Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises 9.6 percent. But major U.S. retailers overall rose just 4 percent, according to Goldman Sachs.

Though they are loathe to specify their goals for holiday, particularly in a year of uncertain national and international politics, retailers sounded quite confident during previews of their holiday merchandise. “Consumers continue to be in a very good mood,” said Jim Gold, Bergdorf’s president and chief executive officer. “We have a product offering lined up for fall and holiday that we believe will keep them highly stimulated. We work very hard to exceed their expectations. We’re very strategic.” For example, “You may see an alligator bag in another store, but we’re willing to step up and buy an alligator bag in unexpected colors.”

This story first appeared in the July 29, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“We’re planning for continuing solid growth,” said Fred Wilson, chairman and ceo of Saks Fifth Avenue Enterprises. “We will have a more focused, more impactful statement, running through the store” that includes 60 percent more visuals than past seasons, and more of what he called “negative space,” or empty areas, to help the visuals stand out.

“We have really put a lot of effort into making J.C. Penney a gift headquarters. We’re confident we will perform well this holiday,” said Michael Cape, vice president of brand marketing. At Penney’s, “Affordable luxury is a great merchandise story for holiday,” Cape said, citing rabbit fur ponchos for $129.99, Worthington leather jackets for $199.99 and long leather gloves for $35. Penney’s spa collection includes Chris Madden signature bathrobes, pillows, towels and tub mats from about $14 to $50.

“We think the customer’s appetite for unique and exclusive product is the highest we’ve ever seen,” added Robert Burke, Bergdorf’s vice president and senior fashion director. “We’ve spent the year editing the assortment. We’re really focusing on very individual, one-of-a-kind gifts. Embroidering, embellishment in ready-to-wear, rich colors, like jewel colors, fur trim, fur accessories, are happening. It’s a ramped-up extension of fall. We’re taking from that and getting it far more focused for holiday with unique items.”

Among Bergdorf’s offerings are Vera Wang’s first daywear collection, which breaks the designer out of the bridal and eveningwear mold; Gucci handbags, where the customer can choose the fabrication and the color; Kara Ross Lucite jewelry with semiprecious and precious stones; Dolce & Gabbana hand-painted silk dresses with floral paintings, and Tory Birch Moroccan tunics with ornamentation and beading.

Bergdorf executives said not everything they offer for holiday is expensive, and that there is a good array priced below $100, such as Acqua Di Parma candle and incense sets, and a James the Doorman Christmas tree ornament that depicts the store’s doorman, who is stationed at the 58th Street entrance, where the limousines let out shoppers. That of course, is in contrast to the $18,000 J. Mendel mink capelet with rhinestone closure or the “moderate” priced Cassin fox shrug at $1,725.

The Neiman Marcus Christmas Book offers a wide range, from a David Yurman yellow gold diamond-encrusted watch with a mother-of-pearl dial and black satin strap, for $27,000, to Emilio Pucci signature print rain boots, priced at $100. “We’re offering brooches galore, ruby red Ugg boots, Paul Smith bright cashmere socks and accessories and Luella Bartley Italian leather and suede handbags with rivet accents,” said Ginger Reeder, vice president of public relations for NM Direct, citing some of the assortment.

“The opening price point is $18 for a men’s mouse pad with a miniature putting green, and the highest item will cost $10 million, but that’s a secret,” Reeder said. “We’ll reveal it on Sept. 28.”

Saks Fifth Avenue will be anything but understated. The Fifth Avenue flagship will cover its 40,000-square-foot facade with 20-by-20-foot snowflakes built from steel tubes and illuminated by Philips LEDs that are programmable to music. The snowflake motif will be integrated into the holiday packaging, shopping bags, catalogues and some merchandise, all of which is inspired by Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley, who pioneered snowflake photography in the Twenties.

Among Saks’ unique items are a crocheted snowflake dress by Tse Gold, $2,520; Ashleigh Verrier’s retro cashmere jacket with lace collar, $3,335, and Carlos Miele romantic, feminine dresses. “What we saw on the fall runways lent itself so well into holiday,” observed Colleen Sherin, Saks’ fashion market director. “There was opulence, fur, jeweled collars and jeweled buttons. Brooches are on everything, and there were rich jewel tones — purples, plums, amethyst, sapphire, ruby.”

She also mentioned fur accessories, fur hats and fur boleros, and said, “Slim column gowns worn with a fur shrug or bolero is a great evening look. We’re seeing that in bridge, contemporary and designer,” including Badgley Mischka, Carlos Miele, Carmen Marc Valvo, Chetta B and Laundry. “Cashmere is of course really important, as are knits with crystal trims or pearl cuffs. Ponchos are huge and we see them continuing into the holiday season. We have a great one with little snowflakes.”

Overall, the Christmas assortment is “more over-the-top this time around. There is more fur, jeweled details and color. It all started to sell a little last holiday. Now it’s full-blown.”

“There is so much more real fun,” said Stephanie Solomon, Bloomingdale’s operating vice president and fashion director for rtw. For one, “Private label isn’t as basic as in the past. We are a lot more adventuresome. We don’t normally offer as much novelty as we will this season, and there is greater collaboration between accessories and rtw,” with big cowlneck and chunky sweaters paired with matching scarves, and a new kind of twinset being offered — a cashmere cardigan with detachable dyed fox collars and cuffs, sold separately. “The twist is you can buy a collar and cuff, instead of a shell, to match your cardigan.”

With fur, Solomon said, “The attitude before was noncommittal. Now it’s okay to admit that you love fur.”

“We still feel cashmere is going to be big, particularly novelty cashmere,” said Kathy Bradley-Riley, senior vice president of merchandising at Doneger Group, the retail consultants and buying office. She also cited suede, leather, fur trim on sweaters and jackets, ponchos and velour for tracksuits and novelty jackets. “What stores really look to do is to take the best of what they planned for fall and transition it for holiday. They take the best and give it a new color palette,” Bradley-Riley said. With the stores that she consults with, “Everybody is looking at conservative increases.”

While luxury or the feel of luxury will be ubiquitous, “It means different things to different retailers,” explained Bradley-Riley. For a typical specialty store, it translates to cashmere and suede products. For an upscale Fifth Avenue store, it means brandishing luxury brands like Gucci.

“Luxury for us is cashmere,” said Tracy Gardner, J. Crew’s executive vice president for merchandising, planning and production. “We think there is cashmere, and there is cashmere. Cashmere can sound commoditized, but for us, cashmere is an obsession.”

She said Crew’s cashmere is being made in an Italian mill, but priced well with turtlenecks for $129. Crew will also offer a limited number of cashmere toggle coats with shearling trim for $1,500, as well as cashmere gloves and cashmere cardigans with Swarovski crystal buttons.

The offering has other dimensions, she added, citing blazers shown with jeans, beaded sequined camisole tops and lace dresses.

“There’s much more range this year,” Gardner said. “Customers want really beautiful quality and more of a range of product for their lifestyle. We’re about luxury, accessible luxury, from a glove in a yummy color, like mandarin, to 100 percent cashmere coats with shearling.”

“There’s cashmere-ization in the home, too,” declared Faith Popcorn, chairman of Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve, the marketing consulting company, meaning consumers are decorating their homes with soft, expensive sheets, expensive carpeting, fancy wall treatments and elaborate alarm systems for greater feelings of comfort and security, while minimalizing “external flash,” or fashion that screams brand with bold logos. “Look for the big spend to happen indoors,” Popcorn predicted. “The bling of the external flash is going to be diminished. Things will become more internal.”

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