By  on February 7, 2008

Economic concerns aren't dampening spirits as vendors get ready to head to Project.

A flagging economy and a tight trade show schedule are forces conspiring to put a damper on Project, scheduled for Feb. 13 to 15 at the Sands Expo in Las Vegas. But the show is bucking the odds with a robust marketplace of some 1,210 men's, women's and accessories vendors and strong retail pre-registration numbers, up nearly 42 percent compared with the August 2007 show, which drew 25,000 attendees.

Observers can attribute the show's resilience to its evolution. What started as a street-wise show focusing on premium denim and T-shirts has morphed into a showcase of apparel collections and designers in step with fashion's changing direction of smart, sharp and feminine styles. Just four seasons ago, contemporary darlings such as Trina Turk, Corey Lynn Calter and LaRok wouldn't have exhibited at the show. Now they're mainstays alongside this year's newcomers, including Vince, Gustto, Tocca, Imitation and Paul & Joe Sister, who are among the 300 women's brands accounting for 25 percent of the show.

"We're getting very good feedback on our women's brands," said Sam Ben-Avraham, founder and president of Project Global Tradeshow, which is owned by Advanstar Communications Inc. "It was really tough in the beginning to get them because Las Vegas never really offered these brands. Buyers never shopped Las Vegas — only New York and Los Angeles. Because of our international draw, we managed to get a few good brands and now we're getting more and more."

Such marquee players are helping Project stave off the effects of the country's fiscal woes. The once indomitable contemporary fashion world is no longer immune to a battered consumer who's trying to weather rising gas prices and mortgage payments. In Los Angeles alone, a smattering of leading-edge boutiques has shuttered in the past three months, and others are struggling.

It doesn't help that women's trade show competitor Coterie has scheduled its three-day event to end one day prior to the start of Project. To demonstrate its commitment to exhibitors attending both shows, Project officials plan to let them set up their booths through the night of Feb. 12, rather than requiring that setup be completed by 8 p.m. as in the past."We reacted quickly to this matter and people appreciate that," Ben-Avraham said. "We will be staying up all night to help them set up for the next day."

In Project's favor and symbolizing its growing contemporary influence, some retailers opted to forgo Coterie, such as M. Fredric, a men's and women's contemporary chain of 26 stores based in Agoura Hills, Calif., with locations in Calabasas, Studio City and other upmarket California communities.

"I can't manage to get to both, and I have to go to Project where I get more bang for my buck," said Fred Levine, co-owner of M. Fredric. "I have to buy men's and I can cover all my needs at Project."

Businesses exhibiting at Project aren't showing signs of scaling back their sales efforts. Ed Hardy is expanding its booth space from 7,000 square feet to 15,000 square feet. Los Angeles-based Salvage reports that sales doubled in 2007 compared with the year prior, so it's pushing ahead to expand its rock-influenced line of tops and tunics with more bottoms in crinkly fabrics and fur-lined hoodies. Salvage is boosting its booth space at Project by 50 percent to 1,500 square feet.

"It's business as usual," said Ben-Avraham. "It's not like we're hearing that booths want to downsize. Because of the economy, people need to stake a bigger presence and make sure retailers are watching them."

The show itself isn't trying to grow beyond its 540,000 square feet of space occupying Halls A and B for men's, accessories and footwear and Hall C for women's. In a quest to self-edit, there are perhaps only a dozen more vendors this season, a move that sits well with retailers who've complained in the past about the show's expansion. To maintain numbers, some vendors were let go. And the show repeatedly turns down requests for urban categories and cheaper price point merchandise.

"This year, it's about focusing and refining," Ben-Avraham said. "We don't want to grow the show. Vendors who've been with us at the beginning as well as retailers want us to keep the integrity of the show. We don't want to be everything to everybody."

Project's roots are in denim, a category that once dominated the buzz of the show and guaranteed new players every season. Now jeans account for about 15 percent of the brands, and Ben-Avraham cited Gustto, a San Diego-based line of handbags and denim, as among the new players showing at Project for the first time.What is on the rise is the number of exhibitors in ancillary categories choosing to exhibit at the show. Intimates will include the recently launched loungewear collection from Butterfly Dropout, a Los Angeles-based line of tops and dresses designed with burnout sublimation. Footwear includes New Balance Inside, Gola and Bensimon, as athletic and sporty shoemakers also embrace directional design aesthetics. NB Inside, which will also exhibit at the WSA Show in Las Vegas the following week, is the new lifestyle line of footwear from New Balance for women combining exterior fashion materials, such as metallic leathers, quilted materials and treated suede, with functional interior features. Wholesale prices range from $50 to $55.

For Gola and Bensimon, based in England and France, respectively, there's an even greater incentive to attend due to the dollar's fall compared to the pound and the euro.

Also sniffing out opportunities are international retailers who are flocking to the show and expected to account for 22 percent of total attendance. Harvey Nichols and Selfridges from London, Restir and Mitsukoshi from Japan and Loftet from Denmark are among the top-shelf global stores attending, along with domestic stores including Henri Bendel, Cusp, Anthropologie, New York-based Big Drop and Blue Bee in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Los Angeles-based Rails is among the lines looking for a jump on international business. "We're a newer collection and we want to open as many new doors as possible," said Jeff Abrams, president and creative director of the line, which offers embellished hoodies in cotton Modal.

There is no shortage of prognosticators to guess what types of sales the show will yield. Both vendors and retailers can only speculate on what's to come.

"They're only going to buy what they love," said Ruthie Emsallem, co-owner of Los Angeles-based Bailey 44, known for its rayon jersey day-to-night tops and dresses that sell at Intuition and Lisa Kline in Los Angeles and RevolveClothing.com. "They'll buy what's performed well and what's safe. They can't gamble as much as in the past."

Ali Fatourechi, creative director of Genetic Denim, a Los Angeles-based brand found at Scoop in New York and Ron Herman in Los Angeles, agrees. He expects to see risk-averse retailers shopping Project for fall. "They won't bring in as many new brands as they used to," he said.Other vendors are banking on retailers' quest for newness.

"I think there's still room for new things and retailers will want to try new concepts," said Joie Rucker, who's partnered with Michael Glasser and Planet Blue's owner, Lingsu Chinn, and buyer, Jen Rossi, for a new line of activewear made with Peruvian cotton, called Blue Life and already selling out at Scoop. "We need new excitement in the usual categories in the marketplace. People may not want another $500 dress, but sweats aren't such a stretch."

Rucker thinks "price is a driver" for retailers, which is why the line's wholesale priced from $20 to $80.

Others are forging ahead with more expensive goods. Gustto's steep wholesale price point ($120) for its wide-leg and skinny denim jeans with gold-plated back pockets defies the trend for lower-priced premium denim. Its handbags, made of snakeskin, quilted leathers and Italian PVC with retro details like large bows and nickel handles, retail from $500 for clutches to $924 for larger duffle styles at retailers such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Revolve Clothing.

Retailers say they appreciate such fashion direction at the market.

"I'm very optimistic by what I'm seeing in the market," said M. Fredric's Levine, who'll be looking for feminine looks, interspersed with lace and eyelet and color in tunics, jeans and knits. "I know that business may be very tough in 2008. That will be tempered by the great styling and newness and colors that are so phenomenal right now and are irresistible."

And, if the clothes at Project don't get buyers in the spending mood, maybe the parties and sponsorships will. Apothia at Fred Segal Melrose is sponsoring Project's VIP retail program, which is taking place at the Wynn Las Vegas. About 100 domestic and international buyers from key department, specialty and Web-based stores will be treated "like the rock stars that they are," Ben-Avraham said, with a fleet of private Escalades shuttling them back and forth to the show and a personal concierge at their beck and call. They'll be wined and dined with private breakfasts and cocktail parties at Wynn's nightclub, Blush, and receive goodie bags featuring the new coffee table book "Stylists, The Interpreters of Fashion," published by Rizzoli, and products from Apothia.Valentine's Day won't be all work for the industry. Tao Nightclub in the Venetian Resort Hotel Casino is the site of Project's party on Feb. 14, from 10 to midnight. DJ Vanjee starts spinning around 2:30 a.m. for the nocturnal set.

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