By and  on July 24, 2014

NEW YORK — Working hard pays off — just ask the specialty stores on the New York City trade show circuit this week.

Buoyed by decent spring business, independent merchants were in an upbeat mood as they visited the booths at Project, Liberty, MRket, Capsule and Agenda researching the trends and trolling for new vendors and key items for spring. By scouring the aisles and ferreting out unique pieces to tempt their customers, they hope to continue the momentum as the temperatures cool and fall goods hit the floors.

There was also talk at the shows about the growing potential for a unified men’s fashion week.

Among the most saleable items, they said, were soft, tailored clothing, accessories and footwear.

“Our business is pretty good,” said Rush Wilson 3rd of Rush Wilson Ltd. in Greenville, S.C. He pointed to Southern Tide, a local sportswear vendor, as among the store’s top performers. “They’re a hometown line and they’re poised to grow,” Wilson said, noting that he grew up with founder Allen Stephenson’s father and uncle in Greenville. “The line has great demand and has brought in a lot of new young customers. That’s how we attract the next generation.”

Other lines that are working include Peter Millar, he said. “We put in a Peter Millar Crown shop last October and it’s done very well,” he said. “We’ve always carried the line, but the business has grown along with the brand.”

Wilson admitted that sales this year are running a “little flatter” than last year, “but it’s still positive.”

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At the shows, he was “looking for a moderately priced dress shirt line. We have sport shirts coming out of our ears,” he said. He was searching for a brand with “a quality look and a little bit of fashion” that can retail for about $100 or less. “We have to make sure we have opening-tier merchandise that is not mundane,” he said. “And we’re always looking for the next thing — and you don’t know what that is unless you’re looking.”

Mike Zack of Circa 2000 in Plano, Tex., agreed. “We have to keep trying to be more creative,” he said. “We’re fighting things we didn’t have before.” That includes Web-only competitors as well as upscale retailers with their own outlets, such as Saks Fifth Avenue’s Off 5th and Nordstrom Rack, that “hurt our sale business.

“Our vendors are competing with us on the Internet,” he said. “But they don’t have rent or an electric bill to pay. So we’ve got to come to the shows to find something to replace these new competitors. We’re looking for things that aren’t footballed around.”

When he does find those special pieces, Zack said, shoppers respond. “Our customers are receptive. They’re not just looking for replacement clothing,” he said.

He said men today are “sportswear-driven,” and are looking for items such as soft sport coats that they can wear with jeans. “They’re almost disposable coats,” he said, “something around $495 that they can beat up. Then next season, I can sell them another.”

As a result, he was looking for soft tailoring pieces in that price range, along with socks and other accessories — strong sellers this year — which provide a nice uptick to business.

Zack said he was expecting a good fall, noting: “I think it’ll be OK if we can give them something comfortable and casual — we’ve been zip-mocked to death. There’s a lot of good stuff out there. We’ve found a lot of nice textures and fabrics. I’m spending my energy on finding new and different things.”

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Craig DeLongy of John Craig in Winter Park, Fla., said business has been so good in his area that he’ll add two more stores to his stable this fall. A unit in Jupiter, Fla., will open in October and a Bonita Springs, Fla., outpost will open before Thanksgiving, bringing his total number of units to eight.

“Business has been very good,” he said. “We had a great spring. Our inventories are in line and we’re real clean.” Standouts include made-to-measure, sport coats, knitwear and bottoms. Wovens, a category that had been “great for years,” is now flat. At the shows, DeLongy was looking for footwear and a woven shirt line that could reverse the downward trend. He especially liked Sebastian James’ lightweight cotton shirts, which he said were “unique.”

Tim Ryan of Harleys in Shorewood, Wis., also said business has been strong “despite the questionable weather in Milwaukee.” The “home run” of the season has been tailored clothing, which posted double-digit sales. “That’s good, because it’s my biggest investment,” he said, noting that with suit sales on the uptick, dress shirts and furnishings have also improved.

“We’re getting a younger guy shopping with us,” Ryan said. “The Millennial shopper is looking for trimmer fits from Hugo Boss, Luigi Bianchi, Zegna and others.”

At the shows, Ryan said he was searching for “something with some spark — the frosting. We need to have items that put a different twist on our presentation.” Specifically, his shopping list included woven shirts, sport coats, Peter Millar’s Pick Stitch collection and Riviera Red knit blazers.

“We think fall is going to be great,” said Ryan. “Ever since we moved our business in 2009, we’ve seen growth, and I don’t see that stopping.”

Elliot Rabin of Peter Elliot in New York City was also scouring the shows for “fun” items — “things that’ll grab people and are stimulating.” He bought knit bottle covers with wild patterns and sayings from North Carolina-based Freaker as well as grooming products from Das Boom Industries of Los Angeles.

Dan Farrington, general merchandise manager of men’s wear for Mitchells Family of Stores, admitted that current business is “tough. We’re finding it harder to get traffic in. There are no more sweeping changes in men’s wear, so we need to invent something new and find that great item. We’re at the end of the slim-fit cycle, which propelled us for a while. It’s all about the details now and we’re working harder for growth.”

Nevertheless, Farrington said he was still “bullish on bottoms,” particularly slim-fits, flat-fronts, five-pockets, trim cargos and slim dress pants. And soft jackets from the market leader, Boglioli, and others, are “also working, so we’re looking for more of that.

“Suits are trending better than jackets,” he continued, and he is “ready for a boom in knitwear.”

While there are challenges, Farrington said he believes fall will be strong. “The merchandise looks beautiful, but it will take hard work and educating the customer,” he said.

Kevin Harter, vice president for men’s fashion direction at Bloomingdale’s, said walking the shows in New York served as “a reinforcement of what we saw in Europe.” He pointed to the “indigo prints that were so relevant” and predicted that the “next big thing” will be sportswear that also works as tailoring. “That’s the big story,” he said.

The other big story for retailers was the relocation of several of the trade shows to one, more-convenient location. Agenda, MRket and Project all opted for the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center this time while Liberty showed at Pier 94, a short trip uptown. Capsule was the only holdout, remaining on the Lower East Side at Basketball City.

The cooperation among the shows also brought up the eternal question of a men’s fashion week in New York. For the past several years, the designers within the men’s wear industry who hold runway shows are becoming more vocal about the timing of the spring shows. The September time frame, they say, is right for women’s brands, but not men’s. As a result, top men’s designers including Michael Kors, Rag & Bone and Michael Bastian have opted to eschew New York Fashion Week to show their lines during men’s market in July when the retailers are in town and prepared to place orders. Ralph Lauren will show his spring collection in early August.

Tommy Fazio, president of Project, is at the forefront of the movement to create a stand-alone men’s fashion week. “We’re trying to unite the marketplace,” he said of Project’s decision to relocate to the Javits Center this time. Project also included the popular and more-upscale Tents @ Project platform in New York for the first time.

He said he was working with the city and the Council of Fashion Designers of America to create a separate men’s market week and hopes it can become a reality by next summer. “We’re working on how to market and banner it now,” he said.

“This is where the buying power is,” he said, “so why not see the collections here? I believe by next July we will finally see a unified men’s fashion week.”

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