By  on August 25, 2008

Despite concerns about the economy and the changing buying patterns of even affluent customers, WWDMAGIC — now in its 75th year — continues to show a strong appeal to a wide swathe of women’s retailers. Buyers still consider the seasonal pilgrimage to Las Vegas a must to find upcoming trends, suss out new ones and seek out new suppliers. But retailers say that if there’s one thing they’ve learned from WWDMAGIC, it’s to keep their expectations open.

Erin Wahl, the senior buyer for Aritzia, a Vancouver-based retailer with 29 stores in North America, has a long list of items on her must-have list: “Blazers, high-waisted shorts, high-waisted skinny denim, leather, photographic prints on Ts, lots of body-conscious styling, bustiers, bodysuits, tight skirts,” she said, noting that she always ends up crossing off items and adding to the list depending on what she sees there — which is part of her plan. “A big reason to go is research,” she said. “I’m always looking for something new.”

Wahl has found that the brands at WWDMAGIC appeal to what she calls Aritzia’s lifestyle customers: younger women who “are fashionable, but want to be comfortable, too,” who are shopping for the medium- to high-priced clothing and accessories she finds at the show. She estimated that 60 percent of the stores’ inventory comes from WWDMAGIC.

Other retailers also said that, while they might have very specific items on their lists, they try to be flexible and receptive to new trends and ideas.

“Honestly, I’m the least loyal buyer,” said Chloe Dao, the second-season winner of “Project Runway” who attends WWDMAGIC to help stock her Houston boutique, Lot 8.“I always have to look and see what’s fresh.”

This season she’s looking for “anything that’s not a bubble dress. We’re definitely thinking fierce, slinky, sexier for fall.” She’s also looking for items she doesn’t design herself. “Interesting skirts, because that’s a good piece I think my customers have been missing. Really nice tops,” said, adding that in recent years she has seen prices double or even triple in some cases. Still, she feels that the price points are reasonable compared with the lines showing at trade shows such as Coterie and Intermezzo. WWDMAGIC is “so massive, you have to find something good. It’s our main show,” she said.

For Shane Breeden, co-owner of Bamboo Sky in Honolulu, cost is also a factor. He noted that he is seeing more resistance to clothing priced above $200 and he anticipates that suppliers, feeling the same constraints, will have more lower-priced offerings. “I’m definitely expecting some price discounts,” he said.

His goal this year is to find more reasonably priced pieces and lines for customers who have stopped spending as much per purchase without diluting his store’s core looks: tops, in which the store does a brisk business; vests, and layered dresses. Denim, he has noticed, has cooled considerably.

Breeden finds visiting WWDMAGIC useful for networking purposes, as well. “Even if it’s not completely necessary for us to go on a buying trip, we just like to stay in the loop and see what’s out there,” he said.

While WWDMAGIC reflects the industry’s preference for a younger, more fashion-forward customer, retailers who serve older customers still find it useful. Karen Moeller, co-owner of La Contessa in Tucson, Ariz., whose customers are in their 40s and 50s, has watched the industry’s focus on an increasingly younger audience with concern, but she still expects to find sportswear with “color, excitement, something new, but not too out there — something that’s going to fit the American figure, that’s not too short, too low or too skimpy in the middle.”

Guy Zornick of Village Set in Highland Park, Ill., a suburb in Chicago’s exclusive North Shore area, cited the need to stay competitive even within the age bracket of his 40- to 60-year-old customers, as his boutique is surrounded by more than a dozen stores. “There’s enough vendors at MAGIC that we can find a great line and get a few seasons out of it before everyone in the world has it,” he said. Although he never knows what he’s going to find, Zornick is hoping to see new lines in tops, pants and sweaters. But even his upscale customers are balking at prices for European goods, and he plans on sticking mainly to American brands, at least for sportswear. “That makes it a little harder for us, because we want to be different,” he said.

For most retailers, WWDMAGIC’s massive size allows them to do a great deal of buying with a manageable amount of expense, effort and time. Retailers pointed out that having so many vendors under one roof is convenient, with the growth of the show now bringing in more manufacturers from New York and Europe. “We can just see so much in a couple of days,” said Zornick, pointing out that he can usually fit in only a few vendors a day on a trip to New York.

The cost of travel is another concern. “We want to spend our money to travel to one place,” said Moeller, who added that hotel rooms in Las Vegas are less expensive than in New York or Dallas, where she also travels.

Retailers have in some way or another tailored their expectations to the uncertain economy, but few espoused gloomy doomsday predictions. Bamboo Sky’s Breeden noted that he plans to buy enough until the next WWDMAGIC show, but not really beyond that. “We never know what’s coming down the pipeline,” he said.

“It’s definitely more serious this year,” said Dao. “Everybody’s watching their budget, so it’s going to be much more calm. Buyers are much more careful with what they’re buying. Even me, I’m usually much more carefree — I’m much more cautious this year. But at the end of the day, we still have to fill the store.”

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