By  on April 4, 1994

NEW YORK -- In spite of lackluster business in jewelry and belts, accessories departments are blossoming with spring gains, with some stores showing percentage increases into the low 20s.

For a variety of fashion retailers, ranging from Saks Fifth Avenue on the high end to J.C. Penney in the more moderate market, handbags have been one of this spring's best classifications so far. Scarves, hats and sunglasses have also shown strength in the first quarter.

Meanwhile, many merchants identified jewelry and belts as the two biggest victims of ready-to-wear's current minimalist trends and unstructured, flowing fabrics.

At Saks here, handbags have been the top classification with double-digit gains, while belts while belts have been slowest, said Anne Keenes, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of accessories.

Handbag business is being driven by two influences, Keenes said -- casual and structured. The strongest showings have come from the DKNY, Louis Vuitton, Furla and Sharif lines.

Millinery business has also been fueled by soft, relaxed shapes, as well as more structured silhouettes, she said. A wig hat by Eric Javits has been a big hit.

"In areas such as hats and handbags, there seem to be extremes that are analogous to what we're seeing in ready-to-wear now," Keenes pointed out. "The merchandise is either very ladylike and proper, or very casual and unstructured."

Fashion jewelry, Keenes noted, has been somewhat soft, although she said business in bridge and fine jewelry has been trending up.

Gail Brail, accessories buyer for the Florida division of Jacobson Stores, Winter Park, Fla., said her overall business was up 23 percent over the same period last year.

Hats and hair goods, she noted, have been among the stars. Turnover in soft hair accessories such as headbands and bows, for instance, is up 40 percent. Whittall & Shon's wig hat, with a detachable hairpiece, has done so well that "we can't keep it in stock," Brail said.

Brail added that jewelry business has been steady, but noted that she had steered away from the trend toward small, understated pieces and gone with big, bold styles instead. "Price has been no object in jewelry," she said, naming manipulated metals, turquoise, silver and natural looks as the leading trends.In belts, however, she said her business has been down from a year ago, with the only decent action coming from narrow-width pieces and items that reflect the natural trend.

Jewelry has been a trouble spot for others, including Henri Bendel here.

"Our total accessories business is definitely up from a year ago, though it's not trending as far ahead as it should be, primarily because of slow jewelry business," said Rob Goldfarb, merchandise manager of accessories for Bendel's.

Goldfarb said that while jewelry was the classification hardest hit by the minimalist trend for him, "we have had a few bright spots in our private label sterling silver line."

Scarves, on the other hand, have been one of Bendel's best spring performers, led by one $38 private-label item in an open weave that sold out of the stores in two weeks.

"It's definitely true that good scarf business can affect necklace business, and I think we've been seeing that," Goldfarb said.

Bendel's has also been recording brisk turnover in hair accessories, hats and handbags, he said. Strong labels have included Colette Malouf in hair goods; Kokin, Eric Javits and Marina Killery in millinery, and Donna Karan, DeVecchi, Desmo and Furla in handbags.

Price resistance has not been a problem in these classifications, Goldfarb added. The average purchase price of hair accessories, for example, has been $55 to $60.

Simonetta Morrison, vice president and divisional merchandise manager for Bergdorf Goodman here, said her total accessories volume was up in double digits in March, following a slow February. Key areas have been handbags, sunglasses, scarves and hats; vendors Prada, DeVecchi, Desmo, Calvin Klein, Chanel, Oliver Peoples and Armani stood out as leaders.

Buying activity has been at both ends of the price spectrum, Morrison said. Items such as a $120 Robert Lee Morris bangle and a $200 Armani scarf have been checking out on the less expensive side, while an oversized classic bag by Chanel at $1,650 has been a bestseller on the higher-priced end.

Morrison said her store has seen some weakness in fashion jewelry, "although we expected it because of the ready-to-wear looks."The one exception, she said, has been a Giorgio Armani fashion jewelry collection that has posted a 50 percent sell-through since it recently hit the floor. One retailer seeing generally strong jewelry business is The Icing, Enfield, Conn. Dan Schuster, merchandise manager for the accessories specialty chain, said jewelry been his company's most stellar area.

"We really specialize in dressy, special-occasion jewelry, so spring is a naturally good season for us because of all the proms and weddings," Schuster said. "I know jewelry has really been downplayed on the runways and in fashion magazines, but we're just doing great with it."

The Icing's increases so far for spring have been in the high teens, Schuster said, and have been driven by handbags and the silver trend across all classifications, in addition to jewelry.

At Barneys New York, a handbag line by designer Henry Beguelin that retails from $525 to $1,200 has been one of the hottest sellers, according to Judy Collinson, divisional merchandise manager for accessories.

"It's a business we've built slowly over time," Collinson continued. "We started it off in our downtown store here and now we have a whole area for his collection in the uptown store."

Scarf designer Georgine von Etzdorf's silk devore line, which sells from $250 to $295, has moved well. So have hats in the $150-to-$400 range from various vendors, Collinson said. In addition, sterling silver jewelry in eclectic design motifs has been strong.

Accessories posted double-digit gains in January and February for J.C. Penney. March figures were not yet available. Anne Gravseth, merchandise manager for accessories at the Dallas-based chain, said handbags and sunglasses have been among the best-selling groups. The retailer also was one of the few that listed belts among the top categories.

"We've also been seeing some very big scarf sell-throughs in some of our stores, which bodes well for fall scarf business," Gravseth noted.

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