By and  on August 25, 2011

LAS VEGAS — It’s all about the new — and the old.

That was the word from the Las Vegas shows here the last few days, where the common message was that the uncertain economy means opportunity for agile brands and retailers if they can offer innovative products. But they also have to maintain a lasers focus on basic principles, including inventory management, optimal merchandise allocations and effective replenishment programs.

“You have to keep trying new things and creating compelling new product,” said Jeff Lubell, chief executive officer of True Religion Apparel Inc.

However, the cascade of negative news about the economy is having an impact on the retail climate, said executives.

“People are being cautious but I think it’s more a reaction to all the bad press about the economy than actual business,” pointed out Ari Hoffman, ceo of Gant USA. “I think people are anxious but there hasn’t been any panic.”

Steve Birkhold, ceo of Devanlay US Inc., the Lacoste apparel license holder, agreed, noting that sales at the newly renovated Lacoste flagship on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue have been triple those of the former flagship space. Nevertheless, sales dipped during the weeks of the huge fluctuations in the stock market due to the downgrade of U.S. debt.

“In any down market there are people who want to spend money on clothing,” said Jeff Rudes, ceo of J Brand. “I’m focused on that and not so much on what’s going on beyond our four walls.”

Many brands said they were enjoying their best year of sales, such as AG Adriano Goldschmied, which is up 38 percent this year over 2010; G-Star which is up double digits this year in the U.S., and Hudson Jeans, which is up 50 percent over 2010.

“Let’s not use the economy as an excuse. This is an environment that you differentiate yourself in,” said Peter Kim, ceo of Hudson Jeans. “You have to focus on the basics: infrastructure, inventory, budgets and staffing. Sometimes in good times you can get sloppy but in this environment you can’t get lazy.”

“Business now can be difficult, spotty and challenging — but it can also be exciting,” said Arnold Zimberg, president of Arnold Zimberg. “There’s nothing wrong with a challenge. It keeps people on their toes. Retailers need to step out of their comfort zones, find newness and buy it — not just look at it. It’s actually easier to be a risk taker during harder times because you have no choice.”

“Retailers are slightly nervous but they’re still buying,” said Ronny Wurtzburger, president of Peerless Clothing USA. “They know if they don’t, they won’t be in business. It’s not the end of the world; the good brands will always sell.”

He said most retailers are “not gloomy. Even if business has slowed down a little, they’re still having a positive year, so they’re in a good mood.”

He did have one suggestion, however, for those hoping to jump-start sales with consumers who may be a tad reluctant to buy. “They don’t have enough slim fits in their inventory,” Wurtzburger said. “For most, it represents 10 to 15 percent, but they need to get it up to 30 percent.”

In addition to slim fits, military influences, ethnic prints and color in everything from jeans to dress shirts were among the trends garnering attention from stores at the show.

At Scoop, knits, tribal patterns, Henleys and polos are key spring buys, said Bryan Reynolds, divisional merchandise manager and director of planning for men’s. Brands that have been performing well at the specialty chain include Hartford, Sundek, AG Adriano Goldschmied and Tailor Vintage.

“We are constantly analyzing our assortments and vendor matrix and looking at what is working for us,” said Reynolds of the retail climate. “Rather than breadth of items, we are supporting deeply what we really believe in.”

Jonathan Greller, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s wear for Lord & Taylor, said he was “still very upbeat. The men’s business continues to do well. There’s nothing that indicates to me that will change. We’re feeling very positive and will continue to be aggressive where there’s no liability.”

He said he was also encouraged that customers have not pulled back as a result of the price increases that have hit the apparel industry this fall. “There’s no slowdown on brands that raised prices,” he said, speculating that since the increases are “across the board, it’s OK.”

Looking ahead to spring, Greller said the conversation continues to be about the price-value relationship: “We’re seeing more clean looks, less embellishments and embroideries.” He said he found some “great T-shirts at Project,” liked the “color expansion in shorts,” particularly flat-front models, and said the three-inch tie will “be the new standard for spring ’12.” In tailored clothing, “fit continues to be more important,” with customers leaning toward a leaner silhouette in both suits and shirts, he said.

MAGIC

From traditional men’s wear and updated sportswear to surf and skate brands, the flagship MAGIC show spotlighted a variety of categories and labels in its sprawling home on the second floor of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center.

Weatherproof, a longtime MAGIC exhibitor, took the unusual step of unveiling a preview of fall at the show. “Following our contrarian way,” said Freddie Stollmack, president, “even though this is a spring show, our merchandise is fall ’12.”

The big focus was the company’s 32 Degree Heat collection of technological apparel that retains body heat. The line is being expanded into several new categories to build upon the base layers that have been its primary focus since it was introduced. At the show, Weatherproof showed puffers with Sherpa or fake fur linings, toggle coats with a puffer liner as well as footwear, hats and gloves. “We see 32 Degrees Heat becoming a wardrobe collection,” said Stollmack. Other new introductions for next year will include cardigans, pullovers, hoodies and polos.

Weatherproof is so keen on the 32 Degree Heat line that it has just signed a deal to open a pop-up store at 355 West Broadway between Broome and Grand Streets in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. The 2,400-square-foot shop will operate from September through February and will seek to draw customers by hosting dating nights at the store every Thursday.

“We believe this is the new trend in retail,” said Stollmack. “Lululemon is a yoga-inspired store, this will be a casual, tech-inspired store where like-minded active people can come and hang out.”

He said if the shop is successful, Weatherproof will consider a summer pop-up in the Hamptons next year. “This is part of our marketing effort to raise the perception of the brand,” he said.

English Laundry launched the first collection of woven shirts produced by the Oxford Apparel Group, a new division of Li & Fung. According to John Delaney, director of sales, the idea was to “keep the DNA of the brand,” but “modernize it and make it contemporary. It was Sixties, Seventies Mod, but now it’s 2012.”

Prints were lively, collar and cuff treatments were innovative and prices were sharp, averaging $89 retail. “It’s novel,” Delaney said, “but still very salable.”

At Perry Ellis International, the core line offered a take on an American safari theme with a bleached and muted color palette and key items including a safari jacket that doubled as a blazer in a linen fabric. There was also a dressier, darker-toned component to the collection, which offered a modern take on men’s wear classics.

Levi’s stepped out of the box with its spring collection, offering more nondenim alternatives to complement its denim assortment, which was also updated.

“Denim as a whole is looking for a new voice,” said a spokesman. “It’s our birthright, but it’s gotten stale.”

Among the key items for spring were trousers in slim or traditional fits, flat-front shorts, five-pocket colored denim, jeans with a beeswax coating and yarn-dyed colored 562 jeans skewed to a more-urban customer with a looser top and a tapered bottom. “We’ve refined our look through color and fit,” the spokesman said.

The San Francisco-based brand also segmented its line to appeal to customers seeking looks for particular occasions. Its recently introduced Commuter collection, specifically designed for customers who choose to cycle rather than drive, features stretch fabric, a higher rise, reinforced crotch, reflectivity and anti-odor properties. That collection is being expanded for spring.

The Water<Less collection, which reduces the amount of water used in the manufacturing process by an average of 28 percent, also continues to be a big corporate initiative for the brand for spring and beyond.

“A lot of companies today are playing it safe,” the spokesman said. “Companies that are doing something new stand out.”

One addition at MAGIC was the Launch Pad, a tight collection of newly introduced labels. Among the brands showing there was Dovetail, a Christian-inspired apparel line whose products feature prayers inscribed on the insides of the pockets or waistbands. Moneta Collection, targeted to a man 30 to 45 years old, offered linen jeans, polos, V-neck pullovers and jackets and hangtags made out of seeds that can be planted.

Divine Blessings, a line of yoga-inspired, eco-friendly apparel for men and women, is working to share life-transforming messages throughout the world and its apparel featured the mantras of Breathe, Love, I Am & Joy and Om.

International Citizen offered men’s and women’s wear with a vintage military aesthetic in Ts, thermals, hoodies, polos, harem pants and a cadet band jacket.

Perhaps the most innovative of the brands in this area was Go Go Gear, a line of protective bike riding apparel for men and women featuring outerwear with contemporary styling but with padded rubber inserts that protect the wearer in case of an accident. “You don’t want to be ugly on a bike,” said Arlene Battishill, president and ceo.

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