By  on February 7, 2007

ATLANTA — Severe weather patterns and their growing impact on business hit home at the apparel and accessories market that ended its four-day run Sunday at AmericasMart.

Ice and snow and even a tornado delayed buyers and some vendors from getting to the show on time, and affected overall attendance. In addition, the Super Bowl caused some buyers to cut their trips short. While this market isn't normally a major one, summer is a big season for Southeast buyers, especially stores in tourist areas.

On Thursday, the opening day of the market, about 200 flights were canceled at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport because of a storm in the Carolinas. The next day a tornado ripped through central Florida, battering a state that, along with much of the Southeast, is still recovering from weather woes of 2005.

"We came in Wednesday and missed the weather, but we're leaving early to get home for the Super Bowl," said Susan Green, owner of Violets & Martinis, a Hickory, N.C., specialty store.

Even market events designed for fun and frivolity centered around weather. On Thursday night, the mart hosted "Mardi Gras, Martinis & Market" at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, a cocktail party that included an IMAX theater showing of "Hurricane on the Bayou," a film about the ravages of storms on the Louisiana wetlands.

Exhibitor Randy Leib, principal at the Leib & Associates contemporary showroom, said bad weather and canceled flights contributed to a slow start. He said retailers were coming off slow holiday months, partly because of warm weather that had hurt sales of fall apparel.

Lawton Hall, senior vice president of AmericasMart, wouldn't release specific attendance figures.

"We felt good about the attendance, but more importantly, our exhibitors felt good about the quality of buying during Market." Hall said the weather caused the show to get off to a late start, but attendance picked up Thursday afternoon. He said the building was busy on Super Bowl Sunday until the show closed at 5 p.m.

As far as product, although no particular trend stood out, dresses and tunics were summer favorites, especially for contemporary stores. Dresses with Empire waists, halter shapes and cap sleeves were offered in a range of fabrics, from knits to crisp cotton and eyelet, shown either alone or worn over leggings or skinny jeans. Neutral palettes dominated classic sportswear, but prints in graphic and vintage-inspired patterns were also offered in a range of soft colors.Fredi Verdesca, owner of Jami's, a Naples, Fla.-based specialty chain with 14 Florida locations, said her biggest challenge was "searching for lightweight fabrics and color in a market showing fall and neutrals." She cited Emil Rutenberg and Robert Krugman as her key resources.

Focusing on luxurious fabrics, Verdesca bought silk, cotton and rayon blends with dressy metallic finishes or subtle beaded touches. To freshen up her stores for spring and summer, Verdesca ordered bold, colorful jewelry with semiprecious stones.

Business is gradually getting back to normal, after disruption from the 2005 hurricanes, Verdesca said.

Nancy Valentino, owner of Island Pursuit, a specialty store in Longboat Key, who has six South Florida stores, one in Nantucket, Mass., and two in Martha's Vineyard, Mass., said business has been slow as storms continue to drag on consumer spending.

"With home insurance quadrupled and high taxes, consumers have less disposable income," she said. "Their second homes in Florida are no longer the big piggy bank investments that they once were."

To compensate, Valentino bought more selectively, cherry picking and testing lines rather than committing big dollars to any one line. She bought close to spring and summer rather than fall.

She picked up preppy-influenced sportswear — madras plaids, pink and green, grosgrain ribbon trim and vintage treatments — from Lacoste, Project E, Molly B, Tailor New York, Vineyard Vines and Lilly Pulitzer.

"Preppy is the one trend that works for us," she said. "Young people have never seen it and older customers understand it. Other than preppy, trends are all over the place. There's not much focus or direction in the market."

Valentino also bought tunics and leggings from Three Dots, De Lou and Project E, and dresses from Cynthia Steffe and Nanette Lepore.

"The main thing we'd like to see is more lines that interpret younger trends to make them wearable for an older consumer," she said.

Cara Fromin, owner of Modern Milly Inc., who shopped for her three stores — Eve, Ella and Isabella — in Memphis, agreed that trends were scattered, with every line "trying to hit on the one big thing."For a young contemporary customer, she bought more tunic-style summer dresses than ever, with flutter or cap sleeves that can layer over T-shirts for spring.

"Dresses are huge and every sportswear line had them," she said, citing Ella Moss, Susana Monaco and Nicole Miller and key resources.

With a big denim inventory, she bought straight-leg jeans, which her contemporary customers have accepted, as well as leggings and slim-leg trousers from Elliott Lauren.

For older customers, she ordered Lynn Ritchie and other lines with a younger look and a more forgiving fit.

To compete with Dillard's, local boutiques and Internet e-tailers, Diane Koch, vice president and manager of 5 Sisters Boutique in downtown Jacksonville, Fla., buys only lines that she can claim as exclusives.

With denim as half of her inventory, she bought three lines to cover her age range of 20s to 50s. David Kahn is for a more mature, high-end customer, J & Co. is for midrange and midprice, and Miss Me works for a young woman.

A few years ago, she abandoned her initial strategy of offering high-end brands. Now she scours the market for little-known labels that yield high mark-ups, such as graphic T-shirts with rhinestone details and Empire waist or halter dresses in prints and patterns.

"I don't care about the names," she said. "I offer customers good quality…and prices under $200."

She also bought one-of-a-kind accessories, bringing in new pieces often and marking them up as much as 70 percent.

"Accessories, with no season, no fit, have been my lifeline," she said. "We sold 2,100 pieces of bags, jewelry and belts, in three months."

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