By  on August 25, 2008

NEW YORK — Stick with the tried-and-true or experiment with something new.

That was the choice facing buyers at the spring market here as stores continue to struggle with a reluctant shopper and the economic downturn. While August typically is not a busy market, retail turnout was brisk from major stores and specialty boutiques at Madison Avenue showrooms and two trade shows, Lingerie Americas and CurveNY. Vendors generally said reaction was strong to product that was fresh and innovative, as well as new brands such as Jessica Simpson Intimates, Tra La La, Emporio Armani Underwear and the relaunch of Donna Karan Intimates. But with the exception of a smattering of specialty stores that ordered immediate merchandise to bring in newness, orders from major chains are not expected to be completed until mid- to late September.

Despite the highly trafficked venue and the hoopla of cocktail parties and fashion shows staged by the two trade fairs, manufacturers privately complained retailers were extremely cautious and price-conscious due to a tough two month decline in sales in May and June. Several vendors also noted per diems for some out-of-town buyers from major stores had been slashed, and as a result, showrooms were providing a larger menu of meals during and after business hours.

There also was a conflict for both buyers and exhibitors between taking a chance with something new, or sticking with a tried-and-true item. Vendors said merchants were eager to try new ideas but were wary of taking chances with items that had not been tested at retail or with brands that had lackluster performances this year. A number of established brands that traditionally generate rock-solid sales suffered because of the credit crunch and fewer shoppers in stores, said industry executives.

“When times get tough, people go to brands they trust and know,” said Michael Herman, senior vice president of sales and merchandising at Natori Co. “It’s going back to core competency and values, and what you stand for. During times like these, retailers and consumers are looking for the ‘wow’ factor.”

Greg Holland, president of the licensed Donna Karan Intimates and DKNY sleepwear collections at The Komar Co., said “new, exciting product” was key to motivating retailers.

“It starts with product and ends with product,” Holland said. “You’re only as good as the line you hang on the wall. The Donna Karan Intimates collection, Donna Nadeau organic line and Eileen West sleepwear, which got a big boost from the Brangelina photo wearing an Eileen West gown on the cover of People magazine, were all well received. But we won’t know the outcome or have a good understanding of the market until around mid-September.”

Victoria Vandagriff, president of Elle Macpherson Intimates at Bendon USA, said, “Business is definitely tough out there. My finance manager turned in eight [specialty boutique] accounts for collection last month. I think the strong independents will remain because they have a consistent customer, know their business, and buy into what they know will sell, while at the same time being conservative and not overinventoried. We actually had a good market and did more business with independents than we ever have, even business for immediates, because they want newness on the floor.”

Marcia Leeds, chief executive officer of Richard Leeds International, said her company had a good market because the product mix wasn’t the “same old, same old.”

“We focused on nothing generic or basic,” said Leeds. “We made a big push to focus on anything that would bring a smile and emotional attachment with the consumer, items to entice the consumer to reach for the rack on the selling floor. What’s selling at retail right now in licensed characters are characters that people have grown up with. Sassy or negative messages are not working. Mickey’s back big time. He was nowhere for a while.”

Regarding product that was well received, Sue Quinn, senior director of new business development at Jockey International, singled out three daywear groups: a cut-and-sew bamboo and cotton group, a Touch of Toning smooth control group of cotton and spandex and a soft microfiber group in basic and fashion colors.

“There’s also been a demand for full slips and half-slips,” said Quinn, noting a cheetah print and a solid mahogany shade have become replenishable basics.

Suzy Biszantz, ceo of La Perla North America, said, “This market there was a positive reaction to the strengthening of the differentiation between the La Perla brands. In particular, the Black Label line was a favorite of buyers. In past seasons, most specialty stores just bought it for top doors, but based on spring 2009, we have decided to expand brand exposure.”

Biszantz said a top seller from the 48-piece collection was a black-and-mink colored padded demi bra with lace cap sleeves that wholesales for $122.

Meanwhile, attendance figures at the Lingerie Americas and CurveNY trade shows were described as “steady.” Lingerie Americas cited 2,745 visitors, while CurveNY reported 2,929 attendees.

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