By  on February 23, 2009

This month’s fall market reflected the angst and uncertainty caused by the battered economy and overall cutbacks at major retailers such as Macy’s and Wal-Mart.

A sign that it was not business as usual was the absence of a major vendor, NAP Inc., which has sold and distributed innerwear brands since the early Nineties, including sleepwear and robes by Anne Lewin, Derek Rose, Crabtree & Evelyn, Bill Blass loungewear and Princesse Tam Tam foundations. The sixth-floor showroom at the NAP Building at 171 Madison Avenue was closed, and the remaining merchandise on the fifth floor was NAP Home Decor, which included items such as pottery. A spokesman said the company was “restructuring for this market only,” but would not elaborate.

Innerwear executives generally said they are anxious about fall orders that are not expected to be completed until March. On a positive note, however, orders for immediate merchandise were brisk.

Vendors said a glut of in-store inventory and sour sales is being balanced by the desire of stores to bring new product to the selling floor. Market traffic was moderately busy despite fewer and smaller buying teams from large stores such as Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus.

Regarding the turnout of specialty boutiques, a majority of smaller operations are expected to attend this week’s CurveNY trade show and make pit stops at Madison Avenue showrooms.

“It’s been a strange market,” said Richard Murray, president of Wacoal America. “New product by Wacoal and b.tempted was reasonably well received, but it’s all being tempered by retail sales as retailers go into market. There seemed to be an interest in new and exciting product, but they all appeared to have sales or inventory issues and that creates tremendous pressure on sales and business plans.”

Despite the negative factors, several vendors said the economic downturn has created a new atmosphere of trust and partnerships between retailers and manufacturers.

Richard Leeds, chairman of Richard Leeds International, said retailers were “absolutely very cautious, with no obvious rush to fill racks and floor space based on past schedules and strategies.”

“But the economic debacle seems to have had a very sobering impact on our retail customers,” Leeds said. “It opened avenues of dialogue where buyers and management were reaching out for open critiques of their product assortments. Unfortunately, it had to take a crisis in consumer confidence to prompt this open exchange of strategic thinking between the buyer and seller. With the exception of the current hardships, I think this was healthy for all.”

Bob Nolan, president of wholesale and licensing for Jockey North America, said, “I think with this environment, everybody knows we’re in this together, that we need each other and we need to come up with strategies that are beneficial for both sides. It’s not a time for frivolous products. We spent a lot more time explaining to our employees what our goals are and what the environment is like. When you get to a point where your employees don’t know what management’s goals are, they get uncomfortable and don’t work as well. This approach is working within the company and with our customers.”

Seth Morris, president of the Carole Hochman Design Group, said, “The reality of what we are living with and will be living through has set in for everyone — both personally and professionally. I think this helped keep everyone grounded and focused on the task at hand, which for us was to collaborate on managing our businesses more efficiently and productively to get through this business tsunami we are currently engaged in.”

Morris added that the main topic of discussion during market was product.

“If the product is not good, all the other discussions become a moot point,” he said. “Certainly the key topic beyond that is price and ensuring they are not going up and that value is visible and compelling on everything you do.”

Carole Hochman, design director and chairman of the Hochman firm, also addressed the issue.

“My Midnight line was well liked because I had lots of new fabrics, textures and sweater looks,” she said. “We used a new fabric of polyester and spandex we call Midnight Mist, which is light as a feather and gives support. Not everyone can wear a cute baby doll. People are looking for lasting power in products. People are home watching TV, they’re not going out to restaurants anymore. We are offering them a little luxury without making them feel guilty.”

Despite the challenges, Josie Natori, chief executive officer of the Natori Co., said she felt “positive” about the market.

“We are quite pleased with market week in the sense that we got to market totally geared and prepared, and all of the work we did and the communication with our key accounts prior to market resulted in a collection that was edited to their key needs,” Natori said. “It was all about key items, key price points that we identified as key strategies to drive the business for fall.”

Michael Herman, senior vice president of sales, merchandising and production at the Natori firm, noted the caution of retailers. However, he said, “our offer of more focused assortments, key price and value relationship for the consumer, along with the distinct Natori aesthetic, was very well received. It represented a strong balance of basic and fashion product. [Retailers and vendors] are in the same challenging economic situation and will only be successful navigating through this period with strong partnerships. Expectations on both sides need to be realistic.”

Greg Holland, executive vice president of sales at The Komar Co. and president of Donna Karan Sleepwear, said reaction to the newly licensed Ellen Tracy sleepwear was strong.

“This brand will be picked up by key retailers like Nordstrom, Dillard’s, Lord & Taylor and Von Maur,” Holland said. “The Donna Karan [sleepwear] collection was very well received by high-end retailers in the U.S. as well as abroad. We are looking to expand distribution through high-end specialty stores in the U.S. and key international markets. We also showed our DKNY line, which is our fastest-growing brand right now, with both domestic and international sales beating our initial projections following a capsule collection for holiday.”

Brenda Berger, vice president of sales at Hanky Panky, said retailers were “cautious but had an open mind.”

“This is the first time we are giving our customers a strong panty program in cotton and Lycra, something the consumer has been asking for many years,” Berger said. “Our color palette highlights were raspberry with granite and our new stretch tulle thong in basics, raspberry and fashion prints.”

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