By and  on January 22, 2009

NEW YORK — Merchants at this week’s Project New York trade show came with a focus on reducing price points and a short-term buying strategy as they face a grim spring retail climate and an uncertain outlook for the rest of the year.

Although the show was geared toward the fall season, most buyers were still eyeing spring and summer deliveries.

“It’s way too early to be thinking about fall now,” said Riccardo Dallai Jr., owner of Boston’s Riccardi specialty boutique. “We’re still looking to fill in and replenish what we need immediately. We’re looking for core items. We’re not really looking to add sku’s [stockkeeping units]. As for fall, we’re using this show to just get an initial preview of the season.”

Attendees said they were looking forward to the Las Vegas trade shows to kick off the fall buying season in earnest. That strategy affected New York, leading to a noticeably smaller show than recent seasons, with about 250 exhibitors and 350 brands, Project officials said. Denim was a light presence, with just a smattering of big names, including AG Adriano Goldschmied, Prps, Rock & Republic, PPD and Joe’s Jeans.

“New York was edited down, as budget pressures kept some vendors and buyers away,” said Sam Ben-Avraham, president of Project. “But that’s made the upcoming Las Vegas show even more important. It’s become a must-attend for buyers who skipped New York.”

Budget pressures on retailers also led many vendors to cut wholesale prices.

“It’s about making sure the prices make sense in today’s economy,” said Katie Liu, co-owner of the Black Dog showroom, which sells labels such as Elvis Jesus, J.W. Brine and Grenson shoes.

The embellished T-shirts in the Elvis Jesus line were priced to retail for about $130, down from $160 last season. Similarly, the 140-year-old English shoemaker Grenson was offering its new Rushden range of footwear for contemporary shoppers, to retail at $285 to $430, dramatically lower than its traditional handmade Rose line that sells for $600 and up.

Los Angeles-based Monarchy, whose parent company, Hartmarx, is facing severe financial difficulties, dropped its prices 10 to 15 percent. Known for its brazen rock ’n’ roll look, the brand is also offering some cleaner designs in keeping with the subdued retail environment. Still, company founder Eric Kim planned to invest in his first Bryant Park runway show during New York Fashion Week next month and is relaunching a women’s component for fall.

One brand bucking the downward price trend was Canada Goose, which introduced a higher-end collection that was previously sold only in Japan. With slimmer fits and high-end technical fabrics and details, the cold-weather outerwear is destined for upscale Canada Goose retailers. The 50-year-old outdoor brand has become trendy of late, and 60 percent of its sales are to fashion retailers, including Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, Atrium and Boston’s The Tannery.

“I think there is a real movement toward authentic brands with heritage,” said Nadia Angeloni, marketing coordinator at the Toronto-based company.

Shirt designer Arnold Zimberg showcased a colorful lineup of plaids using innovative Lycra-spandex-infused, crinkle-gauze fabrics.

“You have to do something unique — it can’t just be the same old plaid,” he said, brandishing shirts with satin overplaids, chenille stripes, velvet placket trim and contrast undercollars and cuffs. “Our business is solid and we’re actually planning to be up this year.”

Despite the economic pall there were a handful of entrepreneurs setting out to launch independent companies. Kai Fan, a former men’s design director at Nautica, was showing his first collection under his own Kai D. label. Centered around a 1930s industrial-utility aesthetic, the lineup included buttery-soft cotton and Modal polos set to retail for $90; woven shirts for $175; shirt jackets with epaulets and flap pockets for $225; wool felt utility pants for $215, and a hooded wool jacket for $375.

“I don’t think it’s easy to launch a new brand at any time, so you just have to do it,” Fan said of the challenges facing a new company. “This line is about affordable luxury, so we are hoping to hit a receptive area of the market.”

Civil Smith, a start-up out of Los Angeles, had similarly friendly prices for its workwear-inspired hipster basics. The line was founded by Jason Ferro, design director at Bread Denim; Dan Barton, a former marketing executive at Diesel and Rock & Republic, and Lia Fischer, who heads sales. The line’s vintage-washed flannel shirts, lived-in tees and laundered and frayed selvage jeans have already been picked up by Scoop, Big Drop, Sy Devore, E Street Denim and Toronto’s Over the Rainbow.

Nick Chiosie, Northeast sales representative for Kentucky Denim Co., said the shaky economy has store buyers shunning risk and gravitating toward the perceived safety of more recognizable brands.

Kentucky Denim, launched as a men’s jeans line two years ago, has only delved into the women’s premium market in the last six months. Chiosie said buyers on the women’s side had moved away from dark washes and clean styling and were looking for product that stood out a bit more.

“The woman is trying to get a little more embellishments,” he said. “She wants the fit, but she wants a little extra bang for her buck.”

Most brand representatives were prepared for the sluggish conditions at retail to continue through the first three to five months of the year. Heavy discounting among large chain and department stores is adding to the frustrations of vendors and specialty retailers.

“We just need to hope there’s less discounting going on by certain companies who are kind of crucifying the industry and making it difficult for everybody,” said Robert Brown, national sales director at Paige Premium Denim.

Gianpiero DiBitonto, vice president of sales at Jet Lag, said he has seen the “spontaneous buys” at trade shows like Project all but disappear as economic conditions have worsened.

“I think they’re really looking at the brands closer to see what’s moving,” he said. “They go a lot deeper with those companies.”

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