By  on March 25, 2010

LOS ANGELES — There was no easy money made at the fashion market here from March 19 to 23.

Although budgets improved, retailers continued to vigilantly manage spending as buyers and vendors tried to fulfill consumers’ desires for fresh and affordable merchandise.

“My buying budget has gone up about 20 percent. That’s probably a bit more than other people’s, but I’ll be controlling inventory very tightly and carefully editing the selection,” said Jeannie Lee, owner of Satine boutique on West Third Street here.

Price was a critical factor in determining if orders were placed. General clothing items retailing for less than $150, accessories for less than $300 and denim for less than $200 were especially coveted.

“In the contemporary market, the buyers are still very price conscious,” said Jackie Yi, co-founder of Los Angeles-based Marked Showroom, which represents ready-to-wear and accessories brands.

Nils Poetter, head buyer for Conley’s, a large e-commerce and catalogue retailer based in Germany, said, “The average spend on denim, for example, tops out around 190 euros [or $254 at current exchange]. Price points have gotten lower and leveled out.”

Stocking up on immediate goods was still paramount, but a subtle shift to longer-term planning was detectable. Beth Springer estimated that half of the orders for her namesake Venice, Calif.-based handbag brand were for fall and half were for immediates at the ENK Brighte trade show in the California Market Center.

“We are finally seeing a resurgence,” Springer said. “We are seeing customers placing orders and reorders.”

The Holy Grail for retailers who visited showrooms at the CMC, Cooper Design Space and New Mart, as well as the trade shows Brighte, Designers & Agents, Focus Apparel & Accessories and the Transit Shoe Show, was a combination of value and novelty.

“If people are going to spend, it has to be something amazing, and that’s worth the money,” Satine’s Lee said.

Fall is the season for new launches, and young brands proved willing to test the apparel and accessories waters despite the challenging retail environment.

After taking a hiatus for the spring season, Los Angeles-based Mike & Chris is relaunching for fall under new designer PJ Faulstick, who expanded from the signature hooded leather jackets to khaki twill parkas, mesh sweater coats and black feathered suede skirts, among 30 women’s styles wholesaling from $80 to $400.

Targeting contemporary retailers with reasonably priced selections, South Korea’s Eryn Brinié is hitting the U.S. market for the first time with mushroom-colored trenches trimmed with lace inserts and other pieces wholesaling from $20 to $124.

Naem Denim Co. began shipping in December and has entered Fred Segal Fun in Santa Monica, Calif.; E Street Denim in Highland Park, Ill., and Williston Park, N.Y.-based chain National Jean Co., among other retailers. The firm was started by longtime private label specialist Eunina Inc. to offer premium denim at prices ranging primarily between $145 and $170 at retail, which is cheaper than most rival brands in the category. Erin McColl, previously a women’s designer at Seven For All Mankind, has been brought on board to design Naem.

“There’s a lot of premium denim out there, but we feel like a lot of the lines are gimmicky,” said Carol Scalisi, who heads sales for Vernon, Calif.-based Naem and was formerly Seven For All Mankind’s sales manager. “We want…more of a classic look.”

In accessories, Melinda Wells McCabe, president of a namesake showroom in Valley Village, Calif., pointed out that jewelry line Ax + Apple’s draped chain necklaces, wholesaling from around $50 to $110, were finding audiences, particularly with store buyers whose clientele seek to re-create Nicole Richie’s layered bohemian style. She also highlighted a new namesake handbag brand by Alexander Zar, who, she said, had been the manufacturer for the defunct handbag brand Kale, wholesaling “classic, clean” leather pieces from $100 to $300.

Apparel designers, both new and old, swung between fall silhouettes that either hung loosely off the body or hugged the figure.

Los Angeles-based Janelle Jang draped merino wool into a $34 cardigan with cutouts exposing the chest. Koch from Dallas did well with its ethnic-inspired tops and caftan dresses, wholesaling from $65 to $210. New York’s Halston Heritage attracted buyers with its $205 nude beaded tank minidress. Vernon, Calif.-based Helloh by Alice Heller cut wrinkled flannel and stonewashed corduroy into $105 shirt jackets. Los Angeles’ Wessex offered a $65 cotton slub blouson dotted with crystals.

For those preferring body-conscious fits, New York-based Rebecca Minkoff showed a black dress accentuated with cutouts and metal rings for $157, while Los Angeles-based Archive001 offered a $215 frock made of ponte with leather panels and shoulder pads.

Gray, black, brown, olive and khaki dominated the color palette. Heather translated the trend for muted colors into the heathered jersey used in its cardigans, wraps, blousons and sweatpants, wholesaling on average for $40. Even Los Angeles T-shirt maker Goodlife, which is known for its vividly printed T-shirts wholesaling for $28, toned down its purple, orange, lime green and aqua tints.

Denim designers tweaked jean leggings with updated fabrics. MiH offered a two-tone version that’s gray in the front and black in the back for $86.

At its runway show in the Cooper Design Space penthouse Friday, Directives West, Doneger Group’s Los Angeles-based merchandising consulting division, presented chunky knits, military motifs, soft draping and athletic-inspired sportswear from contemporary brands such as Collective Concepts, MM Couture, Dolan, Verse, Nobilita and Urban Behavior.

Among summer and fall looks popular with buyers, skinny jeans and denim leggings were strong, as well as bohemian dresses; romantic, feminine tops, and draped cotton fabrics. Boots remained big, with more simplified, unembellished feminine heels coming into focus for fall.

“We’re slowly seeing embellishment fade, and there’s a bit more of a sexy retro thing coming in, like Fifties style, ‘Mad Men,’” said Kim Scott, who was browsing the shows in the Cooper Design Space, New Mart and CMC for her to-be-named Scottsdale, Ariz., boutique that will open this summer.

Not all buyers felt the same way, though, with some international buyer traffic taking advantage of the currency exchange and trends, like embellishment, that have legs overseas.

“I still like the [embellishments] — shiny things and sparkly. We love that in Japan and it sells a lot,” said Taki Tanaka, the owner of stores in Osaka and Tokyo.

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