By  on February 19, 2009

COPENHAGEN — The show calendar was slimmer and attendance down 10 percent, but designers at Copenhagen Fashion Week reported brisk business as savvy pricing and service strategies appeared to pay off.

Labels including Won Hundred, Bitte Kai Rand and Day Birger et Mikkelsen opted out of the show schedule, investing the estimated 1 million Danish kroner, or $170,000, elsewhere. Forgoing the runway hoopla for the first time in 10 years, Day instead hosted an intimate soiree for key accounts. The 37 designers who did show earlier this month were down from 40 in February last year and kept costs down by mostly using one of three sponsored venues.

Traffic to CPH Vision, which unveiled its new denim and streetwear fair Terminal 2, fell 16 percent, while the more mainstream Copenhagen International Fashion Fair declined 9 percent. Only Gallery, the designer-focused fair, reported an increase, of 5 percent.

Industry players here are gearing up for what some anticipate will be a moment of truth, after golden years when budding designers could start their own brand after working just six months at a fashion house and when just about anyone with an eye for fashion could open a thriving multibrand store.

“There are three times as many designers now as there were five or six years ago,” said Henrik Fjordbak, managing director of Munthe Plus Simonsen, who expects the downturn to result in a Darwinian-like natural selection. “There will be fewer shops and fewer brands, but those who are here two years from now will be even stronger.”

“What we’re seeing now may be necessary. We’re going to find out how good we are,” concurred retailer Thomas Jensen, who said he’s discontinuing smaller labels in his high-end men’s wear store, Rich, in Esbjerg, a seaside town on Denmark’s west coast.

While Crown Princess Mary of Denmark made her regular visit to CPH Vision, the first appearance by Denmark’s prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen ­— together with the Danish Fashion Institute’s full-page newspaper ads urging readers to “Support Your Local Designer; Buy Danish” — underscored the pressure the country’s fourth biggest industry is feeling. Though the government has reduced income tax and unemployment remains relatively low, at 2.1 percent in December, consumption has slowed.

“Most of what we’re seeing right now is more about psychology than facts,” said Eva Kruse, executive director of the Danish Fashion Institute. “People have more money than they did a year ago. If they keep being reluctant to spend, saving and thinking ‘what if,’ we will never get out of this circle.”

And that cycle has already hit independent stores and nascent designers.

“Many small stores, provincial village stores have problems and are closing down,” said Rasmus Storm, owner of the trendy concept store Storm. “If small stores have financial problems, if they owe the brands money, they don’t show up at the fair.”

Björn Rosander, designer of Stockholm-based organic denim brand Ondo, confirmed some of his customers have failed to pay up. “It makes it very difficult,” he said.

Ever savvy, Scandinavian brands are developing a battery of anticrisis strategies to help retailers better weather the downturn.

“Scandinavians are wholesalers with retail attitudes. We think about the seller,” declared Dennis Bage-Madsen, international sales manager at Day Birger et Mikkelsen, which tracks swift sellers in its own stores to present its customers with proven hits.

“Brands are more flexible on both the markup and with samples,” said Tobias Kuppe, a buyer for independent Swedish boutique Erik & Alexander, who was browsing Terminal 2.

Take Noblesse, a new label from Danish retailing group Metropole, whose first collection including floaty orange silk dresses, was offered with a 3.5 point markup. Denim-heavy label Won Hundred, meanwhile, unveiled its new basic line, including chinos, checked shirts and simple knits, at a markup of three times to appeal to smaller stores. “You give a little, take a little,” reasoned Won Hundred sales manager Rasmus Bak.

Such measures may prove critical. “If it’s [markup is] only 2.5, I’m not interested any more,” said Malene Tholak, owner of independent boutique Apartment No. 7 in Copenhagen.

Touting its 100 percent retro-printed silk dresses and sequin party pants as “half the price than any other brand here,” Selected Femme, owned by Denmark’s Bestseller group, sought to eliminate the risks retailers run. “They can buy one box of, say, six leather jackets and then reorder through our 24-hour service supply,” said Tine Steno, sales manager for Europe. Stores can thus test which styles sell before committing to larger orders.

The service, introduced six months ago, has boosted sales some 30 percent, according to Steno.

Luxury players are likewise dreaming up credit-crunch alternatives. At Annhagen, a black, three-quarter-length cashmere coat was also available in wool for half the price, a subtle measure that didn’t detract from the brand’s high-end positioning. “In the collection, you couldn’t see any financial crisis whatsoever,” said Natalia Sigvardt, commercial manager for Copenhagen department store Illum. “It’s very luxurious and the knitwear was beautiful.”

Annhagen is also going on the public relations offensive. After tapping Jorgen Simonsen, who’s worked for Valentino, Versace and Givenchy, as chief designer last year, the label is capitalizing on his celebrity connections, flying his friend, actress Olga Kurylenko, to its front row. Playing the celebrity card at the other end of the spectrum, self-described “trendy but geeky” streetwear label Pa:nuu hopes to see its Eighties-influenced designs on musicians such as dance act Lady Gaga when she plays in Paris next month.

Brands are also seeking to cover all bases by adding categories to develop a lifestyle positioning. As well as its fine jewelry collaboration with designer Michael Zobel, Acne will make a foray into furniture this year.

“We’re offering a total concept, with different product groups and different price levels,” said sales representative Christian Sievers. Wood Wood, meanwhile, showed its new accessories line of calfskin leather bags and belts, while brands from Annhagen to Barbara Gongini, a label from the Faroe Islands, will introduce shoes next season.

While struggling to name new trends, buyers noted a bigger focus on outerwear, sportswear and workwear — namely what Copenhagen does best.

“People who go know what to expect,” said designer Gaspard Yurkievich, a judge in CPH Vision’s Designer’s Nest competition for graduate designers.

“Copenhagen offers midrange, creative but not too crazy designs, with some color. A kind of ‘casual elaborate,’” he said.

Storm lauded the trend toward a modern, functional, classic look in men’s wear, which he believes will help stimulate the market at a time when everybody needs a reason to buy. “Men’s is becoming interesting for lots of reasons; high quality, hand craftsmanship and history,” he said. “That’s not really happening in women’s, which is still based on how sexy I can look if I buy that dress.”

Pointing to Japanese labels, which have been making functional, old classic brands better and modern for years, Storm said the movement is slowly hitting Europe. Swedish brand Our Legacy, which showed at Gallery, is an example. Founded by Cristopher Nying and Jockum Hallin with the aim of redefining the classic men’s wardrobe, Our Legacy was a hit at the show. “It was [love at first sight],” said Jean-Marc Ghys, owner of the 4,000-square-foot Brussels unisex fashion store Prive Joke.

Storm also lauded Henrik Vibskov’s “very artistic, very creative, crazy fashion collection,” and in women’s wear, Stine Goya for managing to create her own look.

Business-wise, not everybody tightened their belts.

“We’ve picked up 15 new clients in Denmark alone this season,” said Munthe Plus Simonsen’s Fjordbak, adding that orders were up 25 percent versus last fall. “What people are doing is if they have 30 or 40 brands, they are carrying fewer brands and keeping budgets instead of reducing orders on the bigger brands,” he said.

Likewise at Day Birger et Mikkelsen, where bestsellers included simple items like a lace-trimmed, vintage-style cotton shirt and a cropped leather jacket, fall orders were 10 percent ahead of a year ago.

Elsa Evangelinou of Greek retailer Bloom said she’ll actually increase her budget for stalwarts By Malene Birger and Fifth Avenue Shoe Repair. “Scandinavian brands are doing very well in Greece,” she said.

“People have been very happy to hear our sales were up,” said Birthe Bang, owner of three Idenyt fashion stores, which sells designers from Sonia Rykiel to Baum und Pferdgarten, who grew sales 6 percent last year. Bang lauded By Malene Birger, Stine Goya and Rutzou.

The fairs continue to provide fruitful hunting grounds for high street retailers such as Topshop, which, after collaborating with Pa:nuu for women’s wear, is extending its relationship to include men’s wear at Topman this summer. Topshop’s new pop-up concept for young international designers will also showcase Sweden’s Diana Orving, who showed screen-print silk dresses at Gallery. Elsewhere, Won Hundred and Dutch label Humanoid are set to join the increasingly edgy lineup at 40-store U.K. chain Whistles.

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